Doctoral Student John Vilanova Explores Racism in the Music Industry

Vilanova aims to unpack how anti-black racism impacts the ways we buy, sell, write, and hear music.

By Ashton Yount

It was a Grammy Awards snub that reverberated through the music world: Beyoncé Knowles, for the third time, passed over for Album of the Year. When John Vilanova turned off the TV, he turned on his computer and got to work.

The resulting Los Angeles Times op-ed, “Beyoncé's Grammy Snub and the Glass Ceiling on Black Art,” went viral in the days that followed. In the article, Vilanova describes the history of race as it impacts black art and argues that black artists unfairly get passed over for mainstream awards, while regularly taking home prizes for racialized categories.

This type of critique is at the heart of Vilanova’s scholarship. A third year doctoral student at the Annenberg School, his longstanding academic interest is the intersection of music and race.

“I want to understand the ways that anti-black racism informs the music industry and the global music economy,” he says. “I’m trying to suggest that the ways we buy, sell, write, and hear music are inflected by legacies of racism.”

This line of inquiry has largely centered around the global music industry’s contemporary and historical relationship to Jamaican reggae music, an interest that has taken Vilanova from the vinyl stores of Tokyo, Japan, to the remote indigenous community of Accompong in Jamaica’s mountainous interior.

“The Caribbean is a place where many of the theoretical concepts that animate this scholarship — colonialism, cultural imperialism, legacies of anti-black racism — are present in the day-to-day lives of its people,” Vilanova says. “It has been a logical and important field site because the global creative and cultural industries are part of a longer, more complicated history.”

But after the success of the Los Angeles Times op-ed, which was widely cited in the popular press, Vilanova is developing a dissertation project that investigates the Grammy Awards’ history and the place of race on the Grammy stage. “When we want to make a structural critique of racism, one place to start is mainstream media institutions,” he says. “In this case, we might get a window into how the industry’s understanding of excellence itself is dictated, at least in part, by race.”

John Vilanova at table at Jamaica Music Conference
At JAMPRO, an agency of the Government of Jamaica’s Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, Vilanova speaks on reggae collector culture in Japan as part of the 2016 Jamaica Music Conference.

As an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, Vilanova majored in English and minored in Music and in Jazz and Popular Music, with a senior thesis that examined mediated responses to the creative output of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.

Beginning his senior year, Vilanova interned with Rolling Stone through the RealArts@Penn program, and after graduation, he wrote for the magazine on a freelance basis. He also worked for GreenGale Publishing, the media conglomerate that owns Philadelphia Style, rising to the rank of managing editor. But as a journalist, he felt he wasn’t able to point out the issues of injustice he regularly noticed with the necessary scope and scale.

“Broader issues of social justice are much more prominent in mainstream journalism now,” he says, “but five, six, seven years ago, we didn’t see that kind of critique in style or culture articles.”

Reggae records on display in record store
Display in a Japanese music store, illustrating the unconventional music industry arrangement between Japan and Jamaica involving reggae music.

He decided to return to academia in the pursuit of more critical work on racism in the music industry. First, he received an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Kansas, where he wrote his master’s thesis on Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. And in 2014, he returned to Penn to pursue his Ph.D. in Communication, as well as a graduate certificate in Africana Studies.

“Philadelphia has a complicated and rich history with race and racism, so this is an important and vital location for my scholarship,” Vilanova says, citing a podcast he co-produced at Annenberg that addresses Penn’s tax-paying relationship to the city around it. “I wanted a grounding in Communication to properly train me to understand media institutions and systems. Annenberg was the perfect place for that, particularly given the presence of my advisor, John Jackson.”

Now the Dean of the School of Social Policy and Practice, John L. Jackson, Jr. is a triple-appointed professor at Penn and an eminent scholar. Vilanova aspires to write like Jackson – with a strong narrative voice, profoundly and clearly.

Vilanova says he’s always identified primarily as a writer, and it’s important to him to be able to produce work that appeals to an audience outside academia as well. Last year, he became the managing editor of MusiQology, the blog of Guthrie Ramsey, professor of Music and Africana Studies at Penn. The site focuses on the history and performance of music of African Americans and the African diaspora.

Kendrick Lamar and the Structural Limits of Black Excellence
Vilanova’s feature, “Kendrick Lamar and the Structural Limits of Black Excellence,” published on MusiQology, was the precursor to his larger engagement with awards shows and systemic racism.

Many are surprised, Vilanova says, at the idea that a scholar who presents as white has spent so much time and scholarly energy addressing white privilege.

“Privilege and disadvantage are constitutive of all of our realities,” says Vilanova, whose appearance belies his multi-ethnic Latinx heritage. “I’m in a weird position because I pass, and am afforded many of the privileges of whiteness and few, if any, racial injustices. So it’s important to me to use the space that privilege affords me to come alongside marginalized people and learn from and with them, rather than take the lead.”

This has brought him to Jamaica, where he’s pursued several projects, including studies of Jamaican mobile phone usage; the first record press on the island; and the Japanese obsession with vintage reggae vinyl records. And while his current trajectory is moving back toward the States, the music of the island will never be too far from his mind.

“Bob Marley sings about the ‘Babylon System,’ a Rastafari stand-in for colonial greed and a global system that has kept African people under its yoke for centuries,” Vilanova says. “It’s my goal to aid in the battle against that however I may be of service.”


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