In today’s society, “outsiders” are increasingly influential in shaping popular music trends. Without the contributions of “outsiders,” such as punk, rap, South American drummers, or blind black blues singers, the mainstream music industry would be at a standstill.
Instead, artists like Tracey Chapman, Boy George, and Ian Drury have altered the music scene’s aesthetic while raising awareness of social issues by drawing attention to the communities and cultures to which they belong through their songs. ‘Outsiders’ will continue to influence music’s development as they gain access to more resources and the ability to create their own sounds at lower cost.
Journalists like Dom Smith (who has Cerebral Palsy) are ardent proponents of disability culture in music. After working as the MIT Journalist in Residence in the United States, 2022 finds Dom based in Yorkshire and the North of England, where he is responsible for running the music magazine Soundsphere. Originally based in Manchester, Chester, and York before relocating to Hull, the project has since assisted with festivals all over the world, including Sziget in Hungary, Exit in Serbia, Leeds and Download in the United Kingdom, and South by Southwest in the United States. Dom has also toured as a drummer in Europe and Asia, with his former hardcore punk band, The Parasitic Twins. In addition, he continues to make post-punk music in the studio with Mary And The Ram.
With the help of easily accessible music technology, even those without formal musical training have been able to compose and produce their own music, resulting in many exciting and original innovations that would have been impossible without this bypassing of the traditional educational system. Technology in the field of music not only opens up previously inaccessible instruments to disabled people, but it also presents possibilities for working within those instruments’ constraints.
“Many chords, rifts, and so on are created by ‘playing around’ on an instrument and are likely to be based on hand patterns which are easy to form or repeated patterns of finger movements,” Judith Robinson, project leader for The Drake Research Project, an organisation at the forefront of empowering disabled people to become musicians, said.
Similar to how Mark Rowland plays his keyboard with his feet, a musician with a physical disability may have very different kinds of movements, leading to musical ideas that other musicians would not or could not create. Note clusters of up to four or five adjacent notes on a massive ‘pad’ sound are one of his signatures, as are huge stabs and sweeps across the black notes with a distorted guitar sound. Steve Knight, another foot-player, frequently employs parallel fourths even though they are frowned upon in harmony books because he finds that they are the most comfortable interval for his feet.
A disabled person may need a “distance to MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) converter” or as simple as a mechanism that allows multiple keys on a computer or musical keyboard to be pressed at once in order to control an instrument. It stands to reason that the compositions that result from any given adaptation will also be affected by that adaptation. The question then arises, what evidence exists to suggest that there is such a thing as “disability music,” given that having a disability is likely to affect the way music is made.
When we think about what the “Disability Community” means when they say “Disability Music,” we think of music that was created by a disabled person that does not challenge the core beliefs of the disability rights movement. Or, to put it another way, songs that make it crystal clear that society’s attitudes, laws, and institutions are the real obstacles for people with disabilities. However, it does not categorically label any music created by a disabled person as “disability music,” as doing so would promote the marginalisation and patronization of people with disabilities.
It stands to reason that people will need some time to adjust to the ‘new’ culture or musical style. Even in the field of disability music, there will be an era in which the artist’s outward appearance, however significant, will not trump their ability to make a living off of their music. In the hopes that one day, a singer’s wheelchair won’t get in the way of their career as much as Stevie Wonder’s blindness does now. It’s easy (unfortunately) to be racist, sexist, or homophobic and believe you’ll never be the victim of your own cruelty, but disability can affect anyone. This means that while some people may have an immediate reaction to reject these “new” ideas, others will realise that it’s in everyone’s interest to listen to the opinions of the disability community.
Disability is not selective in who it affects; people of all socioeconomic backgrounds are at risk. There is nothing that both groups share in common, physically or socially.
But we digress; let’s get back to the tunes, shall we? One way in which disability music differs from other musical cultures that focus on political issues is in its “form.” Disabled people don’t have a signature “sound,” like that of female soloists or black rap artists. Although some disabled musicians may be the first to experiment with new styles, nobody will likely feel obligated to follow suit.
But if they do, it could lead to a situation analogous to that of black culture, wherein a wide variety of aesthetics coexist under the umbrella term “black culture.” It’s possible, for instance, that a subculture within the disability community will emerge whose members are easily distinguishable thanks to their use of voice synthesisers, while a third will do the same with “wheelchair noise samples” (yes, I know, that’s going too far).
Disability has already influenced popular culture, albeit subtly. The original blues players, many of whom were blind, had an impact on popular culture just as much as artists like Ian Drury and Stevie Wonder. But until recently, there hasn’t been a mainstream musician or band who’s easily identifiable for their focus on disability issues. But it’s not hard to imagine that things will be different in the not-too-distant future because of advances in music technology.