Theme and Variation: Africana Studies’ First Dean Brings a Rich History to a New Gig
“One of the beautiful things about being a musician,” says Emmett G. Price III, Berklee’s inaugural dean of Africana Studies, “is that we always keep a few projects going on.” For Price, “a few” may be an understatement: By the time he came into his new role at Berklee last fall, he was already a sought-after ethnomusicologist and educator, an author, an ordained minister, a public radio personality, a motivational speaker, and a composer and musician in his own right. “It’s what keeps me authentically, fully me—that I’m able to operate and exercise in all of these spaces that represent who I am,” he says.
Of course, the theme that runs through most of these pursuits is music, a passion that can be traced back to Price’s Los Angeles upbringing. His father was a trombonist and pianist, and his grandfather had been a honky-tonk piano player in Alabama. At the age of 4, Price began learning to play music on the family’s upright piano, working his way through the classical repertoire until his teen years, when he started playing gospel music in church.
As an undergraduate at University of California, Berkeley, his first mentor (the late composer Olly Wilson) introduced him to ethnomusicology—“the study of the relationship between music and culture”—and Price began to consider what it would look like to study Black music “as an insider.” Earning his Ph.D. at the University of Pittsburgh, he did just that, researching the music and spirituality of John Coltrane while also playing in Pittsburgh’s gospel and jazz scenes, and learning from the stories of the city’s jazz legends—“cats who played with Miles, and who played with John Coltrane.”
“These are the individuals whose shoulders I stand on,” Price explains, likening the visionary Black artists he studied and learned from to “the griot, or the jali” in some African traditions: “They’re the ones who tell the oral history, and they often tell it through song, or through some kind of oration… These are the individuals who tell the rest of the history that was not written in the history books.”
In the two decades that followed, Price served as a professor and administrator at Northeastern University and Gordon–Conwell Theological Seminary; published two books on hip-hop culture; became an ordained minister and founded a church in Allston; began appearing regularly on NPR-affiliated programs and podcasts (including WNYC’s Radiolab and his own WGBH show, All Rev’d Up); and joined the boards of a number of Boston-area nonprofits.
In 2007, Price attended the Africana Studies Center’s inaugural celebration, so he felt honored last year when he was asked to succeed his friend, Bill Banfield, in leading the program as its first dean. In this newly established role, Price has a handful of key priorities. Academically, he’s working to expand curricular offerings in hip-hop culture and gospel music; to possibly add graduate-level courses on the music, dance, and theater of the African diaspora; and to establish Africana Studies as a full academic division at Berklee. In addition, he’s focusing on expanding services and support for Black students, and supporting antiracism initiatives across the institution.
As for the decision to add this new role to his long list of gigs? Easy. “To come and be a part of this incubator that has birthed some of the greatest careers across the world—I mean, absolutely,” he says. “I’m so elated to be here, particularly in this season. I’m inspired by the vision of President Erica Muhl. I’m excited to serve that vision… Africana Studies within this space will become a global hub where excellence in performance meets excellence in scholarship.”
This article appeared in the spring/summer 2022 issue of Berklee Today.