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Justin Timberlake, Music Reviews, and this so-called “African Music”

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The new Justin Timberlake album The 20/20 Experience came out a week and a half ago. Seeing how we are Afropop Worldwide, we didn’t really take note. But it has come to our attention that perhaps Justin Timberlake and his producer Timbaland looked towards the continent of Africa for some music inspiration. Which is cool! Unfortunately, this fact came through some less than specific descriptions.

What style, instrument, and region from Africa does the album sample or take inspiration from? Let’s see if any of these snippets from reviews of the album can be of any help…

“Don’t Hold the Wall,” that even incorporates melodious [sic] African drumming with an Indian-inspired hook. — Jean Trinh, The Daily Beast

“Let The Groove Get In” builds around an itchy and undulating African beat. It’s sampled from a 2002 album that features field recordings collected on the continent back in the ‘70s. – Jim Farber, NY Daily News

I suppose the pan-African chant “Let the Groove Get In” could be counted among the “trying too hard” tracks, but I like it as a loose, feral reimagining[sic] of Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” – Steven Hyden, Grantland

“…while what sounds like African drumming, brass, and ’80s smooth jazz keyboard all collide” — Aylin Zafar, BuzzFeed

“…audacious re-writes of “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” complete with samples of African music (“Let the Groove Get In”)” – Andrew Winistorfer, Potholes in my Blog

“Timberlake sings in “Let the Groove Get In,” an assault of African rhythm and chant.” – Thomas Conner, Chicago Sun-Times

“The best thing here is “Let the Groove Get In,” which builds from African hand-drum rhythms to a classic Michael Jackson jam, circa Off the Wall.” — Melissa Maerz, Entertainment Weekly

Errrrrr…

We aren’t trying to play African music internet police here (okay, maybe a bit) but this might be a good time to remind our American music reviewer compatriots that Africa is a big, diverse continent with over a billion people living there. A billion! It has 54 fully recognized sovereign countries, 9 territories and 3 de-facto countries with limited recognition.

In other words, as much as we as humans like to compartmentalize, there is just not a singular, continent-wide style of “African music” or “pan-African chant” (what?). Not even traditionally. Not at all.

However, to be fair, sub-Saharan rhythmic principles often share strongly similar traits (albeit not entirely) throughout its various regions. Furthermore, these writers are correct in that the track “Let the Groove Get In” does indeed incorporate samples from the song “Alhamdulillaahi” off the 1983 Nonesuch Records Explorer Series compilation Rhythms of the Grasslands featuring field recordings of traditional music from what is now Burkina Faso, which is, of course, in Africa.

The issue we bring up is the generalized way in which the sample is written about. It’s lazy journalism to simply label a sample coming from a very specific place in Africa, with its own unique musical tradition as “African music.” And in that apathetic approach these writers play right into a systematic cultural hierarchy that is eurocentric in nature.

To be clear, we don’t expect critics that cover American pop to have a strong understanding of the musically complex landscape of the African continent. However, we do take exception at the way the term “African Music” is lumped together as a singular homogenous whole. Just as these pop critics would likely take exception at lumping the various styles that make up “American Music” into a singular group simply because rock, country, and rap share an affinity for 4/4.

The descriptions used by these writers are by and large small infractions, and chances are nothing intentionally harmful was meant by them. Unfortunately, though, this incident is still one amongst many that reflects a continued indifference from many western media outlets towards even attempting to move beyond broad generalities when speaking or writing about Africa. We think they can do better, and we don’t think it should be such an uphill battle.

We live in the age of the internet, and doing a little bit of research to contextualize these claims is well within the realm of possibilities. After all, it took just a single Google search to find that sample. That’s it! Even just a little effort like that help put a nick in the wall of western eurocentrism. And that’s important. We just hope the above pop music critics see the importance too, and take our minor, wrap-on-the-knuckles as a gesture of stern love in hopes of making us all better, more sensitive and astute examiners of culture.

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  • Tatenda

    I remember a time in Afropop’s history when articles seemed more responsible, professional and engaging. I will always love and support Afropop, but I preferred when a more thoughtful and productive angle for music analysis was used. Perhaps these posts are now being targeted to a younger audience. As a side note, I’d like to bring a typo to your attention: “Which is cool! Unfortunately, this fact came through some less that specific description”

  • Henry

    I thought this was a responsible, professional, and engaging article. And a typo every so often doesn’t scare me. Thanks for the post!