Spotlights & Profiles

Faculty & Staff Spotlights

Ethnomusicology professor drawn to IU for university's leadership in the field

Sept. 30, 2015

Walk into one of Alisha Jones’s classes on any given day and you might hear the IU Bloomington assistant professor telling her students about the social issues of gospel musicians living with AIDS; discussing the intersection of sexuality and African-American pop culture; strategizing about public arts education in low-income, high-minority neighborhoods; or even introducing herself through rap (“Well my name is Dr. Jones and I’m a fly girl/It takes opera to rock my world”). 

Jones, now entering her second academic year in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology within the College of Arts and Sciences, said she was drawn to IU because of the program’s leadership in the field.

“The Society for Ethnomusicology and the Archives of African American Music and Culture is housed here. There are a lot of highly esteemed scholars who have come through the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology. They have made great contributions to the body of literature in ethnomusicology, and I’m excited to be able to work alongside these towering figures as a faculty member,” Jones said. “Indiana is a Research I institution, and the beauty of teaching here is that I can put my scholarship out there to engage with students on the ideas I’m wrestling with in strategic public sector engagement.” 

Video by Olivia Humphreys

The Society for Ethnomusicology, a professional organization, has international membership of more than 1,800. The study of ethnomusicology has a rich history at IU Bloomington dating back to 1948. IU Bloomington’s Ethnomusicology Institute was established in 2000, attracting students and influential scholars from related disciplines. The Archives of African American Music and Culture, established in 1991, houses materials covering a range of African-American musical idioms and cultural expression from the post-World War II era.

Jones has long been interested in the study of music and religion in the African diaspora. She engages the current religious landscape by focusing on the ways in which men worship, particularly as it relates to how they express their gender and sexuality.

Her graduate work at Yale Divinity School and University of Chicago led her to focus on men in gospel music, who she sees as the chief decision-makers in an industry that is patronized by mostly women. Her research on the spectrum of men’s identities gospel includes ethnography of gay male musicians and those living with HIV/AIDS, while serving congregations.

“As I did interviews with these people, I realized that there were other sorts of social, and even theological, issues with which they contended in order to maintain their livelihood and find a space where they would be welcomed as artists and as believers as well," Jones said.

As she interviewed more and more men, she soon realized that while ethnological research on black men and worship had been done from researchers in English and sociology, there was a void she could fill as an ethnomusicologist who is a musician also deeply involved in religious life as a professional public theologian.

“I find moments in performances that may be considered peculiar, or a little queer, and I do a cultural analysis of their decisions that teaches us something about their identity, and how they move about in the world,” Jones said.

She keeps the conversation interesting for students by drawing parallels to current topics, such as provocative performance in pop music. “I try to deal with the things that we see all the time but perhaps didn’t know that there could be a cultural analysis of it.”

Jones has found a welcoming, supportive community at IU, taking part in the Faculty Women’s Writing Group and IU’s membership with the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity Program, which prioritizes faculty retention and support for young and mid-career faculty members. Her home department pairs new faculty with a seasoned mentor. “It’s great to have conversations with my faculty mentor, Mellonee V. Burnim, and really think about how to plot out my timeline as a professor and my timeline for writing.”

She also looks forward to teaching such courses such as “Music and Mysticism” and “Music, Gender and Sexuality.”

“These courses haven’t been taught in a lot of places,” Jones said. “I look forward to offering them here at Indiana University. IU has made it really possible for me to come out of the gate strong.”

Read more Faculty & Staff Spotlights stories »