Resisting Assimilation by Celebrating Multiculturalism in Music
Cesar Almeida graduated from Northwestern’s School of Education and Social Policy in 2018 with a concentration in learning sciences. While studying at Northwestern, Almeida also pursued his interests in music as evidenced through his time as a creator at Solidarity Studios as well as his time as a DJ on WNUR and now private events. By the time he graduated, he had secured over $20,000 in research grants to pursue his work integrating ethnography and music production by creating culturally relevant sample packs or, in other words, sample packs that seek to historically and socially contextualize the music that they record. This past summer, Almeida received a grant to visit Ghana and record sample packs like, among others, the Slave Castles Sample Pack in which sounds were recorded from slave castles that held enslaved African peoples during the trans-Atlantic slave trade like Elmina Castle and Cape Coast Castle. This work hopes to recontextualize music production by reintroducing the cultural and historical value of these kinds of sample packs, which later can be used to create “contemporary music.”
Throughout our conversation, Almeida discusses how power plays a role in how research is funded through a private institution like Northwestern, which is especially prudent with any work that relies on ethnography to accurately hold the experiences of a community. He sees music as a “tool for learning” and focuses on the music of “underrepresented communities” through “community-based participatory research” as a political act of resistance. He offers advice for undergraduate researchers interested in pursuing similar work, saying “not to get discouraged” if they’re turned down for grants but instead to see initial setbacks as a time to refocus and “make revisions” that will ultimately benefit the project. By celebrating the culture of music and its “tangible outcomes,” Almeida also celebrates the communities and meaningful relationships built through this kind of work in ways that inform and continue to inform his work with music today. Find more of his work through his multimedia online journal, The Sound Journal, or Instagram with @cesarmuxica.
Audio Transcription Below
[00:00:00.00] Introduction and first question regarding background
J: Okay, I’m Jagoda Rachwal from NURJ and with me, I have Cesar Almeida. We’re going to be talking a little bit about how he has acknowledged the power dynamics within research and how his background informs his research as well. So first question, leading up is, tell me a little bit about your background. And then where did you grow up? What made you interested in music production, archiving, appreciation?
C: Okay, yeah. Hi, my name is Cesar. I recently just graduated from Northwestern University. And just like, just to give you a little summary of like the research I was involved in, I received Undergraduate Research Grant, I received Undergraduate Research Grant Advanced [also known as AYURG]. I received a Davis Project for Peace grant, which involved research, and now, I’m moving on to a fellow, a Fulbright Fellowship. And so that’s kind of like the background of grants that I have. But what do I do? Um, to like, big picture, big picture of what I do is I host and facilitate music conservation workshops where we learn how to record local music and then we teach how to remix the music into a contemporary style so that we can upload it onto the World Wide Web and learn more about culture and learn more about each other as people. And this work is done, both locally in Chicago and also internationally in Ghana and my partners have worked in Palestine, South Africa, Kenya, so those different places that I, I am bound to go to very soon.
[00:01:56.18] Purpose of research
J: That’s awesome. Okay, what are you hoping to explore, understand or reveal the most through your work?
C: Okay, yeah. So, I think that, for me, music is a tool for learning. And one thing that I’m trying to reveal through music like I just don’t make music to make music. I make music so I can learn and a lot of this is actually learning about history but also learning about like people that live there today or live in places today or live in certain communities today. Because eventually, like I want to be a, I want to be a therapist and a counselor, but how can you be therapist and counselor if you don’t know what different cultures are like or haven’t experienced life beyond your own? So I feel like this is putting me out of my comfort zone. I’m, you know, having to sometimes speak Twi or Ewe when I’m in Ghana, and like you know really like live there for half a year. I’m adjusting to the, you know, daily life there, which is just giving me insight of what it’s like to live in Ghana, but also the history of Ghana, Ghana’s role in like in my own life even though I didn’t know it had a role in my own life and its connection to United States, its connection to Black empowerment, things like that. And so like Ghana is one place but I want to go to Ecuador and explore the same things, I want to go to South Africa, Palestine, all of that, just to continue to learn about different people and cultures. But why is that important? And why does it, what function does this serve for me? My research lab at the Mosaic Lab and my community partners were working to amplify the voices of underrepresented communities and so a lot of the communities we work with are underrepresented – unrepresented in media, academic journals, and TV, all of that.
