– Ajanta Paul
Broadly classified into the sacred and the secular, the music of the African Diaspora in the United States is usually recognized as the spirituals, the blues, gospel, soul, hip hop, jazz and rap. The focus of this essay is on the various identities interfused within this composite category of music, and the complexities that it has acquired by virtue of its origins, borrowings and inter-relationships over the years.
Born in the slave society of the plantations the spiritual originated out of a desire on the part of the Africans to communicate, or at least establish, howsoever tentatively, a contact among themselves. Stripped of their ethnicities, deprived of their fundamental rights, including that of mass assembly, separated from their family members and denied access to the elements of their native life including their musical instruments, they yet sought to express the songs that coursed in their veins. The spoken word (rudimentary American English) picked up in the fields and hybridized with their indigenous idiom and syntax, the communal chant, and work-sounds in the form of whoops, hollers and field cries were the basic vocal sounds that went onto comprise the genesis of the linguistic articulations of the several traditions of African American music.
Forbidden to lapse into their own languages, or simply unable to do so because of the deliberate jumbling up of denominations by the slave-owners, African Americans during the colonial era often found their music to be a surrogate semiotics through which they strove to affirm their humanity and to retain their sanity. Under the influence of Christian evangelism were born African American churches, and bush or camp meetings came to be organized. In time the African American communities began to identify with the Old Testament’s projection of the Jewish Diaspora in alien and hostile lands, its preoccupation with present sorrow and its belief in the promise of deliverance and salvation. Essentially the spirituals retell the stories of the Bible through song. The stories of Adam and Eve; David and Goliath; Ezekiel and the wheel; Jonah and the whale; John the Baptist; Mary and Martha, and above all of Jesus himself, were some of the popular choices.
The imagery, along with the iconic reverberations of the Jewish imperatives, so intrinsic a part of Western Christian sensibility as in the walls of Jericho, the waters of the Jordan, the holy city of Jerusalem among other such references, mingle with the style of native African American music-making to create passionate paradigms that cut across cultures and appeal across the world to people seeking deliverance. The political implications of African American music- present from the beginning- incorporated and expressed, in the course of time some of the vibrancies, stridencies and urgencies of national life. It has been suggested that some of the earliest slave songs served as ‘alerting’ songs intended to help fugitive slaves to flee. It is conjectured that the extremely well-known spiritual ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ is coded with such information.
“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
Brother Moses gone to the Promised Land
I hear from Heaven today
Steal away to Jesus,
Good news, de Chariot’s coming.”
African American music is often functional and prone to variation and improvisation. The spirituals sometimes took on the nature of a chant and the text consisted of the repetition of an incoherent cry, what came to be called ‘the shout’.
“I sought my Lord in de wilderness,
In de wilderness, in de wilderness,
I sought my Lord in de wilderness,
For I’m a-going home.”
With the Proclamation and Emancipation, the political overtones of the spirituals became more pronounced and their association with the national life of America and the political discourse therein assumed a new voice. Freedom from oppression being the goal, the political and the spiritual became intertwined in imagery fraught with various layers of meaning. The spiritual that came to be associated with Abraham Lincoln’s election was:
“We’ll fight for liberty
We’ll fight for liberty
We’ll fight for liberty
Till the Lord shall call us home;
We’ll soon be free,
Till the Lord shall call us home.”
Variants of the slave songs and spirituals became linked with the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century in the United States. ‘We shall Overcome’ became the theme song of the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King referred to this anthem as a spiritual in his speeches and sermons, so strong are its resemblances to the 19th century slave song.
Emancipation ironically saw the substitution of slavery with serfdom as African Americans did not inherit the American dream but tilled the land as sharecroppers. The racially oppressive atmosphere of the American Deep South caused African Americans to migrate in large numbers to the north and the west. The term ‘the blues’ refers to ‘the blue devils’ meaning loneliness, sadness and dejection. It has also been suggested that the term owes its origin to indigo, which in certain West African cultures was associated with death and mourning. Further, indigo was grown in slave plantations in the United States, and was used by slaves to dye their clothes as they sang of their sufferings.
