Demarginalizing African American Pop Music

February 20, 2013

Some people choose to stay in their comfort zones, while others live on the edge. Then there are the people who completely rethink the edge and don’t just jump off it; they soar. Portia Maultsby is one of those individuals. In 1970 she was one of only 46 AAUW Coretta Scott King Fellowship awardees. The fellowship was established to support the work of women in African American studies, peace studies, and nonviolent movements.

Maultsby opened her grant application by writing, “My primary goal for graduate study in the Ph.D. program in ethnomusicology [at the University of Wisconsin] is to become a leading black scholar in Afro-American music.” At the time, this was a fairly surprising statement. According to Maultsby, African American music was not well-established in ethnomusicology in the early 1970s, and her interest in popular music was even more radical. But Maultsby was never one to stay within traditional boundaries. Instead of working within an academically established specialty, she brought legitimacy to the study of popular African American music — and on her own terms.

The AAUW fellowship freed Maultsby up to dive deeper into the aspects of music that she found interesting and underrepresented in academia. Courses in sociology and history expanded the context of the music she was studying. She was also interested in computers and how they could be used in the study of music. In 1970, computers were the size of rooms, and few people connected them with music. But as always, Maultsby forged ahead with the conviction that computer technology would offer a meaningful contribution to her field.

Maultsby also used the AAUW funds to attend conferences around the country, where she saw and challenged the lack of respect for traditional African American music studies. Only a few years after Maultsby endured criticism for her specialization, the study of African American music became in vogue, and she received more job offers than any of her peers.

This photo accompanied Maultsby's original AAUW application.

This photo accompanied Maultsby’s original AAUW application.

The AAUW fellowship affected Maultsby’s career long term. Conferences led to connections, which later led to multiple job offers and writing opportunities. Maultsby began teaching at Indiana University, where today she is the Laura Boulten Professor of Ethnomusicology. Her computer experience has proven helpful in creating multiple websites, including collaboration with Carnegie Hall on an interactive and rich time line of the history of African American music in the United States.

After decades in her field, Maulstby is poised to finish what she sees as her last few projects, namely two new books: From the Margins to the Mainstream: Black Popular Music (1945–2000) and another about African American music in the Netherlands.

With a long list of accomplishments — from organizing the first symposium on African American popular music (Black American Popular Music: Rhythm and Blues 1945–1955) for the Smithsonian Institution to founding and directing the Archives of African American Music and Culture — there is no doubt Maultsby’s innovation has paid off. Many people begin their careers wanting to be the best in their field, but few actually accomplish that goal. In November 2012 Maultsby delivered the keynote Charles Seeger Lecture at the annual meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology, the highest honor in her field and the highlight of her career. Maultsby’s advice is simple: Forget tradition and boundaries, take risks, and if you believe in your vision, take the leap and go for it.

Portia Maultsby was a 1970–71 AAUW Coretta Scott King Award recipient. The Coretta Scott King Educational Fund was created through a special drive initiated by AAUW members in 1968 to secure money for grants primarily for black women undergraduate and graduate students in Afro-American studies, peace, and nonviolent change.

This post was written by Fellowships and Grants Intern Emily McGranachan.

By:   |   February 20, 2013

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