[00:04:13.12] Is purpose explicit?
J: Do you make that explicit during your research or do you prefer not to, in terms of what it is you hope to explore?
C: Yeah, well, it’s becoming explicit in a new term that my mentor/research advisor, Kalonji Nzinga, described to me, which is the Global South. And so we’re using that word, “the Global South,” to discuss or to highlight the fact that we’re working with underrepresented communities. And that’s in the research, you know, um, but like, when I go to Ghana and host a music conservation workshop, I’m not necessarily saying that, explicitly saying, like, you know, “this is for underrepresented communities,” not this is for the communities that practice tradition, traditions and music, but inherently it’s underrepresented, right? Yeah, or under-compensated.
[00:05:14.10] Evolution of research and how Solidarity Studios has impacted this work
J: Right. So how does your, have your research interests evolved? And how has Solidarity Studios come into play?
C: Hmm, how have they, how has my research interests evolved?
C: Um, yeah. Okay. Let me think about that.
C: So you know what? A lot of my research, believe it or not, like, it’s really cool, because I wouldn’t think that it would have gone down this path but it’s very constant. The evolution of my research is continuing, it’s like informing my previous research. So at first, like I studied, “how do you make a sample pack for music producers,” right? And then I asked, “okay, how would I make a sample pack for music in Ghana?” That was my next question. Then, I asked myself, taking it a step further, “can Bamako music be recreated on a digital beat pad,” also known as “can Bamako music be sampled and be recreated and put into contemporary music?” And so it just continues to build from like, it was like this general to more specific to more specific. And now, I have my own website called the Sound Journal. It’s a multimedia journal platform, and I’m producing sample packs. And so for me, research is important. Because like, I want it to result in a tangible outcome. For me, that’s why research is important. It’s really important to result in a tangible outcome, whether it’s a product, whether it’s a design, something. But also, like, I do understand, research being used for theory, could, and I really learned that working here at the Mosaic Lab, just like if you’re doing research on like, for example, like people done research with community-based participatory research. And understanding that term was super important in the literature review, because, honestly, it reduced like maybe 20 pages of a report that I had to write for my Ghana project and it helped me, like it guided me, basically guiding me to see how I wanted to look at this community partnership that I have in Chicago and Ghana and how to navigate that. And it was really cool because it articulated that for me, and I was like able to write that down “community-based participatory research,” define it, and boom, that’s what it is, you know?
J: And so it was seeing it as like foundational to your next project. Is how you see like –
C: Yeah, every research project is foundational and is trying to evolve for the need of the next part.
J: Okay, awesome.
C: And but like ultimately a tangible product.
C: For me, at least. Like I like a tangible product.
J: Because you don’t want it to remain theoretical.
C: Um, um…
J: I think, well, from what I heard you were, from what I heard you saying, you see like a distinct difference between research that is there just to ground theory.
J: Versus research that has, like you said, tangible outcomes.
C: Mm-hmm, yeah, tangible outcomes. And also, I think the thing related to tangible outcomes is that, kind of realized that research is not neutral at all. And research is, what research you decide to do, you are automatically siding politically, siding, um, taking sides politically, taking sides socially. And so I think that relates to the outcome, because like since we’re working with underrepresented communities, like we also want to produce things with it. You know what I’m saying?
J: Okay. And the other question was how has Solidarity Studios come into play? If it has.
C: Oh yeah, actually, completely. Solidarity Studios came into play in my research, in my like curriculum design research, music production research. Like tangibly, for example, they have allowed me to borrow their Ableton push to do my research on the question of “can traditional Ghanaian music be recreated on a digital beat pad?” They have also, the founder of Solidarity Studios, like has been connecting me to different organizations in Chicago, different people in Chicago, just helping me advance my own work, my creative work. Also, just like with Solitary Studios, they already have traction in what they do and they have a curriculum and I was able to, you know, use and borrow their curriculum. And, you know, make my own changes to it to, to fit, you know, the Ghana, but I was able to, you know, I use their curriculum as a base curriculum, and their design is the base design of how I was going to do this. So yeah, that’s how they’ve contributed. Yeah.
