The Medium and the Message

Dr. Coretta Pittman, associate professor of English in Baylor’s College of Arts & Sciences, grew up with music all around her.

My father loves music, and he played it in the house all the time,” she says. “He would play soul and R&B from the sixties and seventies, groups like The O’Jays, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. He had a vinyl LP of ‘Led Zeppelin IV’ and we listened to ‘Stairway to Heaven’ over and over while we did chores on Saturday mornings.”

As a teenager, Pittman began to encounter artists whose music carried different messages from the ones she heard from her father’s records and tapes. Watching shows like “Yo! MTV Raps” and sharing cassette mix tapes with her friends, she became exposed to music that pushed boundaries and widened her perspective on the persuasive nature of music and the messages it could carry.

While working on her Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition at Wayne State University, Pittman began to see parallels between the persuasive and rhetorical techniques analyzed by classical thinkers like Plato and Aristotle and those employed by African American musical artists.

Aristotle defined rhetoric as “observing in any given case the available means of persuasion,” and Pittman says that throughout much of American history, music was often the only means of persuasion available for African Americans and other marginalized groups.

“Historically, music and art are ways that African Americans can be involved in mainstream culture,” she says, “even when they had no other way to enter public discourse.” Pittman analyzes the way musicians from the early 20th century to the present have used music as a form of protest, specifically examining the connections between the rhetoric of black activists and the lyrics of hip hop and rap artist Common. Both black activists and rap artists, Pittman says, are considered outsiders to mainstream American culture and use that position to challenge discrimination and racism.

While their rhetoric is sometimes considered extreme, they consider the bold character of their speech necessary for those in a position of powerlessness if they want their message heard not only within their own communities, but in the cultural mainstream as well.

That necessity continues to exist today as racially or socially marginalized groups struggle to make their experiences relevant to a majority culture that may not recognize other perspectives as valid. Music offers a unique platform from which African Americans can take their message directly to multi-cultural audiences.

The basic message of a lot of protest music, Pittman says, is “listen to me.” “In the 1980s, for example, it was only through rap music that marginalized people were able to have a voice to say, ‘Hey, the Civil Rights Movement didn’t work for everyone. We’re still here.’”

Pittman’s study of music as a tool of persuasion doesn’t end with her own research. She encourages her students to think critically about contemporary music and the arguments presented by the artists. One of her favorite courses to teach is focused on applying Plato’s analysis of rhetoric and truth to the study of jazz artists like Bessie Smith. She encourages her students to look critically at their own favorite artists to understand their perspectives.

Her goal is to help her students see the persuasive efforts at work in all forms of art, not just the written word.

“There are a lot of different ways writers, musicians and artists can make arguments,” she says. “So I think it’s important that we not ignore contemporary art. Basically, I love rhetoric, I love music and I love literature, so it makes perfect sense for me to study them all together.”