Carrying the Torch in Black Music

  Kundayi Musinami '09
  Phil Farnsworth

As we survey the social and aesthetic history of America, there's no doubt that African-American culture has left an indelible mark on the country. It proclaims the triumph of perseverance, tenacity, and self-respect over conformity, complacency, and indifference. In contrast to the view put forth by Danish philosopher S?ren Kierkegaard in The Absolute Paradox that "the highest pitch of every passion is to will its own downfall," I believe that the highest pitch of black culture and passion has been to exercise the ultimate form of giving: forgiveness.

During centuries of slavery, African Americans could have protested violently, but instead they chose solidarity and forged ahead. Their music reflected a transcendence of adversity. While slaves talked about the struggle and "the funk," black music generally didn't voice bitterness toward and retaliation against oppressors or direct rage inward toward the black community.

Today, however, some commercial black music is rife with bitterness, hatred, and obscenity and is at odds with the original underlying purpose of black musical expression. As a result, it has lost the characteristics of its earlier forms that became a defining influence in the lives of many.

The African-American heritage had its genesis in slavery-easily one of history's darkest and most gruesome exhibitions of capitalism and imperialism. Between 1440 and 1860, bloodthirsty, free labor-hungry Western slave traders forcibly uprooted people from West Africa (in Guinea, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Gabon, Cameroon, Zaire, Angola, and Senegal). In the process, they destroyed a community and unity with the divine that was part of life in the motherland. Only 20 percent of slaves survived the ocean crossings to Europe, the Caribbean, South America, and to slave plantations in North America.

Among them were many musicians and storytellers known as griots or jalolu. Through oral tradition, jalolu preserved the history, musical culture, and practices that threaded together the social, political, and communal activities of African life. Jalolu continued to preserve the memory of African life and society, and a new sound that combined their memories with Western European influences began to fill slave houses, echoing through bitter nights of gloom and hopelessness.

Staring adversity in the eye, black slaves found an avenue of expression through an amalgamation of West African rhythms and European harmonies drawn from a newly imposed religion. From their arrival in Jamestown in 1669 until 1865, blacks created spirituals from their duress, an outward manifestation of all the internal tensions that might otherwise have erupted into hatred or revolution. Blacks challenged white churches' ideas, such as obedience to one's master, as a mockery of the true Christian message of equality and liberation. The captive people freely mixed African rhythms and singing styles with Christian beliefs in lyrics that embraced such themes as liberation, freedom, divine justice, living in exile, faith in adversity, and devotion. This spiritual connection defined black theology in its most essential form and gave hope and inspiration to those in bondage. These songs moved from the slave quarters to the plantation and then to recital halls and liturgical services through the efforts of trained black concert singers.

Spirituals gave birth to the blues, a new musical form that embodied the struggle and misery of black slaves. The uplifting and empowering art of the blues, in which sorrows and adversity were transformed into a source of strength, offered an unusual declaration of triumph through tribulation. The 12-bar, bent-note melodies were wedded to lyrics that detailed stories of misfortune often brought on by others. As the influence of the blues and spirituals spread to urban locations northward, New Orleans, the Mississippi Delta, Memphis, Chicago, Kansas City, and, a variety of blues styles took on a life of their own. Throughout the past century, the blues continued to influence jazz and most popular music forms (notably country and rock 'n' roll) and continues to inform music worldwide.

Jazz grew out of the New Orleans-band style, a blend of European harmonies, ragtime, marching band rhythms, and the essence of spirituals and the blues. The influence of the jazz popularized by such figures as Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, and Louis Armstrong produced ripple effects that touched off the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. Throughout the 20th century, jazz continued to evolve and expand as a genre.


Cultural Complement to Disconnect

Art and culture have always been complementary. Black music history reveals the undeniable relationship between musical artistry and the society it serves. Inspired by their culture, artists produced work that was a representation of that culture. Born from adversity and tribulation, negro spirituals clearly paint a picture of delivery from despair in song. Spirituals speak of courage, travail, perseverance, hope, and freedom, a true reflection of the culture of suffering and slavery. The content indicates the social climate and sentiment of a people. The same can be said of the blues; the art reflected a people and their society.

The union between black art and culture has undergone numerous generational changes, but it has never prompted such discord and controversy as it has in 21st-century American society. Today, the genius of black music has been overshadowed by the commercialization of African-American creativity. How did we begin with spirituals and end up tangled in thong songs? How could the trueness of the blues shift to the false glitter of bling-bling? And how could the brilliance of ragtime digress into profanity-laced lyrics? Jalolu toss in their graves.

But the cathartic, oppositional black music of the past has given way to a genre disconnected from these musical roots and frequently criticized for its lack of substance and moral accountability. Indeed, , hip-hop is coming under fire from left, right, and center for its lyrics, misogyny, and objectification in rap videos. Corporations driven by greed and artists willing to sacrifice their art and ethics for a record deal have contributed to the current commercialization and contamination of black music. A recent congressional hearing explored the impact of hip-hop culture on black neighborhoods. Representing the hip-hop community, David Banner repeatedly intoned, "It's just music" to defend objectionable lyrics and videos from such rappers as Nelly and 50 Cent. But his words seemed disingenuous considering that several months ago, Banner was among the artists crying foul and criticizing the media for failing to credit hip-hop with the "artistry" it deserves and for the strong spiritual and blues roots to which it is connected. If hip-hop artists-or any artist, for that matter-want to claim artistry because of their music's connection to earlier styles and traditions, they must also be willing to inherit the attributes of value, cultural responsibility, and relevance these styles embody.

Another renaissance in black culture that contravenes Kierkegaard's thesis is possible. But the successors of the original art and culture must carry the torch with a full understanding of the depths of this rich tradition of perseverance, brilliance, and moral accountability if they are to create art that has a lasting effect.