Chord progression, a central element of the blues form, is found in jazz, rhythm and blues and rock and roll. The early manifestation of the genre was in the form of ‘country blues’ led by its gifted practitioner Robert Johnson of Mississippi. The heydays of the blues were in the 1920s when its classic numbers were sung by female singers of the stature of Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters, Ida Cox, and, of course, the legendary Bessie Smith. The Urban Blues was a big-city version of Country Blues.
The 3-line stanza of the blues is a throwback to African origins, uncommon in European folksong repertories. Like most African American forms of folk music, the blues uses syncopated patterns. It did, however, absorb western influences. Towards the end of the 19th century African American musicians became acquainted with European folk and American hillbilly traditions. The guitar borrowed from American country music was played in a distinctive manner by blues musicians. They played the good old guitar with penknife and bottleneck, with rubber and metal. The contention of critics is that these unorthodox playing techniques produced a different tone which approximated the African American social reality of chaos and struggle rather than that of order and stability.
The musical practices of the ‘invisible’ slave church passed onto the post-Emancipation folk churches, and ‘gospel’ music was born. The Protestant City Revival Movement of the 1850s created gospel hymnody. By the 1920s gospel had developed into a sacred counterpart to the blues. It began essentially as liturgical music performed by church members within the church. Gospel had succeeded in retaining part of its African orientation in that it is still associated more with ritual than with retail. Most of the other forms catered to paying consumers while gospel singers were largely trained and supported by the church. Like the spiritual, the gospel became a part of the processes of struggle and protest in the United States. Mahalia Jackson’s stirring rendition of ‘Precious Lord, Take my Hand’ at Martin Luther King’s funeral shows the close connection between gospel music and the political processes at work in the country.
The National Baptist Convention with its public endorsement of gospel music gave the genre a recognition which, no doubt, increased its reach. The publishing and recording of gospel music has remained largely controlled by African Americans following the trend set by the Rev. Charles A. Tindley and Thomas Dorsey. Regarding the retention of African elements in gospel music, critics observe that perhaps the single most significant development is the use of the drum which had previously always been excluded, indeed looked down upon in Christian music making. Now, however, it is to be found virtually in every gospel choir. The genre, moreover, has moved beyond its moorings in the church, and like other forms of African American music, it is linked to profits and other commercial indicators. Gospel diva Yolanda Adams claims, “Singers are coming out of the church and introducing the gospel style to a mainstream audience”. The magazine ‘Gospel Today’ maintains that since the last two decades several major recording companies have created and staffed gospel divisions, and that revenue from gospel music has gone up considerably.
A combination of gospel and rhythm and blues, soul music emerged in America in the 1950s and 60s. Soul, with its geographical intonations, differed from place to place. While in certain places such as Detroit, Memphis and Tennessee it inclined towards gospel, in certain other places such as New Orleans it sported a rhythm and blues feel. Memphis soul had its unique sound while Philadelphia soul had an opulent orchestral sound. Energetic, improvisational, and nuanced soul music has its rhetorical and tonal tensions which imbue it with a textured richness difficult to define.
Jazz which derives directly from the blues is primarily aural music in which the written score is often not considered important. Born in the streets and parks of New Orleans African American, community jazz was an outdoor music. It is generally believed that jazz is an amalgam of African rhythms, European harmonies and American melodies. While jazz does utilize American melodies, its rhythms are not necessarily always African. It is the ‘swinging’ beat that makes it specifically African American. While the basic harmony of jazz may be European, what sets it apart is its blues tonality. African American musicians developed this form through their knowledge of the complicated polyrhythmic structures of dance and folk music of peoples across western and sub-Saharan Africa. Lending itself to improvisation in the hands of some of its greatest practitioners, jazz began to explore intricate arrangements and technical novelties resulting in the eclectic sounds of Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
Jazz is African in its improvisational quality, in its use of the call-and-response style of the blues. Yet, it has come to be regarded as the ‘White‘face of African American music. This is probably because from its earliest days jazz has always had white practitioners. The first major commercializer of jazz was the ‘Original Dixieland Jazz Band’ which was an all-White group. They were followed by other well-known White singers and musicians. The compositional aspect of jazz allies it to Eurocentric concerns while the spontaneous, improvisational dimension of the form links it to Afrocentric coordinators of movement and response.
