Black History Month 1: Bobby McFerrin

Last week a friend and Dean at Southeast Missouri State University, Morris Jenkins, posted a thread on Facebook inviting people to post and discuss black musicians and to discuss the types of music: blues, jazz, funk, punk, soul, R&B and to write about what makes each musical form unique, and to post artists that make the form stand out. That thread caught me on fire because I recognized how many black musicians and artists inspire me every day. For the month of February I’m going to do a daily post on a black artist or musician and to write about how I experience the artist’s work. As a white artist and musician it’s important to take a moment and to recognize those influences.

In 1995, while I was studying dance at The University of Iowa, Bobby McFerrin released an album “Paper Music.” Conducting the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, McFerrin brought together the European tradition of transcribed music, paper music, with the vocal improvisatory traditions of the African diaspora. The discourse about diversity in the 90’s was very active, and I was very excited about these interzones, where people brought together traditions and created new mashups, and hopefully new cultural forms. The discourse was very open and active, and in the university environment there was real excitement about diversity.

Listen to some of Paper Music on Youtube here:

Bobby McFerrin first became known for his vocal range and beatboxing in the 80’s with things like his variation on the Beatle’s “Blackbird.”

In 1986 he had a big radio hit with “Don’t Worry be Happy.”

and since then he has been a 10 time Grammy winner, collaborating with some of the biggest names in music, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

For me, Bobby McFerrin stood for freedom and creativity, blending the old with the new, and bringing together what is popular and mainstream with things that are surprising and new. I was lucky to see him in New York City in Central Park when he directed the orchestra and performed music from the Paper Music album. Most likely that was in the summer of 2006 or 2007, though I don’t have exact dates on it.

I see McFerrin’s popular music influence today in songs like Pharrell Williams’ Happy.


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