[00:10:50.12] Autonomy in research as it connects to an institution
J: Okay. Um, next was how does pursuing research translate into having autonomy over what you as a researcher and learner decide to learn? Another part of it is, or rephrased a little bit, do you see research as reclaiming autonomy over your education? Or is it more nuanced?
C: I think yes. Because, okay, I think that research does help you keep autonomy in the knowledge that you choose to pursue. I feel like there should be guidance though. Like, you should have mentors when you research and people who like have experience in research. Um, but yeah, I just simply think that because I have control of what I want to think about, what I want to research, you know what I’m saying? Compared to being in the classroom, for example, and having to do research on something I don’t want to do research on or learn about something I don’t want to learn about. I think the cool thing about research is that you can research anything that you want to research and think that’s just autonomous in itself. Only thing that’s not autonomous, is that if you’re not tied to an institution, then you don’t have support as a researcher; you won’t have the funding for as a researcher and is maybe not considered research. So I feel like that’s like that’s the difficult part of it, you have to be kind of tied to an institution to do research, which takes away some of the autonomy. You know, it takes some of the autonomy away from that.
J: Is that how you see institutions playing a role in sort of hopefully democratizing education a little more?
C: You asked me, how do I see a role? Or is that?
J: Is that how you see it? And if it is, how?
C: No, actually, I don’t think is, private institutions will not democratize education, I do not believe that, unless you have people there who are trying to democratize it. But at the end of the day, like, I know that at a private institution, researchers are producing content for the university. And this university is a research-based university and they want the best researchers because they produce products for them and their research helps their production and of other products. And I don’t think it’ll ever be democratized because this is a business.
C: Research is a business, unfortunately.
J: No, I appreciate that.
[00:13:51.05] Advice to current undergraduates interested in research
J: Mmm, sort of similar. What do you think about Northwestern’s undergraduate research scene? And then is it beneficial for students to start researching as undergraduate or maybe even earlier?
C: Yes, I think that every student should apply for a research project just to go through the process because it helps you pitch your own ideas, pitch your own interests. And if you do get the research, like, I had a lot of help from Peter Civetta, and, you know, you know, students will be paired with an advisor that will help them do their research and help them literally get paid to study what they want to study. And so I advise, I advise every like freshman to apply for a URG and every freshman is not going to get the URG on their first attempt. I didn’t get, I didn’t get it the first attempt but on the second and third attempts and etc, like you’re more likely to get it because you’re going through the process and learning how to apply for funding for your own pursuits, with, with advice, you know? And so I definitely encourage students to do that and also encourage students not to get discouraged when they’re turned down. I’ve gotten most of my research grants I’ve applied, got rejected, and then had to reapply. Yep.
J: Do you have any advice for that specifically?
C: That’s the advice.
J: To someone that wants to pursue similar work?
C: Okay, my advice is to, my advice is this, you’re going to get turned down. If you’re turned down, make the revisions that you have to make, with the advice, the advice, you know, with the help from someone at the URG, an advisor from there, and you know, put the energy to make those revisions and you’re more likely to get it a second time. If you’re new to the process, it’s kind of hard. But if you practice, you’re going to get better.
[00:15:49.19] Creating culturally relevant sample packs to counteract lack of context in music
J: What do you think is missing from the work you’re doing? And how are you working to make that happen or support what already hopes to address that?
C: What is missing in the field?
J: In the field itself, right.
C: Oh, okay.
J: Also, in the context of what you’re saying, right, that is simply a true fact that Northwestern is a business and that –
C: Well, private institutions are and Northwestern is a private institution. So and also, I don’t think the URG is necessarily a private business, but on the grand scheme of things, Northwestern, as a research institution is, it’s a business, you know? So just want to clarify that.
J: No, that’s fair.
C: Okay, so you wanted to, you’re asking what is not there in my field?
J: What is not there in your field.
