During the flush days of the “Black Power” movement and the “Black is Beautiful” era, more than a few credible anthropologists made the discovery that stringed instruments as well as percussion instruments originated in ancient Africa. They and musicologists also came to realize that the things that set African music apart included: its emphasis on rhythm, the frequency of its call and response motif, and its embrace of and preference for group / congregational participation in its musical performances.
These kinds of traits or characteristics were not cultural elements that remained in Africa as was the case of African clothing, languages, and other cultural elements that enslaving Europeans insisted on enslaved Africans leaving behind. The dominate traits of African music traveled to the New World, proving to be the roots of African American music. In some areas, such as the Caribbean, they are often stronger than they are in the United States. They, nevertheless, have been preserved and capitalized upon by African American musicians and singers from as far back as one can discover.
One of the reasons for the preservation of music more than language is the fact that enslaved Africans were often encouraged to play music, to sing, and to dance as a sign of their happiness or contented adjustment to slavery in America. Enslaved African musicians were also frequently used as sources of entertainment for plantation owners and other white spectators. While it is true that in some areas and on occasion drumming was forbidden out of fear that messages calling the enslaved Africans to escape or rebel were being sent via the drumming, music in general was not outlawed.
Scholars are still uncovering songs that were sung during slavery. It has been discovered that much of the music was in the form of work songs and spirituals. As the years passed, and especially as the former slaves moved into cities and towns, music expanded to include more entertainment music, songs for personal and group entertainment.
As American music began being recorded, Black musicians such as Scott Joplin came on the scene. Joplin composed “Maple Leaf Rag,” “Easy Winners,” “The Entertainer,” and other rags between 1899 and his death in 1917. This rag time music spread in popularity because it was generally “parlor music” played in houses of ill-repute often frequented by well-to-do white men. It, nevertheless, was Black music that put its producers in the limelight. More than a few Black men who played such roles were called “professors” and thereby earned a living.
Soon after Joplin’s rise, the world heard of Ma Rainey and her recordings of “Oh Papa Blues,” “Booze and Blues,” “Yonder Come the Blues,” and other such tunes. This music was called the blues, but is often in the style of what was later called jazz. This was especially the case, as it was handed down by purveyors like Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Dinah Washington.
Almost simultaneously, jazz, especially the brand that was labelled, Dixieland Jazz, broke out, with Louis Armstrong being its major exponent. Jazz flourished in New Orleans, but quickly spread to Chicago, Los Angeles, Kansas City, and other urban areas. As New York became the major hub for jazz, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Chick Webb, and others, it became not just acceptable, but popular in America and around the world. By the 1950s there were writers and scholars who were declaring that jazz, which by then included all of the variations above, was America’s only authentic music.
As African Americans gained in popularity, it sprouted and grew many branches. In addition to ragtime, blues, and jazz, these branches grew to include: spirituals, gospel, rhythm & blues, rock & roll, calypso, reggae, soul, disco, rap, and hip hop. (Ray Charles even popularized country & western music, creating a space for it in the African American community.) Before this generation of African Americans is through, there may be many more genres of the music that began with deep and rich African roots.
It is one thing to talk about the broad contours of African American music and assert its strength. It is even more important, however, to underscore its strength in yesteryears and today. Along that line, we can reference the fact that Rolling Stone has evaluated and ranked the top 200 singers in America’s recorded music history. On that list of notable and influential singers, the first 11 are African Americans. In fact, more than 40% of the ranked singers are African Americans, despite the fact that less than 14% of America’s population is Black. Had such noted Black singers as Nat King Cole, Louis Jordan, and Mavis Staples been included, Rolling Stone’s list may have become less than 50% white.
Similarly, when one considers the singers and musicians who have won Grammy awards over the years, Black music quality stands out just as prominently. These real giants of the industry, once Black people were finally recorded, include the likes of Aretha Franklin, Harry Belafonte, James Brown, Ray Charles, Al Green, Michael Jackson, Prince, James Cleveland, Nat King Cole, Natalie Cole, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Miriam Makeba, Ella Fitzgerald, Beyoncé, Lauryn Hill, Mariah Carey, Donna Summer, Shirley Caesar, Mahalia Jackson, Barry White, Curtis Mayfield, and Isaac Hayes. They often set the standard for not just African American music. They set the standard for American music in general, which after all, are but variations of the music that emerged from ancient Africa.
Finally, when one realizes that the likes of Drake, John Legend, Alicia Keys, Lizzo, Usher, Kirk Franklin, and Mississippi’s own Mississippi Mass Choir, David Banner, and Bobby Rush are still on the scene, he/she can know that the African musical tradition is alive and well. The deep roots from Africa are continuing to keep the branches strong and developing.