Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster „Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration“

Publicity and Representation

Music in Medializing and Politicizing Processes of (Forced) Migration

Ulrike Präger, Ph.D.


This study centers on migration-elicited musical practices and their public representation and medialization as translational places of difference, similarity, and in-betweenness. In analyzing (musical) voices from refugees and migrants arriving in Europe from the Middle East and other areas, as well as the voices of these refugees’ host societies, this phenomenological-historical ethnography foregrounds the multifaceted ways in which musical expressions mediate (or do not mediate) between populations, ideologies, and politics in post-migration integration processes.

Based on the premise that representational systems are key in producing cultural interactions that create knowledge and “forms of shared meaning” (Hall 2003, 1), this project centers on political, socio-cultural, and historical dynamics of public representations of human mobility as experienced in migration processes in Europe (mainly Germany). Drawing from my ethnographic fieldwork, I specifically consider musical representations of individuals’ and collectives’ experiences of (forced) migration as result of current political conflicts in the Middle East and West Africa, highlighting how migrants and members of the host society utilize musical practice and repertoire for political and also populist expression, to cope with crisis, and shape future forms of home and belonging.

Public representations are perceived as driven by the use of language in generating cultural values and meanings. In this study, rather, the focus lies on the analysis of musical languages as practiced in the migrants’ and hosts’ musical communities and shared with wider audiences via live performances and public media. Musical repertoire and practices—as intangible heritage—can move anywhere at any point, representing a constantly shifting symbolic system in and of migration processes. In this way, musical analyses provide multifaceted insights for migration studies.

Before, during, and after migration, music inscribes itself into the migrants’ minds and bodies and—as embodied practice and familiar sounds—logs migration and integration experiences. In these contexts, musical repertoire and practice function as primary communicative styles that, deeply connected to the players’ and singers’ emotions and sensory worlds, tell stories of the place left behind, simultaneously constructing and inventing musical formulas that create imaginations of the future. Consequently, musical expressions articulate experiences of mobility and locality, of home and homelessness, and of the past and the future.

Newly created listening and practicing communities live and share these embodied experiences not only in the act of music making and music listening but also via digital musical communities. On such platforms, one can engage in the writing and dissemination of self-produced songs, the preservation and adaptation (hybridization) of musical repertoire as related to home, as well as in the discussion of such public musical representations and their inherent significations more broadly.

Shared in online platforms, public performances of musical practices transform “actuality” into “virtuality.” As communicative representations, they enable the construction of conceptual and ideological places for the performance of migration and integration, as well as for publicity, political expression, and immediate public reactions. Such reactions show and create modes of affectivity and the thematization of difference, sameness, and in-betweenness, all of which constantly shape and renegotiate narratives of these migrants’ lives. Further, perpetual medialization reveals how (digital) representations of musical practices can take on social roles impacting individuals and groups, and reversely, how changing musical styles are driven by societal changes incited by such digitization and other forms of representation.

In this phenomenological-historical ethnography, I specifically consider individual voices that respond to crisis, negotiate experiences of refuge, preconceptions of otherness, and construct new social lives in post-expulsion environments. Based on these individual narratives—which are frequently absent in generalized and publicized refugee and migration discourses—this study further foregrounds how migrants and hosts actively perform constructs of “self” and “other” as agents of empathy. Often, such expressions run contrary to mass media analyses and conformist political discussions and, thus, can provide a more nuanced portrayal of the “refugee condition.”

Through the application of theoretical frames, such as O’Reilly’s approaches to post-migration practice communities, Michael Espagne’s notion of cultural transfer, and theoretical perspectives of sounding Heimat (Präger 2014), I investigate the migrants’ and hosts’ lived experiences and their public representations through analyzing: a) musical activities highlighting the everyday realities of refugees, migrants, and hosts, b) reasons for the inclusion/exclusion of musical expressions in public representations c) musical (homeland) repertoire that gains new connotations describing how migrants develop new subjectivities after migration, d) how public media uses musical repertoire and practices to construct and manipulate collective memories and identities, and e) the politicization and medialization of such musical practices.

In broader terms, the analysis of musical practices and their public representations in post-migration settings fosters an understanding of how individuals and collectives utilize music as tools for political engagement, refugee advocacy, and the building of new structures of comfort and networks of resistance—thus providing a human basis for the much-needed discussion on the public representation of the European “migration crisis.”