Student Spotlight: Samuel Boateng

Samuel Boateng, portrayed as a 6th-year Ph.D. candidate in Music and Inaugural Humanities Engage Immersive Dissertation Research Fellow (2020/21)

Samuel Boateng, Ph.D. candidate in Music, seeks to center the stories, music, and lives of African musicians whose voices are often marginalized within mainstream jazz scholarship. With his dissertation, Jazz Ghana: History, Diasporic Dialogues, Sustainability, and Identities Beyond the Canon, the Ghanaian pianist, composer, and scholar in Pitt’s Jazz Studies program challenges canonical understandings of jazz history as solely U.S. American. He assesses the impact of Ghanaian musicians on the development, performance, and meanings of jazz.

Samuel started his education with a B.F.A. in Music and Theatre Arts from the University of Ghana, Legon. While completing his master’s degree in ethnomusicology at Kent State University, he had wanted to write his thesis on jazz but couldn’t travel back home to Ghana for the research. When he was deciding on Ph.D. programs, Pitt’s Music department had not only “amazing instructors,” like the late Geri Allen, who Samuel was able to collaborate with as a TA, but also offered summer funding to undertake the research he wanted to do.

Samuel’s research has always been community-facing. As an ethnomusicologist, he wants to be “where the music is” and to undertake “academic work with people who are outside the academic walls.” Being awarded an inaugural Humanities Engage Immersive Dissertation Research Fellowship “made the importance of [his ethnographic] work even more pronounced.” Even though COVID-19 disrupted his plans to physically travel to Ghana, the fellowship allowed him to still “be in the thick of it,” as he continued his ethnographic research remotely – through Zoom meetings, WhatsApp, and phone calls to collaborators.  A key part of his research in the summer of 2020 was geared towards understanding the implications of the pandemic on local cultural scenes in Ghana and grasping how jazz musicians and their collaborators were dealing with pandemic-related changes. He focused on musicians’ personal involvement in local and transnational jazz practices, the politics of live performance and virtual streaming, alternative employment avenues for musicians in the absence of live music, as well as the need to document cultural processes.

Samuel is also translating aspects of his dissertation’s arguments and perspectives into the visual and audible realms through a documentary film, hence moving beyond the proto-monograph modalities of the conventional Humanities Ph.D. dissertation. The creation of a documentary on jazz discourses and practices among contemporary musicians in Accra, Ghana, also fulfills one of his goals as a researcher: to create resources that will be useful to future scholars. The documentary curates local jazz voices into a body of knowledge that will be accessible to Ghanaian musicians and fans as well as future scholars of contemporary Black diasporic cultures

Another of Samuel’s research goals is to support local jazz scenes, musicians, and their collaborators. Accordingly, since 2018 he has been collaborating closely with several institutions in Ghana on documentation and archival projects, performances, panel discussions, and more. Throughout his Immersive Dissertation Research Fellowship, he has continued to work remotely with the J.H. Kwabena Nketia Archives at the Institute of African Studies to curate and update documents on the Ghana jazz scene.

In 2021/22, Samuel will complete his dissertation as a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellow. The highly selective fellowships support promising doctoral students in the humanities and interpretive social sciences with a year of funding designed to help them finish projects that will form the foundations of their careers. Samuel believes his experience with public-facing and ethnographic work helped push his application to the top.

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