Harmonizing Black Music History with STEM Geared at Social Change

Music as a Vehicle for Social Change

Moyana Olivia’s songs reflect her personal experiences and focus on influencing change, something she hopes her audience can connect to.
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Unveil the intersection of music, Black history, and STEM principles as Chicago-based artist Moyana Olivia navigates the rhythm of her music career and studies in musicology at Northwestern University. Black music history is a crucial part of her music career, education, and inspirations.

Black Music History

Moyana Olivia is a Chicago-based young artist who is passionate about creating music that makes a difference. Originally from Minnesota, Olivia has been creating and releasing music since she was 15. Her most recent song, Revival, went live on National Coming Out Day in 2023. In addition to her music career, Olivia is also a musicology major at Northwestern University, where her studies center around Black music history and how it relates to social change.

“I’m focusing my musicology studies on…how Black people have used music to rally together and create social change,” Olivia explains. “When police officers would come to meetings and try to intimidate…people would all sing together to engender that spirit of confidence and advocacy.”

Olivia also referenced gospel singer Mahalia Jackson’s performance before Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. While Jackson’s involvement in the March on Washington is less known than MLK’s famous speech, she played a role just as crucial in the Civil Rights Movement by using music to ignite hope and solidarity.

Even in today’s music landscape, Olivia emphasizes that Black artists are making their mark by taking an approach to music that centers music history and prior creations in the field. “[For instance], hip hop. People who maybe don’t have access to really expensive instruments or training who can just take the music that is around them…in order to create something that is totally new,” Olivia tells Built By Girls.

“I really just want to look at how Black people have brought people together through music and how we can continue to keep that legacy alive,” Olivia asserts..

Repurposing Pieces of Black History

Some of Olivia’s biggest inspirations are musicians she admires for taking something that was already created and using it to make something new - notably, Prince, H.E.R., and Jasmine Sullivan. “[Prince] was really big on blending lots of genres together,” Olivia shares. “That’s another quality of Black music… [is] the ways that Black musicians can combine multiple different things and then work in improvisation to create something totally new.”

This concept shows up in music in multiple ways, as is evident by another of Olivia’s inspirations, who she respects for her approach to live performances. “Jasmine Sullivan I love because her live performances are different every time,” she highlights. “That’s another example of just inventing new things in music, taking the same framework and then creating something completely unheard of.”

Music as a Form of Connection

Olivia’s first memory of music came before she was even able to talk. “[My dad] used to record covers of Nat King Cole songs and then play them in the crib so me and my sister could fall asleep,” she recalls. “That’s my first time really understanding music as a way to connect with the people around me.”

Today, connection continues to be an instrumental part of Olivia’s songwriting and the music she releases. “I hope that me writing about my personal experiences allows people to hear them and then connect with me in a different way so that…the next time you see a Black person walking down the street, instead of stereotyping and assuming one thing, you try to think about their experiences,” she explains. “Hopefully, then my music can be a point of connection between those two people.”

Moving Forward and Building Community

Olivia’s music has a mission, but it's not only about uplifting the serious issues. “A lot of my audience is younger Black people,” she explains. “Being able to sing songs of Black people talking about issues like homophobia or police brutality, that’s one aspect of my work, but I also think that music that makes a difference is music that expresses and creates space for people who are marginalized to feel joy.”

While Olivia considers her listeners to primarily be young Black people, sometimes Olivia’s audience is more specifically Black women, depending on the festival or event she is performing at. A recent study of popular songs over the last decade showed that women are lacking in the music industry, being underrepresented among artists and even more so among songwriters and producers. Thus, Olivia’s focus on writing about personal experiences that her audience can relate to and creating community is a much-needed addition to today’s music scene.

Olivia also has plans to use her platform to open the door for more young artists to get into music, by giving back to organizations that helped get her to where she is today. “I would love to…continue to support the work that people like HOPE community are doing for young musicians and creatives,” she shares. “I definitely would not be the artist that I am today without the people who taught me what I know and uplifted me at that time when I was in high school.”

Olivia also shared that she is in the process of creating her first full-length project. To listen to Moyana Olivia’s current and future music, check out her Spotify or keep up with her on social media.

Hailey Dickinson (she/her) is a freelance writer for Built By Girls and has been writing for the publication since January 2023. She is a creator passionate about using digital platforms to build community, make connections, and ignite positive social change. Outside of writing for Built By Girls, she manages social media and communications for multiple non-profit organizations. She is a recent graduate from the University of Minnesota and has a Bachelor’s degree in communications.