Danielle Brown ’97
January 22, 2021

Who tells your story?

Artist and scholar Danielle Brown ’97 elevates diversity in the arts
by Christine Yu ’94

When Danielle Brown ’97 resigned from her position as assistant professor of music history and cultures at Syracuse University in 2014, she wasn’t sure of her next step. Would she be a writer? Would she perform music? The one thing she knew for certain was that she wanted to tell stories and help others do the same. That November, she founded My People Tell Stories, a publishing and production company.

But Brown isn’t interested in storytelling for storytelling’s sake. To her, it is critically important that people of color tell and interpret their own stories because, as her company’s tagline plainly states: “If you’re not telling your own stories, someone else is telling them for you.”

During her decade-plus in academia, Brown was troubled by the lack of BIPOC representation in music studies, particularly in her field of ethnomusicology, which she describes as the “anthropology of music.”

“It’s predominantly white people researching people of color. Not only that, but historically there’s been this sense that people of color can’t write about themselves because they’re not objective enough to do so,” she says. In response, she published East of Flatbush, North of Love: An Ethnography of Home in 2015. In it, she describes growing up in East Flatbush, a West Indian community in Brooklyn, N.Y., and threads music throughout, from calypso to hip hop.

“I really wanted to tell my story in a way that was accessible and in line with the storytelling traditions of the culture in which I grew up.”

Growing up in New York City, Brown’s household was filled with music. She sang and at age 7, began playing the piano. After attending a performing arts middle school, Brown entered Andover as a junior, joining older brother David ’95. She continued to explore music, performing at the student coffeehouses during Black Arts Weekend and Latin Arts Weekend. And she appreciated Andover’s diversity in comparison to other boarding schools.

“Being at a school for four years where so few people looked like me was kind of a scary proposition, especially coming from New York," she says.

One of the reasons Brown left academia was because she believed she could better affect change from outside the university setting. For example, her Caribbean music workshop, taught by people with Caribbean roots who are experts in the music and dance of the region, addresses questions such as: “How are we teaching these musics? Are we just taking [Caribbean] music and putting it into a Western framework, which is what happens a lot of the time? What is the damage when we do that?"

While the COVID-19 pandemic forced Brown to cancel in-person events, her work has taken on more credence as racial justice issues bubbled to the forefront of the current political and cultural environment. Last June, Brown published an open letter on racism in music studies.

There’s this assumption that you can go in and study a culture for some years and then become an expert. I think that’s far from the truth. There has not been enough thought given to how much it takes to understand another culture that’s very different from your own. I don’t think that we’ve really grappled with that very well in ethnomusicology.

Danielle Brown ’97 founder, My People Tell Stories

Brown, who currently lives in Miami, says the response to her letter has been overwhelming. “There are a lot of people thinking about the topic of systemic racism in music, and what [the letter] showed me was that there were many people who wanted to say something but didn’t feel like they had a voice.”

While Brown hopes to see change take root soon, she’s also a realist. “History has shown that we are in a constant struggle. Until history starts showing me something different, I will hope for the best but not expect it.”

Categories: Alumni, Magazine, Magazine Online

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