It was the 1950s at the most happening, seen-and-be-seen nightclub in West Hollywood, Mocambo.
As the heartwarming story goes, the burgeoning American jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald was denied the opportunity to perform at the establishment solely because of her race—not uncommon in the time of Jim Crow laws that laced African-American performers’ careers with adversity. But it was Marilyn Monroe, a talented, white icon, who professed many times being musically transformed by years of studying Fitzgerald’s records, who telephoned the club to demand that her idol and friend play at the venue, helping to open the gates to the Fitzgerald legacy as we know it.
Music played a monumental role in transforming American racial tensions and social attitudes of the 20th century, serving as the undercurrent for gradual acceptance and change. As generations have seen at the turn of the 21st century, however, the impact of music has touched every corner of the earth, successfully overpassing any cultural, political, or linguistic boundaries we might have built. Platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, and Tumblr usher in droves of information and entertainment content. And for your average music lover, an ounce of curiosity is all it takes to open up your favorite genre’s borders, beyond the language barrier.
In October 2015, I took a weekend trip to Los Angeles with a few friends to see Big Bang, a now internationally recognized Korean boy band that pulls millions of YouTube views per video in just hours. When you meet the fans at these kinds of events, the typical first discussion centers around, “So, how’d you get into X?” The answers, all from fan girls and boys from a range of ages and backgrounds, come from the same general strain: a video or website. K-pop has been taking the globe by storm, in a phenomenon coined as the Hallyu Wave, that informally broke into the American music sphere via 2012’s “Gangnam Style” by Korean musician PSY. Although Kpop stands as a monolith of international success, driven by teenage mass-adoration, the phenomenon speaks to a much larger movement of language and culture discovery through music.
It is well known that music helps us retain information, especially languages, and is well employed by teachers and professors across grade levels. According to a Duke University study in 2009, when children start learning music before the age of seven, they develop bigger vocabularies, a better sense of grammar and a higher verbal IQ. So when your average RnB fan is looking for new music on their search engine of choice and stumbles upon Monsieur Nov or Nujabes, all it takes is one catchy song to pique curiosity in the foreign words that drive the melody. And the best part is, you don’t even have to be a child to catch on fast.
Music has also been working as a form of soft power in the name of diplomatic relations. Be it for the profit of breaking into new markets or for the music itself, multimillion dollar record labels and underground artists alike have eased tensions between entire peoples through their work. Drake, a rapper hailing from Toronto, Canada (but who for some reason serves as a music representative of the United States) was embraced for his collaboration with Romeo Santos, an American Bachata musician and heartthrob of Latin America. And even Drake had to drop a little Spanish to steal a few hearts of his own in their song “Odio”.
Recently, an international rap/hip-hop collaboration between Korean and Japanese artists has been taking the internet by storm. “It G Ma”, a collaboration between two duos of Korean and Japanese underground artists has set fire to Asian digital airways, and some Black communities. For the two countries that historically have had strained political ties and social animosities, Keith Ape, Loota, Okasian, and KOHH are casting aside those sentiments and creating fun, engaging music that winks at Black-American rap kings and Asian culture simultaneously. Of course, in order to join in on the fun that’s going on, searching for lyrics serves as a gateway into learning or just appreciating entire new languages.
Technology has really shaped how we interact with the world, even if only on a superficial, entertaining level. Learning languages beyond the classroom takes root even more effectively when we gain interest in the content a country puts out. And for those that can manage it, traveling to Ibiza, Accra, or Delhi for music festivals is gradually becoming less and less uncommon, despite current or historical political tensions. Perhaps, it really is up to the entertainment and music we create to “make love, not war” when policies desperately try to move us in the opposite direction. In order to determine which direction we’re pulled, we have to pay attention to the creative unity and sometimes discord that arises out of the words we sing– both in our own languages and others’.
(Image credit: PSY‘s Official Youtube Channel)