Timothy Brennan


On his book Secular Devotion: Afro-Latin Music and Imperial Jazz

Cover Interview of December 04, 2008

In a nutshell

The main argument of Secular Devotion, I suppose, will appear to some people as outrageous.  I am saying that popular music in the Americas is popular in part because it is so heavily influenced by neo-African religious practices that attract listeners who want to escape monotheistic certitudes and the rhythms of the modern market.  Not all popular music is black in inspiration, obviously, but a disproportionate amount of it is, even in genres like disco, ballroom and Broadway, where the African elements are far from obvious.

At any rate, the living presence of new world African religion in popular music is widely denied.  It is thought to have died out in the musical passage from early devotional hymns to the nightclubs, speak-easies, and pop charts of later commercial fame.  I spend a number of chapters looking at actual songs, styles, and locales to suggest this assumption is not true.  One can even say that there is a scandalous fact underlying the largely negative images of Africa in today’s media: namely, that in the face of this wholesale dissing of the region, there is a massive African unconscious to everyday life and leisure.  This is significant.  The feel and sense of “Africa” becomes a kind of ethical destination – the place to flee all associations with an earlier and tainted colonial relationship.  The listener embodies this unacceptable status, and freely takes it on.

It is important to add, though, that the devotion that fans of various popular styles show (their crazy knowledge of all the minutiae surrounding an artist or group, their emotional investments in sharing music with friends, etc.) is not itself a religious practice.  New World African religion presents itself under cover, and as a matter of form rather than content, and so it comes off as secular, and not religious at all.  African spirituality in today’s music, in any case, is not what is generally meant by the word “spiritual.”  Music is devotion in African religion.  Its value system is rooted in relaxation, sexual release, collective oral expression, and satire.  All of these are deliberately posed, I am arguing, against the discipline and orthodoxy of Judeo-Christian modernity, which listeners fully understand in the hearing of it.  In fact, there is something deeply conservative about the message, but also liberating.  Some popular music suggests, among other things, that in a neo-liberal era advertised as the “end of history,” anti-capitalist sentiments still manage to circulate freely in the leisure economy.