Kaiya Smith Blackburn: Winner of the 2018 Dean’s Essay Prize


Published: 30Apr2018

Congratulations to Kaiya Smith Blackburn, a current masters student in the musicology program, who was awarded 1st place in the 2017-18 Dean’s Essay Prize for her project “Black Israelites, Social Justice, and Kendrick Lamar: Meditations on a Rhetorical Branch of African American/Jewish Relations.”

Kaiya Smith Blackburn is an academic, a celebrated performer and film composer. Spending many years performing folk and alternative music, she has recently taken her musical interest to academia. Kaiya completed an undergraduate degree with distinction at the University of Toronto in Music History & Culture, Philosophy and English. Her postgraduate work consists of a Master's Degree in Musicology with Prof. David Brackett the Schulich School of Music of McGill University in Montreal, QC. With this degree her focus is on African American musical expression & religion, as well as the gender politics of the Freak-Folk tradition. Kaiya has contributed various socio-political and theoretical analyses of popular music to the field. She is now pursuing editorial work within this field and in the wider spheres of music journalism and broadcasting. 

In celebration of this achievement, we asked Kaiya a couple questions in a recent email exchange.

What does winning the Dean’s Essay Prize mean to you? 

As an academic, one only rarely has their work validated by the larger academic field of which they are a part. When it happens, it's incredibly meaningful and extends far beyond the kind of affirmation a grade can provide. It reminds you that your work is valued and inspires you to continue your research. I'm very fortunate to have received this recognition.

How did you become interested in your paper’s topic?

I have long been fascinated by the intersections between theology, sociology and music. In particular, I have been curious about modes of African American Christianity being expressed in soul, blues, hip hop and r&b. My own theological research has bled into my musicological work so much that I find the two irrevocably entangled, with regards to African American religious identity. With this framework in mind, I knew that I needed to look more closely at Kendrick Lamar's DAMN. as it showcases fascinating interplay with theological discourse and political activism. I knew I had to work with this album to further understand the tapestry of African American religious articulation.


African American communities from the eighteenth century onward have successfully interpreted the Hebrew Bible and Christian scriptures to befit their existential reality and reinforce their humanity. On the sonic landscape of the spirituals, African Americans have identified with the Torah’s themes of social justice, liberation, and equality. With songs such as “I Am Bound for the Land of Canaan,” “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” and “Steal Away,” African slaves and their descendants identified directly with the suffering Children of Israel – they engaged with scripture as a living, malleable organism, and carved within it a likeness of their own experience. The reinterpretation of scripture has thus been central to the self-definition, identity-formation, and social cohesion of many African American communities from the first theological utterances of the earliest bards, to the more contemporary exaltations of black artists throughout the postmodern nation. This analysis evaluates the network of African American identifications with central stories and principles of the Torah, situating it within the overarching social sphere of African American and Jewish relations. While the earliest alignments with the enslaved Hebrews of Exodus by African Americans occurred prior to substantial contact between blacks and Jews, black theology has continued to evolve within the context of an integrated history with Jews. One particular branch, – stemming in part from interaction with Jews in America – is the Black Israelite theological phenomenon. I focus on Kendrick Lamar and his fourth studio album DAMN. (2017), which employs Black Israelite biblical rhetoric profoundly, to evaluate this cultural entanglement.