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When the first Africans were taken from their home and brought to the U.S., they brought with them traditional African musical elements from various regions. Eventually, they combined those elements with stories that encompassed the experiences and hardships of slavery, which would create the foundation for every form of Black music in America. This music, known as Negro spirituals, spawned popular genres such as southern gospel, the blues and early jazz and would, over a hundred years later, be brought full circle with the introduction of hip hop.
Negro spirituals would go on to become one of the important forms of American folksong, purely through centuries of Black musical innovation and oral tradition. The distinct elements of different cultural and ethnic groups from Africa, including call and response and improvisation, brought to life one of the only means slaves had of documenting their humanity and history, as reading and writing were not only not taught to them but forbidden by law in many instances.
Some were able to fashion African musical instruments out of the few materials available to them. The banjo, adapted from a similar West African instrument and known earlier in the U.S. by many names including the banja, banjow, and banshaw; was one of those instruments. Another, which was necessary to perform another distinct element of African musical tradition — percussive affinities — were an assortment of drums.
However, after discovering that enslaved Africans were able to communicate with one another using these drums, slaveowners regularly banned them on many plantations throughout the 18th century. The spirituals, which included the Christian values that were forced upon slaves, naturally conveyed a deep desire for freedom from bondage and a longing for the safety from all of the horrific evils of chattel slavery. Among the many innovative aspects of Black music of this era was the employment of coded language — used as a tool for those fleeing to the North.
Spirituals like “Wade in the Water” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd” are believed to have contained instructions assisting the operation of the Underground Railroad, although there is controversy concerning the origins and timeline of these songs. The true history of slavery, of course, is difficult to determine with certainty. According to Harriet Tubman, the most famous conductor of the Underground Railroad who was widely referred to as “Moses,” the spiritual “Go Down, Moses” was used as secret instructions for slaves escaping to Maryland. Tubman also used specific songs to send signals to runaway slaves she’s was leading to North. Often the messages were to hide and wait, or that it was safe for them to come out of hiding.
Outside of spirituals used as sing songs, work songs, and aids on the journey to physical freedom, many of the early spirituals were simply an expression of the yearning for spiritual freedom. Black people on plantations cultivated to sounds which we now recognize as gospel music.
Although gospel was the result of white British and Americans’ efforts to Christianize slaves, the Black church distinguished its music — gospel — from white Christian hymns, anthems and other spiritual music. In the 1800s, influenced by the early Negro spirituals, slaves and free Blacks made gospel music an essential feature of Black worship services and spiritual ceremonies.
Emancipation brought about further evolution of the genre which has now become a globally recognized musical style. The 1920s precipitated the introduction of “race records.” According to History, American record companies made music specifically by Black artists for Black audiences “a phenomenon between 1920 and 1940. But these artists pioneered new sounds in blues, jazz and gospel, most labored for no recognition and little pay by American.”
In the 1930s, gospel, also commercially referred to as the holy blues, produced revolutionary stars like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, whose hit single “This Train” became the first gospel track to sell a million records. Tharpe’s massive success, attributed in part to her pioneering use of secular sounds in religious music, laid the foundation for the golden age of gospel between the 1945-1965, which saw the rise of solo artists such as Mahalia Jackson. Jackson is inarguably considered not just one of the most important figures of the civil rights movement, but also one of the most influential vocalists in the history of American music.
As with gospel, ragtime and blues, the 1920s race records also included early jazz music. The first jazz record, however, was recorded by an all-white group. In 1917, the novelty song “Livery Stable Blues” by the Original Dixieland Jass Band, was recorded in New York City, becoming one of American music’s first hit singles, selling over one million copies. The glaring issue with the record, according to most accepted historical accounts, was that “the all-white Original Dixieland Jass Band borrowed to the point of plagiarism from the African-American musicians they’d heard in their native New Orleans.”
This would become somewhat of an American tradition in jazz, as well as most other popular music — the erasure of Black artists by white artists and a white-controlled music industry. More egregious than white artists gaining acclaim for emulating Black sounds, Black musicians being the originators of bluegrass, country and rock and roll has been infamously rubbed out of American music history. Black music’s youngest, and now most popular, genre has also been impacted in some ways by this legacy of erasure. Although hip hop is still dominated by Black artists, Eminem is the best-selling rapper of all-time.
Originating hundreds of years after the creation of Negro spirituals, hip hop brought Black American music full circle, carrying on the musical tradition of improvisation, call and response, polyrhythms, and percussive elements to accompany rich storytelling of distinctly Black experiences.
While much of hip hop is created with dance beats, mirroring the more joyful, rhythmic spirituals known as “jubilees,” many songs speak to hardships faced by Black people in modern society — bringing the stories of voiceless communities to the forefront of American culture. Using their own groundbreaking style, hip hop artists created music that paralleled both the sorrow and the resilience of many slave songs. Trauma, God and Black history are prominent in both genres.
Spirituals like “Sometimes I Feel like) A Motherless Child” serves as a historical record of the anguish brought about by the common practices of ripping slave children from their parents. Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five’s “The Message” tells the story of Black inner-city life and poverty with the final verse emphasizing the children born in the ghetto fated to live a second-class life.
In “All Falls Down,” which features a chorus by Syleena Johnson that’s reminiscent of gospel music, Kanye West quickly touches on consumerism, capitalism, reparations, single parenthood, drug dealing, the myth of the American Dream and internalized racial oppression. Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.” which fittingly samples “Message from the Inner City” by The Crusaders, highlights the misogynoir faced by Black women not just in society, but specifically in hip hop culture, as well.
Although not widely considered a spiritual artist, DMX, who tragically passed away in April of this year, regularly incorporated religious themes in his music. Songs like “Slippin” echo, in so many ways, the essence of Negro spirituals. While the surface of the track — like a lot of hip hop and many Negro spirituals — conveys pain and hopelessness associated with the bleak realities of living under the racist systems, nearly always present is hope and the determination to overcome seemingly impossible circumstances.
“Ayo, I’m slippin’, I’m fallin’, I gots to get up. Get me back on my feet so I can tear s**t up.”
Black American music, born from the need for Black people to communicate, entertain, have fellowship, uplift and survive during the some of the worst imaginable conditions ever endured by human beings, has had an immeasurable influence on America and the world. And, like the people who create it, it will continue to persevere, adapt and prosper.