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  • The Construction of Masculinity in African American Music and Sports
  • Ken McLeod (bio)

Though they are too often considered in isolation from each other, music and sports connect in a number of ways: aesthetics, marketing approaches, and performance strategies—the last of which, according to theorists such as bell hooks and Judith Butler, is one of the ways by which we construct gender and racial identity.1

This essay examines the connections between these two forms of entertainment and leisure culture and their synergetic roles in the formation of African American masculine identity. Outlining general links among sports, music, and masculinity in North American society the essay explores some notable connections between sports and music in the African American community, particularly as manifest in individual performers and historical relationships between jazz, boxing, basketball and baseball. The links between musical and athletic performance and improvisation and their relationship to black masculinity will also be analyzed.

Music, Sports, and Masculinity

Traditionally boys and young men have been understood to construct their masculinity based on a patriarchal opposition to femininity. In asserting a hegemonic oppression over women and homosexual men, young males are often steeped in the values of physical competition [End Page 204] and dominance over their peer groups. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the worlds of sports and music, which both encourage a "no pain no gain" approach to practice and a stoic concentration on performance.

The link between athletics, music, and masculinity in Western society is founded partly on ancient Greek notions that the union of strength and beauty was the hallmark of the ideal man.2 As outlined in Politics, Aristotle believed that both music and gymnastics were fundamental to the education of boys and wondered whether music was "capable of producing a certain quality of character just as gymnastics are capable of producing a certain quality of body."3 In contrast to our common contemporary Western notion of the two spheres existing in isolation from one another, for the Greeks sport and the arts, including music, bonded together to create a complete individual. Many festivals, notably the Pythian Games held in Delphi in the sixth century B.C., encouraged musical as well as athletic competition. Musical contests helped control aggression in a socially acceptable form and, in association with athletic competition, had the added benefit of molding both a mentally and physically fit society. The numerous historical connections between sport and music came to include songs based on sporting themes, the athleticism associated with dance, and the common notion of "playing" that rhetorically infuses both realms of leisure culture. The connection between sport—loosely defined for the purpose of this study as a competitive or leisure pursuit involving physical activity—and music extends to similarities of performance and training.

Like athletes, musicians must perform whether they are having a good or bad day. Both groups emphasize "perfection" and often undertake ritualistic practices before their performances in order to loosen up without inhibiting muscle control. Too much tension, in either the musician or the athlete, will interfere with the smooth flow of physical responses to neural stimuli. The concept of "getting into the zone" is common to both music and sport. In essence, this means that the performer achieves such a high level of concentration that anything but the immediate aspects of the performance are barred from consciousness. The interrelationship of the sporting and musical cultures, however, extends beyond similarities of physical activity and mental preparation into the realm of shared techniques and aesthetic outlook.

Apart from the sheer sonic connection—inherent in the ambient sounds of athletic competition (buzzers, whistles, yells, cheers, and so on)—perhaps the strongest musical connection to sports lies in rhythm. Both music and sports such as basketball rely on rhythmic flow, polyrhythms and syncopations that disrupt and decenter expectations of audiences or opponents. There is often an increase in the tempo of events and in the dynamic [End Page 205] characteristics of both sports and music as the participants approach conclusive points of repose, such as cadences in music or goals or baskets in sports. Both sports and music require similarities of breath and muscle control, memory and training. Common musical...


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