Africa Thesis Award 2011

Two young Sierra Leoneans in front of a sound mixer. Photo by Michael StasikThe Africa Thesis Award for 2011 has been won by Michael Stasik (Leiden University) for his thesis entitled "DISCOnnections. Popular Music Audiences in Freetown, Sierra Leone".

Full text of thesis (pdf, 5.8MB)

Jury report
The selected top three theses for this year’s Africa Thesis Award were written by Dirk Ormel on the illegal exploitation of natural resources in the Democratic republic of Congo, and Anna-Riikka Kaupinnen on beauty treatment in Ghana. And the third one was by Michael Stasik and the jury has decided to give the Africa Thesis Award 2011 to Michael Stasik for his thesis DISCOnnections. Popular music audiences in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

Sierre Leone is nowadays easily and often only associated with its earlier years of civil war and atrocities. But Sierre Leone is much more than that and Michael Stasik’s thesis shows Freetown, Sierre Leone’s capital, as a buzzing and bubbling hub of popular music; a city that never sleeps. It pulsates with a cacophony of sounds for the inexperienced listener and fascinating soundscapes for the interested researcher. Michael describes his first days in Freetown as ‘one big sonic havoc’ (page 7). But he adapts quickly and becomes more and more familiar with the ‘urban ballet’ (page 8) and its patterns and choreography.

Michael has good writing skills and vocabulary to describe the soundscapes of Freetown and interpret them in a coherent way, all beautifully contextualised, both historically and across various musical styles. An interesting aspect of this research is the methodological challenges for the researcher that a focus on music and soundscapes brings with it. It requires that the sense of hearing plays an active part and explicit role in the construction of empirical data. The primacy of the interview is broken and the hierarchy of the senses, in which sight is usually privileged above any of the other senses, is challenged. Not that Michael Stasik doesn’t use interviews as a research method, but his particular choice of subject keeps him from logocentrism, so often present in current day social scientific research. This being said, the jury also remarked that a more grounded, explicit and systematic reflection on these challenges would have strengthened the methodological stamina of the thesis.
The title of the thesis refers to the ways in which music consumption and making music in Freetown are expressions and strategies of broader patterns of social integration and segregation. In other words, how music connects and disconnects in discotheques, although often in contradictory and paradoxical ways. This central line of argument thread sits way through a range of other related subjects like prices, prestige and politics in and around the music industry.

Michael Stasik has written a highly original thesis in terms of subject choice, theoretical interpretation and methodological approach. Beautifully written, this thesis brings the reader to an unexpected social reality in Freetown that does not fit the common media and Western stereotypes of the capital of a worn-torn country. The thesis never suggests any romantic and simple message such as ‘music is a universal and unifying language that bridges people across any divide’. Music is rather an expression and vehicle of society and social relations with all their contradictions and paradoxical tendencies. This fascinating complexity is superbly captured by Michael Stasik, winner of the Africa Thesis Award 2011.

Chair of the jury, dr. Harry Wels, presents the Award to the winner Michael Stasik