Module 3, Class 2: Strategic Deployments of Rhythm for Social Change

While the previous class in this module on rhythm in communities considered the ways in which rhythm both holds people together and keeps them apart, this class examined some of the ways in which rhythm is deployed for both for the purpose of holding people together and for the purpose of breaking up entrenched systems. These two functions are not completely separate from one another. Rhythm is often used to hold people together for the purpose of protest, and as such breaking up entrenched systems also seems to work more effectively when people unify around a common beat.

These two sides of the process of social organization are represented by two forms, particularly visible in the history of African American communities. One is the function and power of speeches, specifically those of Martin Luther King Jr. The other is the process of improvisation.

Unifying People Through Rhythmic Speech

There are many different layers at work in the rhythm of a speech. Just as one can identify different layers of waves in a poem, one can also identify similar layers of repetition in a speech. Richard Lischer identifies the following repetitions in Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches, which together make up his characteristic rhythm (“The Music of Martin Luther King Jr.,” 54):

  • Alliteration: The repetition of the first sound of several words in a line
  • Assonance: The repetition of similar vowel sounds followed by different consonants
  • Anaphora and Epistrophe: The repetition of the same word of groups of words at the beginning (anaphora) or ending (epistrophe of different clauses).
  • Amplification: Increasing the value of successive phrases.
  • The repeating ascent of volume from the beginning to ending of a phrase.
  • Syncopation and stuttering
  • Call and response

The effect of this pronounced rhythmicity was to captivate an audience’s attention, which in turn unifies the crowd to a common rhythm. Lischer ends his essay with the question of what this unification accomplishes. He calls MLK’s speeches a “near-hypnotic rhythm by which he induced pleasure in the audience, won its assent, and, ideally energized it for action in the community or nation.” (62). Some argue that the pleasure of this experience in fact dulls the pain that might otherwise incite action, thereby subduing the people with emotional gratification rather than energizing them with action. Perhaps. However, it is worth noting that pleasure was not the only result of King’s style and part of his success is based on his ability to move people. Where does activism come from if the people aren’t moved?

Improvising Out of Marginalization

The flip side of bringing people together and moving them in unison, then, is that activism itself – attempts to disrupt a system. It seems to me that one can envision this in terms of a clash of rhythms. Protest is an attempt to disrupt a particular, entrenched pattern or flow of power and activity. Such disruptions, however, are challenging because the status quo usually has such force behind it that one must muster quite a bit of counter-force in a different direction in order to effect any change. This is perhaps why improvisational music has always been bound up with movements that attempt to disrupt the status quo.

Just as necessity is the mother of invention, marginalization is the mother of improvisation. If your power is the status quo, improvisation will likely feel dangerous to you, disrupting the delicate balance of your security. Experiences of marginalization, however, are characterized by a kind of stuck-ness. Opportunities and access to cultural resources are closed off. Improvisation is a way of opening new possibilities and opportunities and of taking control of one’s identity and relationship to the world, and in so doing opposing the structures that attempt to determine that identity.

Improvisation is an attempt to break down the configuration of certain communities, the assumptions and binaries on which they are based. Improvisation therefore functions like protest, a refusal to be confined by those limits and social configurations that are assumed and held out as facts. Rhythm is here deployed for purposes of interruption.

Notice, however, that this is also predicated on community. One cannot really improvise alone. One could theoretically improvise music without any other people present, however, this is only a delayed response to what has come before and is always nevertheless couched in terms of a response to the universe. Improvisation reconfigures identity, in particular, in terms of an interaction between creators.


Rhythm is never simply operating as either unification or disruption. Rhythm is always a matter of social configuration, which is too complex to be reduced to such a binary. Both factors are always at play.

However, this brings us back to the question raised in the last section regarding MLK:  Does such social configuration in fact extend beyond the limits of the chapel or jazz club? How does rhythm operate as a vehicle of change and is there anyway to definitively demonstrate this connection or effect beyond mere correlation?

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