"Stay in Your Own Backyard": Race, Purity, and the Cost of "Keeping it Barbershop"

Event Info

This event will take place via Zoom and an access link will be shared with all members of the Department the day of the event. Members of the wider university community: please contact us for access. 


In this talk, I examine how music theory has historically been instrumentalized within the Barbershop Harmony Society (BHS) to influence and affirm the Society’s discriminatory sociopolitical values. From the BHS’s founding in 1938 to its reluctant racial integration in 1963, the Society maintained an intense segregation policy that was particularly focused on the exclusion of Black American men. It was no coincidence, I argue, that language associated with segregation, miscegenation, and race science (“tainted” “pure,” “cross-breeds,” etc.) was also found in the pages of barbershop arranging manuals and other style treatises published in the mid-twentieth century. To what extent was the Society’s slogan “keep it barbershop” a euphemism for “keep it white”? This question also extends to gender: the BHS remained a fraternal, all-male society until as recently as 2018, when the Society decided to open membership to women as part of its “Everyone in Harmony” diversity initiative. As the BHS moves toward its newfound strategic vision, how must the Society adapt the barbershop style’s musical aesthetics to disavow the racist and sexist ideologies that undergird American barbershop culture?

About the Artist:

Clifton Boyd is a music theorist and scholar-activist based in New York City. His research lies at the intersection of identity (particularly race and gender), politics, and social justice in American popular music. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate in music theory at Yale University. His dissertation, “The Role of Vernacular Music Theory in the American Barbershop Community,” uses the Barbershop Harmony Society as a case study to examine how institutions instrumentalize music theory to uphold discriminatory sociopolitical values within their communities. His research has been supported by the Howard Mayer Brown Fellowship from the American Musicological Society (2020), the Margery Morgan Lowens Dissertation Research Fellowship from the Society for American Music (2020), and the Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies (2021), among other awards. His publications are forthcoming in Music Theory and Analysis, Theory and Practice, and the Oxford Handbook for Public Music Theory. He is also the founder of Project Spectrum, a graduate student-led coalition committed to increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion in music academia. As chair (2017–19), he oversaw the organization of their inaugural national symposium, “Diversifying Music Academia: Strengthening the Pipeline” (2018). On behalf of Project Spectrum, he is twice a recipient of the Sphinx Organization’s MPower Artist Grant (2018, 2020).