From jazz to Hip Hop, the experimentation continues. Hip Hop emerged in New York City in the 1970s as a sub-culture embracing the aural, the physical and the visual. It basically consisted of four distinct elements: rap, turn-tabling, breaking and graffiti. While rap and turntablism were aural, ‘breaking’ was physical and graffiti art was visual. Hip Hop was midwife-d in the studios of American radio stations when contemporary disc jockeys often created rhythmic beats by looping breaks (parts of songs with pronounced percussive patterns) on two turntables. The simultaneous looping of beats from different pieces gave rise to a new rhythmic combination that was compelling in its effects. When the effects and the sounds of various instruments, especially percussive ones, were vocally imitated through the use of mouth, lips and tongue it came to be known as beat-boxing, allied to rap, and an offshoot of Hip Hop.
Originating as an expression of African-American teenagers growing up in the ghettoes of urban America, rap was music created and responded to by people who were often marginalized and socialized into dependency and delinquency. Described as the first truly postmodern music of the 20th century, rap sometimes uses a raw rhetoric. It is a throwback to the oral traditions of Africa in its use of voice and body percussion, to communal chants and semi-sung oratory. In the beginning (of the category of African American music) was the word. At the end of a major cycle of its evolution too it is the word. Rap relies for its effect on wordplay, the verbal ‘swing’ in place of the rhythmic swing of jazz. The occasional word-wizardry of rap registers as an advance in the generally inane lyrics of American popular music.
What began as local phenomena with limited reach, and perceived, if not as an underground expression at least as an ‘outlawed’ one, became in time, like jazz, much more expansive in its effects and acceptability. As soon as an artistic genre is commercialized, it is liable to change as the cultural determinants that go into making or shaping its outcome are disregarded in favour of others. Earlier, the neighbourhood youths used to decide the singers and the styles but later on, the patrons of rap, not necessarily African American, and the production controllers decided on the styles. Commoditization and modification of art forms go hand in hand. When the spirituals were presented in concert by the famous Fisk Jubilee Singers in 1871, choral arrangements and other techniques were introduced to increase their appeal to a larger audience, thereby distancing the form from its roots. If African Americans are credited with having created the trap-drum set, they have also brought technological innovations in music. Rappers are pioneers in the sense that they have used computer-aided technology, environmental sounds and noise elements as part of their music.
A problematic that is crucial to this discourse of influences in the realm of African American music is the tendency to essentialize ‘blackness’. Some African American composers, arrangers and singers felt that no White person could render the spirituals and blues the way members of their community did. Hall Johnson, an African American composer, in resistance to this belief, maintains that the key to creating authentic music is intimate knowledge of the context and culture of a community rather than an inherent and distinct biology, ontology and history. The functional, experimental and dialectical thrust of African American music creates a synergy of styles enabling the same to change and endure. Also the relevance of the forms is directly related to the life-experiences of the musicians. The jazz-greats such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Thelonius Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and others could create classic music because they had something to say, and the urgency of their content ultimately shaped the forms of their expression. Rap, in its own way, has re-introduced the relevance of ‘saying something’ by providing political, social or cultural commentary through music.
The proverbial tip of the iceberg, an embryonic exercise in outlining the genres of and developments in African American music, the present survey is in no sense an exhaustive one. It is at best a road map of routes in its broadest sense. It is intended to direct novitiates to certain must-visit destinations across the rich, rare and rewarding landscape of African American music. For the true pilgrim, the music needs to be heard, the places associated with it seen, the contexts studied in depth, and the movements experienced in a twirl or two! And JUSAS members, ever young at heart, are requested to experience in practice the magic of the moves inspired by, and inspiring in their turn some of the most moving and mesmerizing sounds to emanate from Africa via the United States.