“Our Culture and Heritage in Music”
The African American culture is responsible for most of the innovations in modern music. Blues, jazz, gospel, soul, rock and roll, rap, hip-hop, and southern soul are innovations traced to tribal music. In the world of music, my culture, the African American tribe, still can hear the beat of the drum from the mother continent.
My ancestors in Africa were in tune – spiritually to their world and universe. Tribal music of 400 years ago differed in one respect from the music of European and white American music. There was no secular music. Secular music did not exist. All African music was naturally sacred and the concept of singing sacred music was alien to them. My African ancestors used music and song to satisfy the basic functions in their lives, religion, agriculture and sexual fertility, hunting and war. Sounds familiar! In this regards, African music had more in common with the Native American music than European music, because songs were used as a means to be in harmony with nature and the universe.
Music was the most powerful tool the African slave had to keep its culture alive. Slave owners recognized this and forbid slaves to use traditional African instruments and songs during celebrations and gatherings. The banjo and drum were forbidden.
In an attempt to control the spirit of the huge slave population, slave master introduced them to sacred music and edited versions of the bible. Through worship, a new and empowered being was created spiritually. Slaves quickly learned a new method of channeling and incorporating their traditions and beliefs around the platform of European sacred music. At last, they were able to communicate under the guise of praise. They held camp meeting and redeveloped their spiritual tribal connection to one another and from one plantation tribe to another. A new tribe was created through praise and worship. From praise and music, other forms of communications were developed around their daily lives. Knowledge about free states and safe havens were passed from one slave to another by how a quilt was hung on the line, or a row was hoed, or a buggy was parked. Signed unknown by the masters, but understood by the slaves. And masters allowed, them to have their own preachers and praise and worship service; their world and America would never be the same. The discovery of the power of tribal music and sacred music, allowed slaves to gain acceptance into nineteenth century civilized society. The singing and playing of African versions of American folk music, allowed ragtime performers like Scott Joplin to become popular and some soon became associated with the Harlem Renaissance and early civil rights activists. More and more African Americans were accepted into the American mainstream culture. Tribal music was slowly changing the culture of America.
The early part of the twentieth century saw a constant rise in the popularity of African American blues and jazz. In Harlem, musicians and singers developed their music as professionals, without any outside cultural interference. Segregated in an African-like tribal environment, creativity ruled. Harlem singers and musicians created a unique tribal music and introduced it to America and the world. Latinos and white performers delivered it into the American culture via performances on stage together. Cross-cultural communication had begun, although it had a “Latin Tinge’ to make it more acceptable.
Soon white bands were routinely playing African American music, in a simplified version for white audiences, who would not have as readily accepted black performers. This led to what is known as swing music, a pop-based outgrowth of jazz. Harlem musicians cracked the door that so many of us walked through and were responsible for the cultural changes and acceptance in our society and gave black artist the freedom we enjoy today.
By the 1940’s, cover versions of African American songs were commonplace, and frequently topped the charts. Unfortunately, the original musicians could only find success in African American audiences. Mainstream audiences were still off limits. On the horizon at the time was a generation that would introduce to the world, a class of music called rock and roll. Little Richard and Jackie Brenston would soon arrive on the African market, with their version of tribal music.
The next decade saw the first major crossover acts, with Bill Haley and Elvis Presley performing rockabilly, a rock and country fusion, while black artists like Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley received unprecedented mainstream success. Elvis Presley went on to become perhaps the most lauded and culturally changing musician in American history and marked the beginning of the acceptance of musical tastes crossing racial boundaries among all audiences. He was also the first in a long line of white performers to achieve what some perceive as undue fame for his influence, since many of his fans showed no desire to learn about the origin of his music and its creators.
The fifties also ushered in the popularity of doo wop music and the late fifties also saw an increased popularity of hard blues in the United States and the United Kingdom. A secularized form of American gospel music called soul also developed, with pioneers like Ben E. King and Sam Cooke, leading the wave. Soul and R&B became a major influence on mainstream radio and often topped the charts.
In the 60’s, chart topping girl groups arrived on the scene. Groups named The Angels and the Shangrilas, some were white. Black divas like Diana Ross and the Supremes and Aretha Franklin became 60’s reverse crossovers. In the UK, British blues became a gradual mainstream phenomenon, returning to the United States in the form of the British Invasion. A group of bands led by the Beatles, who performed classic-style R&B, blues and pop, with both traditional and modernized aspects, changed the culture once again!
The British Invasion knocked most other bands off the charts, with only a handful of groups like the Mamas and Papas, maintaining a pop career. Soul music remained popular among blacks, but Funk evolved, and soon heavy metal emerged. Soul music needed another cross-over market outlet, to keep it financially viable, further evolved, with the creation of album-oriented soul music, with intelligent and philosophical lyrics and socially aware tones. Marvin Gayes’ “What’s Going On’ is perhaps the best-remembered of the field.
The 1970’s and 80’s were the birth decades of great black bands, groups and unprecedented singers. Sly and the Family Stones, George Clinton, P-Funk, Kool and the Gang, Earth, Wind and Fire, and the list goes on and on. Black pop artists, that included Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Whitney Houston, and Prince, who sang a type of pop dance-to soul, allowed other unique artist the ability to find a place in the mainstream market.
In 1986, Rap took off into the mainstream with Run-D.M.C., Raising Hell and the Beastie Boys, Licensed to Kill. The Beastie Boys became the first rap album to enter the number one spot on the billboard 200. Both of these groups mixed rap and rock together, which appealed to rock and rap audiences. Hip-hop took off from rap, and its golden age started. It soon became popular worldwide.
The 1990’s and 2000’s, introduced male vocal groups, New Edition, Boyz II Men, Jodeci, and Blackstreet. Boyz II Men, became the highest selling R&B male group of all time. Women groups were up to the challenge; TLC, Destiny’s Child, and En Vogue were highly popular. Destiny Child would go on to be the highest selling female vocal group of all time. Singer songwriters such as R. Kelly, Mariah Carey, Montell Jordan, D’Angelo, and Tony! Toni! Tone! were also significantly popular. The Stevie Wonder inspired sound would lead to development of neo soul artists like Lauryn Hill, Erykak Badu, India.Arie, and others. Currently Usher, Alicia Keys, B2K, and Destiny’s Child continue to have success. The line between R&B, hip-hop, and rap continue to blur and evolve. Tribal music is still alive and all music still is sacred. Our culture is still spiritual and our ancestor’s music has made us all spiritual members of the tribe of the world!
Wall of Stars Director