Sounds of Blackness

The importance of exploring the roots of music and how this can bring you closer to a culture

“Oh, you always listen to that white boy music!”

If you were anything like me growing up, you didn’t seem to fit in very well with the black kids in your classes. This statement was one that I heard quite often, because I listened primarily to punk, metal or screamo music as a child. I didn’t have many black friends at all, and fitting in is always easier when there is more in common than just the color of your skin.

In the environment that I grew up in, it was undesirable to live the lifestyles portrayed in a great deal of rap and hip-hop music, and therefore, I began to resent the music all together, along with the people around me who listened to it. Rap music was “bad” and was something that I stayed away from with fear of seeming uneducated or dangerous.

As I grew older, I finally realized how ludicrous this mindset had been, and I began purposefully embracing the musical styles that were created by my people as an effort to redeem myself and honor our culture. While I have been very successful on this front, I recently learned that while trying to be anything but black, I had actually been embracing our people’s work the whole time.

It all started on the plantations. When African people were brought to the States as slaves, they held a great deal of knowledge of their culture and their individual practices. One such practice was rhythmic music used to lift the spirits and honor deities. Because of the systematic separation of people from their families, culture began to dissipate, as people were no longer teaching their practices to their kin and most slaves were unable to speak to each other in their original languages. This engrained need to commune with one another through song led the slaves to creating new forms of musical communion, which are now called “Negro Spirituals.”

These call and response songs were sung during work. The rhythmic nature of each song allowed the slaves to enter a trance-like state, making the work seem to go by faster, as they all remained in sync while working. These songs were almost always about freedom, be it in life or in death.

Following emancipation, blacks remained closely connected to their traditions of Christianity and musical praise, but were now able to gather together on their own and worship. Negro Spirituals, when aided with musical instruments such as the guitar and the piano, formed what is now known as gospel music. This practice was aided by all involved. During slavery, blacks were not allowed to learn how to read, therefore singing complex hymns was out of the question. These songs were easy to catch on to, and allowed for a deeper spiritual connection through the trance-like repetition of the Negro Spirituals. These songs incorporated very few instruments and were often lead by the entire group at once, with different people adding in their own words for each verse.

Blues was the next step in the evolution of our cultural music styles. Blues replaced much of the simple back and forth style of the early gospel music with repetitive bass accompaniment and more complex lyrics. People like Hart Wand, Mamie Smith and Robert Johnson perfected this style while holding tightly to the roots of the music. This passionate music expressed the pain held by the black community while upholding the trance-like nature of the source material.

The blues shuffles and walking bass caused a deep rhythm called the groove. The music made people want to get up and move with it, similarly to how Negro Spirituals were aided by the repetitive working motions of the slaves. Blues went on to later spawn funk, R&B and rap.

Along came Rosetta Tharpe, a gospel singer and songwriter in the 1940s. She was the first to combine blues and gospel music with a heavy pulsating electric guitar. This was a sound people hadn’t heard before, but it enhanced the music dramatically. Her sound is one of the earliest and obvious predecessors to rock ‘n’ roll and because of this, she has been called “The Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”

Before you draw lines about what types of music are our own and what is not, remember that our people played a major role in the development of this nation, be it through culture or economic growth. Our roots don’t only spread as far as slavery either, because many of the key instruments used in European classical music are predated by African instruments with the same sound and function. Just remember, our culture exists with the entire world and can be found in more than “black music.”