For Dr. Melvin Butler, an award-winning associate professor of music at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, the statement Black Lives Matter is more than a “necessary and important” utterance. He stressed that this phrase reflects a sad reality in today’s culture. Such a sentiment suggests that for far too many people, this does not go without saying.
Butler said many people “have turned a blind eye to [the] trauma [and] deaths of Black people at the hands of police officers.” He said that he believes the increased momentum of the BLM movement over the last decade has prompted us to reflect on what the word “matters” truly means in our society.
Butler grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, attending both a predominantly white church of the Nazarene focusing on white hymn traditions and a predominantly Black church of God and Christ Pentecostal. Hearing African American styles of worship at the Pentecostal church and his mother’s James Cleveland records during his youth fueled his ongoing research in the cultural inflections within spiritual music.
Butler has attained numerous accolades for his work as both a celebrated scholar and saxophonist. He earned his bachelor’s degree in jazz performance from the Berklee College of Music and went on to perform at many notable settings, such as Carnegie Hall and the Kimmel Center.
In 2005, Butler became the second Black American (after the late Dr. Eileen Southern) to obtain a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology from New York University. Upon graduating, he received a Grammy nomination for his recordings with Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band, along with fellowships and countless other honors.
His debut book, “Island Gospel: Pentecostal Music and Identity in Jamaica and the United States,” was published by the University of Illinois Press in 2019. He’s currently working on his second book under contract with Oxford University Press. Both are culminations of his years of fieldwork in Haiti studying Caribbean church music and Pentecostalism.
Butler said he believes cultural identity plays an inescapably apparent role in music. “Music is a powerful way to express who we are,” he proclaimed. His writing on church music seeks to explore the innate need people possess to produce song and attain a sense of spiritual fulfillment and the connections to their ethnic and racial identities.
When considering African-derived musical expressions over time, Butler explained that music created during the enslavement of men and women served as a way of not only “expressing devotion to God” but also “foregrounding their own humanity in the face of brutal marginalization.”
With racism nevertheless being a major issue, Butler seeks to combat its impact through events and discussions, like his most recent Frost School Culture, Equity, and Diversity Roundtables which focus on addressing the necessity for increased inclusivity in our classroom communities. He and his associates identified the problematic nature of many of Henry Fillmore’s compositions that are “staples” for trombone players in public schools and universities. For instance, he noted that a trombone technique called the “slide” is implemented as a comedic device used for clownlike dramatizations of Black Americans.
Butler said that shedding light on this smaller incidence expands the conversation “into all the ways we address an inglorious past.” He co-chairs the SCED Advisory Committee, which is currently pushing Frost administration to rename the school’s Fillmore Hall because of the composer’s controversial racist past.
According to Butler, the concept and teaching of racial justice is mandatory in the university curriculum. “The past and present are not so easily separable,” he stated. Manifestations of the past prevail on a day-to-day basis for Black Americans, with us not being honest and transparent about the history of our nation. Butler affirmed that we need to find a way to be more open about racial injustices, “not only in our private conversations” but also, most importantly, in institutions of higher learning.
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