C: Okay, so one thing that I’m really looking at my field is sample packs, for music producers and for podcasters and for filmmakers, and what a sample pack is essentially a folder of sounds that you download, and you can, it’s the building blocks of, of music. So it might have loops in there, guitar loops, and you can use the loops to make music, you know, as a producer. The one thing that I think that these loops and these sample packs, they lack cultural value to them. And the reason why is because they lack recognition of, of the origin of that, of that sound. Where did this sample come from? Who did it come from? And what part of history was this, this sound a part of, right? And so I feel like there’s some, you know, some people, you know, buy a sample pack just to make good music, but I, I want to make meaningful music, or at least to me, I want it to be meaningful. And I want my beats to tell a story. And I want my music to tell a story. And so, yeah, like, I’m just trying to address that in the field by creating like culturally relevant sample packs. And I can give you an example of this. Like, right now, I’m creating a journal called “The Sound Journal” again. And I have the first, the first sample pack that I’m doing here is, it’s called the “Slave Castles Sample Pack.” And it’s a sample pack that contains recordings of Elmina Castle, Cape Coast Castle, which were slave castles on the coast of Ghana during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. So I recorded sounds from these places, like I said, the dungeons, the ocean, the chains, the bars, that I collaborated with local artists as well. And I put together like a 50 sound sample pack that people can use and purchase to produce their music. But also, I’m writing about the history behind, I’m writing about the history behind the sounds and made a video that visually explores, like, where the sounds come from, just so that people when they make this music, that they understand that this is where the music is coming from and I’m hoping that inspires them to create music or podcasts like related to that event in some way, you know. So that’s how, that’s like, that’s where I feel like the void is, but that’s how I’m trying to fill that void. Yeah.
[00:19:24.21] Three most meaningful aspects of this work
J: Okay, what’s been the best or most meaningful part of the work that you do?
C: Hmm, yeah. The most meaningful. Well, I feel like is probably three different things. Number one, I get to train my mind and my body constantly through dance, music, rhythm, I just think it’s so important to keep myself healthy. And to keep myself in tune, like, literally in tune as a body, as an instrument, as an instrument like whether that be in my voice, whether that be my dancing, whether it be in my walking, whatever it is, like I just like to be conscious of that. And so that’s number one. Number two is the, it’s allowed me to travel. And traveling is just like, I never expected I was gonna be traveling this much as a kid. And, you know, that’s just been expanding my mind of like what life is and what life can be. And third is, you know, the people that I meet when I do travel, and people that I do work with, I work with a lot of musicians, artists, creators, like very creative people who, who express themselves and express the human experience. And so like sharing human experience with them in that creative, like, in that creative domain, it’s been really good.
[00:21:02.02] Hardest realization of this work
J: Awesome. And then sort of, as a balance, what’s been the hardest realization?
C: The hardest realization.
J: Either personal or academic. Not that those two can be easily separated either when you’re doing this kind of work.
C: Let me see. Okay, so the hardest realization, or I’ll say, I don’t think it’s the hardest realization, but I think it’s like a hard part about this work is that sometimes I get people, like from working in another country, you know, I exchanged WhatsApp with them, and then they’ll, like, message me with some problems that they’re experiencing at home. And that they need money, and help to, like, move or to do some type of training or, and that’s just kind of hard on me because I’m not getting, I’m not getting a, you know, money allocated for that, which I think would be pretty dope. Like, if there was money allocated, like after the research for like people that I make relationships with if they do need help because we’re, we are in working in the Global South and sometimes economies are hard there, you know what I’m saying and like, um…
J: Especially after sharing what you were saying a human experience there.
C: Right, human experience. So, but the thing is, is like, in my, in my research and in like my community work, like we invest in each other. And so, like maintaining that investment is the hardest part. Because when you’re abroad, though, there’s two ways that can, that it can be maintained, it can either be maintained through communication, or, and/or you know like literally like financial, financial help towards their, their goals. Yeah.
J: All right. Um, is there anything else you want people to know about you or your research?
C: Is there anything else, is this the last question?
J: This is the last question. You made it.
C: Yes, actually, okay.
J: Speak from the heart. What do you want to say?
J: Take your time.
C: Trying to think of a way to say this…
J: No, we’re good.
C: As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, I’ve obtained over $20,000 in funding to fund my, my work and my research. And I really appreciate the funding that came from Northwestern. And I’m going to continue to be on this path because it is autonomous. And I’m going to continue applying for money. And I’m going to continue applying for resources so that I can continue to work with the communities that work with.
J: Beautiful, all right.