Genius Grant recipient Josh Kun ’89 speaks about music’s impact


Kutler Center Scholar in Residence Josh Kun ’89 speaks to Taylor Redmond ’18 and Daniel Varela ’18 in the Emery Room. Credit: Sofia Heller/Chronicle

Sofia Heller

Kutler Center Scholar in Residence and MacArthur Fellowship recipient Josh Kun ’89 discussed interpreting music as social change in his meetings with students and faculty this week.

Kun asked students to share the big problems that they have encountered in the world and then offered his perspective on the way to approach them.

“Being ‘woke’ is a way of changing how you move through the world,” Kun said. “That’s kind of how I approach my work is that it’s got to be about waking us up to our connections to all of these issues.”

The Kutler Center’s Scholar in Residence program brings noted scholars in the arts and sciences to campus to share their expertise. Kun, whose fellowship comes with a $625,000 grant, was invited to the school by Kutler Center Director Jim Patterson.

Black Leadership, Awareness and Culture Club leader and Latino-American Student Organization leader Daniel Varela ’18 introduced a discussion about intersectionality and multiculturalism. In response, Kun said that everyone is made up of different identifications, but society has placed them into certain categories that are historically constructed.

“They are totally made up categories, but they are lived as real,” Kun said. “They have real life consequences for survival, for civil rights, for access and for how you’re seen. When you find out something has been historically constructed, it’s kind of liberating because then you can deconstruct it.”

Varela told Kun that he is faced with people at school and in general who have lack of understanding about multiculturalism.

“By being a leader of the two racial affinity groups, I feel like I’m able to give my perspective on things and raise awareness,” Varela said.

Starting as a student at the Harvard School for Boys, Kun interviewed musicians around Los Angeles for his music column in the school paper. After high school graduation, he continued as a freelance music journalist.

Kun is now a professor at University of Southern California, teaching classes about the ways music connects with culture, society and social action.

In one class, when a student voiced the difficulty he has in holding on to his European culture, Kun responded by using the musical crossfade as an analogy. Kun explained that there is a way to hold on to many cultures without erasing one in place of another, similar to the way a DJ mixer can use the crossfade to combine inputs to create a new sound without destroying one of the inputs.

“I listen to where songs connect up with other songs,” Kun said. “If I open up the history of a song and realize that what you think of as a rhythm and blues song actually has pieces that come from an Irish tradition, or pieces that come from a Mexican tradition.”

Varela said that he is glad that Kun was able to talk to students about how culture influences music, especially since Varela feels that music is often taken for granted.

“Mr. Kun did well with the time we had to critique the usage of music and how it truly has a multifaceted impact,” Varela said. “It not only brings joy or expression through sound, but also it can incorporate an activist spirit within a song.”