Written by Akash Bhatia, MA, MT-BC, LPC
In July of 2020, the triennial World Congress of Music Therapy took place at the intersection of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, the coordinated response condemning police brutality in America, and the continued globalization of our world’s cultures and economies. The Congress hosts at the University of Pretoria in South Africa worked quickly to convert the international gathering into an online forum, which made the Congress accessible for music therapy clinicians, students, and educators to learn about and engage with the important issues and developments in our field. Decolonization ran a significant thread of conversation among many spotlight presentations and seminars, including the panel on which I participated, “Colonialism and Music Therapy.”
In her spotlight session regarding access and empowerment, American music therapist Marisol Norris honored the names of Black Americans that lost their lives at the hands of white supremacy and police brutality. In acknowledging of the lives and deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others, Norris asked music therapists, “What must die in music therapy to preserve human dignity?” Invoking Audre Lorde, Norris urged us to “tear down the master’s house,” and this transformation cannot be done with the master’s tools. Amid the sharp imagery conjured in my mind of death and destruction, I also imagined healing, beauty, creativity, and solidarity that can emerge from a music therapy practice freed from its colonial legacies.
Decolonization refers to the political and economic withdrawal of European colonist control across Asia, the Pacific Islands, Africa, the Caribbean, and Latin America throughout the 1800s and 1900s. Zambian-South African music therapist Nsamu Moonga and Māori music therapist Waireti described how coloniality persists despite the end of political and economic colonialism, as evidenced by European arts, cultures, norms, and attitudes about health dominating and disrupting indigenous arts and healing practices of colonized peoples.
Decolonization especially pertains to music therapists that work in settler-colonial states, such as the United States, Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand, and that work with underserved and minoritized groups. Without a decolonizing practice, music therapists risk further oppressing individuals and groups already affected by European colonization and ongoing coloniality. Music therapists must examine the ways that their education, training, and practice overstep, silence, or diminish the music and healing practices of indigenous peoples; descendants of formerly enslaved peoples; and immigrants and refugees from the Third World and their descendants.
On our panel, I spoke of my own music therapy training experience, where I felt the curriculum centered European-American music history and theory. I turned to Norris’ call to reimagine music therapy such that marginalized voices from our clients, students, and colleagues come to the center.
Moonga’s research highlighted how Batonga people’s way of living cannot separate or differentiate music from dance, movement, and costume. He asked music therapists to be aware that European colonialism has severed relationships among these components, as a colonist lens has attempted to analyze music distinctly rather than honoring the whole practice for its own sake. Moonga also connected cultural colonization and suppression to state violence and police brutality across the world, particularly toward disenfranchised individuals who attempt to resist the state.
I resonated with Moonga’s research and reflected on my own South Asian American upbringing, specifically how South Asian music strongly relates to dance, drama, film, and spirituality. A creative arts therapist with a decolonizing lens would therefore respect the indivisible nature of indigenous arts practices, whereas the creative arts therapies without such a lens might view art, music, dance, and drama as only distinct and separate.
Waireti described how Māori people relate to the world through a cosmology of energy and sound, a practice embedded in Māori across generations. European colonialism, too, has “scorched earth conditions” and devasted the vibrations sound technologies of Māori. Waireti places her decolonization work in revitalizing Māori’s vibrations. I felt inspired by her commitment to honor her ancestors and community and to find resilience in Māori arts and healing. I witnessed similar resilience in American music therapists’ Adenike Webb and Natasha Thomas respective research, which centered the music and healing experiences of Black clients, music therapy students, and music therapists.
Some music therapists also feel encouraged to travel to the Third World, which could be overseas or across the expressway, to provide music therapy through service projects. These projects abroad resemble missionary work and colonization in many ways, especially when music therapists enter those regions uninvited, leave the region without establishing sustainable resources, and/or lack the intention and effort to learn the region’s history and culture. In her spotlight session, American music therapist Julianne Parolisi described her service projects to the Cayman Islands and highlighted its efforts to resist re-colonization and coloniality by requiring music therapists to learn the local history and culture and by working with the local government to establish a sustainable music therapy program. Parolisi also asked attendees: Is it even possible for music therapy service projects to exist and function within a decolonial framework? I, too, wonder what transnational music therapy looks like when political, economic, and cultural borders still fence in and divide the Third World.
Within the second it took to close the browser tab at the conclusion of the conference, my body felt the absence of a long flight home to Chicago from South Africa. While I did not have a transatlantic journey to contemplate, reflect upon, and process the powerful words, sounds, and images I absorbed at the World Congress, I engaged in dialogues with my colleagues and friends about my takeaways. Music therapists, along with our siblings in art, drama, and dance/movement therapy, function at the powerful intersection of the arts and health while also grappling with colonial legacies. Conversations at the World Congress showed me that music therapy has broad, exciting possibilities to increase access, be more inclusive and sustainable, and combat oppression from our home in Chicago, Illinois to as far as Pretoria, South Africa.