Published: July 2, 2021 By

Austin C. Okigbo, associate professor in the College of Music and affiliate faculty in Ethnic Studies and Global Health, studies the intersection of music and public health. He traces the way people express themselves musically during times of widespread illness — a highly relevant topic given COVID-19. Here he discusses his research on past health crises and how music has played a role in the current pandemic.

Your areas of interest are really diverse (music, African studies, global health). How do they intersect? 

Ethnomusicology is by definition a very interdisciplinary field. I study African music and, within those studies, my subject area is global health. I did my PhD research working with HIV/AIDS choirs based in South Africa. I seek to understand how people use music to articulate their experiences of disease in a global health context. 

Why study the music of pandemics? 

When I was doing research in South Africa, I started doing archival studies on past public health crises and epidemics in the area to give my research a broader historical context, like the 1713 outbreak of smallpox and the influenza of 1918. I began to identify where and what the musical responses were and compare them to what we were seeing with HIV/AIDS. The research just kept going.

What themes did you see carrying through in your research of this music?

“People are expressing their feelings about economics, politics and religion with music.”

There is plenty of research about how music is used as an educational tool during public health crises — for example, promoting protective measures. However, my research seeks to understand how people articulate their personal experiences of a disease. Music is a means by which people express what is on their minds... And what are people expressing? Feelings about economics, politics and religion. 

group of brightly dressed musicians

Do you see people making similar creative works and music today? 

Absolutely. For two semesters during the coronavirus pandemic, I taught classes around disease and music. I asked students to use the current artistic responses they’re seeing today to launch a broader conversation. It’s been fascinating. Students have been able to identify some of the political extremities that have characterized our nation’s response to the pandemic. 

You found that social and cultural events surrounding pandemics fueled the responses and behaviors toward them. What would you say were the major events at play in 2020? 

Disease epidemics reveal the fault lines already present in a society. The social and cultural difficulties that this country faces as a nation are real. The pandemic highlighted inequalities at the level of race, social class and economic class. 

Diseases tell us who we are at an individual and a broader societal level. The disease is a sickness itself, but it does reveal other forms of sickness. It’s social, political and economic maladies that we suffer from as well. 

Did your findings surprise you?

“Conspiracy theories about vaccines now echo those that followed the invention of the smallpox vaccine in the 1790s.”

Initially, yes. I was juxtaposing historical epidemics that spanned over 300 years. And yet there was consistency — for example, conspiracy theories about vaccines now echo those that followed the invention of the smallpox vaccine in the 1790s. New York and London experienced violent resistance to quarantine measures in 1918. You would think that culture has changed a lot or that people’s mindsets would have changed a lot...but it didn't matter. The precedents in history are there; we often just aren’t aware of it. 

What about physical sickness leads us to express ourselves musically?

Music is an expressive form, and the arts are a part of how people bring out what they have on their minds and articulate their life experiences. 

Have you been listening to any favorite music over the course of the pandemic?

I have been listening to Nigerian musician Fela Kuti. He was the inventor of Afrobeat music and was very political and radical in his thought. Even though he died in 1997, his music still feels like it’s speaking to the present. The things he criticized in his music (like government corruption, wasteful spending and economic disparities) are relevant to how many countries are responding to the current pandemic, especially in Nigeria and Africa.

What’s next for your research?

I’m working on a book project now. It’s a comparative study of African concepts of justice, which interestingly will include issues of justice in the context of epidemics. I’m also thinking about a book project that will look at music and the global history of pandemics. It will allow us to explore the ways humans have responded musically to global outbreaks of diseases across centuries, going back to the Renaissance and up to this moment. 

Condensed and edited for clarity. 


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Photo Courtesy Austin C. Okigbo