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A tribute to Wayne Marshall, a professor remixed

Published: March 20, 2009
Section: Arts, Etc.


PROF. DJ: Prof. Wayne Marshall spins records at his regular Monday gig at the Enormous Room in Central Square.<br /><i>PHOTO BY Nathan Robinson</i>

PROF. DJ: Prof. Wayne Marshall spins records at his regular Monday gig at the Enormous Room in Central Square.
PHOTO BY Nathan Robinson

Prof. Wayne Marshall (AAAS and MUS) is a man of seemingly infinite identities: blogger, DJ, rapper, professor, author, researcher, and musician. Every Monday night, you can catch him spinning tunes at the Enormous Room club in Central Square, and every Tuesday afternoon he’ll be teaching about Music and Globalization.

Marshall seems to be consistently defying the image of the professor as a fusty academic. He is as plugged-in to the digital culture as any web-savvy teen. On his blog, he often speaks in slang culled from the streets of Kingston or the latest hip-hop anthem, mixing scholarly discourse with samples and snippets from the cultures he studies.

The blog (www.wayneandwax.com), which he has been writing since 2003, is widely linked to and has been praised as one of the top musicology blogs on the internet. It’s a mixture of news stories, academic analysis, mp3s, YouTube clips, and baby photos (Marshall is a proud father, and has a second child on the way). Marshall says it keeps him from becoming sealed in an ivory tower, and allows him to have a much wider conversation with people interested in his topics of study than he could otherwise.

Brandeis students, though, are most familiar with Marshall’s work in the classroom. Offering courses on electronic music, reggae, reggaeton, and hip-hop, Marshall’s work ties multiple musical forms together. His areas of study span the African-American Studies department and the Music department.

Many students come away from Marshall’s classes impressed. “Prof. Marshall is a perfect example of the kind of professor who brings an international academic experience to our school, and helps us apply global issues to our own lives,” says Noam Shuster ’11, who took Marshall’s Reggae, Race, Representation, and Nation course last semester. Indeed, the classes he offers are unique in their focus, applying a rigorous academic approach to subjects that may traditionally have seemed unlikely to be studied in a classroom.

His teaching style can be unique, as well. Though he assigns plenty of reading, and his papers are reported to be tough, Marshall is known to play YouTube music videos in class, offering them for the group’s analysis and discussion. He has offered extra credit for students who edit the Wikipedia entries of the subject they are studying, and film nights, special guests, or demonstrations of his disc jockeying skills are not unknown. Sara Miller ’11, who is currently in Marshall’s Music & Globalization class, says, “Professor Marshall is so innovative…we’ve seen everything from Italian opera to Filipino karaoke stars, and he’s managed to relate it all back to the topic we’re discussing.”

At Brandeis, Marshall is close to home. Raised in Cambridge, Marshall cites the ethnically diverse public schools he attended as an influence on his musical interests. He began rapping at the age of 13, and fondly remembers old albums by Run-DMC and Boogie Down Productions. At Harvard, majoring in English, he played bass in a blues band called Whiskey Moan. Music has always been an essential part of his existence, but the switch from Ivy League English major to DJ/rapper is nevertheless a fascinating one.

For Marshall, though, the transition was virtually seamless. He says he enjoyed studying English, but “[I] found that I was taking more and more music courses over the course of the four years, and spending a lot of my free time listening to and playing music.” He says that at some point during his undergraduate years, he had an epiphany “where I realized that there was a field that would allow me to do an intellectual engagement with music, similar to what I was already doing with poetry and novels and so forth.” He sees no conflict between his dual role as professor and disc jockey. In fact, Marshall says he finds them “to be really complementary activities: studying music on an academic level and then actually making it, practicing it.”

Marshall’s life has taken him from Madison, Wisconsin (where he earned his doctorate) to the Jamaican prison system (where he helped inmates learn to express themselves through music). But don’t get too excited about the possibility of taking a Marshall class. His contract expires at the end of the semester, and with budget cuts and a hiring freeze, the university is unlikely to reappoint him. His departments have recommended that he stay, but prospects have been looking grim.

All may not yet be lost for Wayne Marshall, though. Brandeis alumnus Leor Galil ’08 has set up the website www.SaveWayne.com, as the beginning of a campaign to save Marshall’s job. Galil is also collecting signatures for a petition, which he plans to give to the administration (students, faculty, parents, and alums can sign the petition on the Save Wayne website). Galil and others believe the loss of Marshall would leave a catastrophic void in Brandeis’ music department. Galil explained that Marshall “[has done more] in just under two years than some professors could do in their entire career.”

Certainly, it is true that without Marshall, the study of world music would be all-but nonexistent at our school. Prof. Judith Eissenberg (MUS) notes that Marshall “is the kind of educator that brings Brandeis into the 21st century at a gallop,” and that his “savvy in the most cutting edge music technologies and conversations [is] much-needed.”

Although Marshall’s loss will be felt by many, his career prospects are bright, and he is well-recognized as one of the nation’s most up-and-coming ethnomusicologists. He is the co-editor of the first authoritative book on Reggaeton, which will be published soon by the Duke University Press. A visit to Marshall’s faculty webpage shows a plethora of papers on various musical topics, many of which can be read in their entirety on his blog. Plus, of course, he’ll keep spinning his brand of “experimental party music” at the Enormous Room on Mondays.

In addition, today and Saturday, Marshall (along with Prof. Eissenberg) will co-chair the next Brandeis Music Unites Us event, featuring music group Nettle. The project aims to bring top-level world musicians to campus for engaging forums and performances, and Marshall will give a pre-concert talk about world music at the Rose Art Museum on Saturday at 7:00pm.

No matter where Wayne Marshall teaches, his students can expect an unforgettable academic experience. A Marshall class may not be typical, but as his Brandeis students (myself included) can attest, it’s absolutely worth the time.