From the Renaissance to the Grammys: AACC professor strikes a chord on music, power and gender

The Grammy Awards from this past week were criticized for a lack of female winners, prompting the Recording Academy to look into gender bias in the industry.

Anne Arundel Community College professor Chris Ballengee joined the chorus.

In his Music, Power and Gender course this semester, he plans to talk to students about gender division of labor and other power structures, in both performers and those who work behind the scenes.

“We’ll talk about that in terms of the similar lack of women in other industries,” he said.

The course looks at gender inequality using musical examples including singing Renaissance nuns and a performance involving Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke from 2013.

Ballengee is an ethnomusicologist — one who studies the anthropology of music. He is versed in the study of people, music, and in the analysis and cultural context of music. His role in the college’s music department, as he sees it, is also to teach about diversity.

College officials said it is not common for a community college to have an ethnomusicologist. Ballengee said what’s rare is the chance to teach his courses.

“In my own work, I have to be quite honest, I never thought about gender. I never thought about race. I never thought about sexuality,” he said.

As a heterosexual white man, he felt challenged to think about those subjects when he came to the college more than four years ago. Now he challenges his mostly male students to think about those issues, too.

“I’m talking to the people who need to be talked to,” he said.

Heather Rellihan, the coordinator of the Gender and Sexuality Studies program at the college, said Ballengee brings a deep understanding of the cultural norms reflected in music to the class.

“Using those cultural artifacts as windows into the culture can provide really useful insights,” Rellihan said. “Those insights are then things we can act on.”

Each week in class Ballengee presents a gender studies concept, and explores it using music. For the lesson on Sunday’s Grammys, he will pull from articles in the press about the place of women in the music industry.

The nuns come into play for a lesson on architectural space, physical space, natural space and how those spaces become gendered through culture and society. He’ll use the work of a fellow ethnomusicologist who wrote about a convent in Bologna, Italy, where nuns were locked away in a cloister so they don’t “behave badly” as an example.

“Within that convent, the nuns are very well-known for their musical ability, for their musical compositions,” he said. “So just as the nuns are locked away, they’re invisible to the public, their music escapes through the windows, through the walls, and they become famous.”

This semester his students are embarking on a project in partnership with the school’s library — students will research female composers and musicians, or other under-represented musicians and composers, and work through the semester to update the person’s Wikipedia page.

“They’re not only learning about gender and power dynamics, they’re also (learning) about music and they’re learning a real skill, which is writing about music, and putting that out there for the public,” he said.

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