Black music History: from plantations to the White house

By Pascal Archimède. At every stage of their integration on American soil, black people have created the kind of music that reflected their social integration as well as their state of mind. That was the starting point of The young African-American and the rap phenomenon, a study conducted by Pascal Archimède, trainer in english and author of the book « Music in professional language training ».

From Work songs on plantations to Rap music today, this research takes a behind-the-scenes look at black American history.
The African slave and the Work songs

In August 1619, a Dutch ship landed around twenty negroes in Jamestown, Virginia. They came from western Africa and were employed on the plantations as indentured servants: black American history had begun.

The Europeans, satisfied with that cheap workforce, enslaved them very early. By 1640, most Africans in Virginia were slaves.

Singing while working has always been part of African traditions. The work songs, sung by the slaves, were born from the transformation of African chants and litanies on American fields. They dated from the second generation of slaves and were used as the link between original African music and the one developed when the slaves got in touch with the Euro-American society.

These songs, essentially sung a capella, used to put rhythm into the slaves’ work. They were, for the most part, improvised and characterized by the call and response pattern.

The work songs reflected the situation of the Blacks as slaves. They died out after the breaking of the plantation system, but are said to have persisted in southern penitentiaries until the 1960s.
Lightning : Long John :

The evangelized Negro and the Negro spirituals

The African cultural practices and especially religious rites were forbidden on plantations. So, very early, the Blacks tried officially to be part of their masters’ religion. At first, they were rejected as they were not regarded as human beings. But, their evangelization and consequently their admission in places of worship led them to sing in a western way.
Later on, the apparition of black churches made the evolution of the occidental chants towards the Negro Spirituals possible.

Actually, Negro Spirituals were the occidental hymns revived by the slaves who imposed their own hymns, rhythms and habits.

Born in the 18th century, many Spirituals compare the situation of the slaves in the New World to the captive Jews’ one in Egypt in biblical times. The most striking example is the classic Go down Moses. The masters regarded them as songs of resignation while they actually conveyed hopeful messages only understandable by the slaves.

Golden Gate Quartet : Go Down Moses

Not only did Negro Spirituals reflect the slaves’ evangelization, but they also marked a significant milestone to emancipation, because that music, in the service of the Blacks’ cults, reflected a denial of the mainstream culture.

Then, Gospel, Christian religious songs in the footsteps of the Spirituals,  would appear in the 1920s/ 1930s.

Edwin Hawkins Singers : Oh Happy Day :

The sharecropper and the Hollers

From 1861 to 1865, the United States were thrown into a civil war with the abolition of slavery at stake.
The end of this war resulted in the disappearing of plantations in one block and in their division in small farms. Thus, a huge majority of ex-slaves became sharecroppers with the duty to cultivate a plot of land in exchange for outrageous rights, that is to say 80 to 90 percent of the crop due to the owner.
Work songs would then turn into Hollers or Hollies, that is to say lonesome shouts that would be echoed by neighbouring workers and that would spread from farms to farms.
That music reflected a new step taken by black people on American soil. Even if they were still exploited, they were no longer slaves and the Hollies were there to testify it.

Cornfield Holler : Work songs and Field Hollers :

The itinerant African-American and the Blues

Blues was the creation of black American people who were rejected in isolation and despair because of slavery and later on, because of segregation. It is widely assumed, especially among blues singers, that Blues existed during slavery. However, according to some musicologists, it would have appeared in the 1880s/1890s.

It seems likely that the consolidation of this type of music was the outcome of the convergence of the work song, field holler and Negro spiritual traditions with European cultural elements such as Anglo-Scottish ballads.

Blues became professionalised thanks to the Negro theatres and was promoted through Blacks’ migration, at the beginning of the 20th century, from the deep South to the industrialized North. This music was an opportunity to tell their life and experiences in the New World.

The spread of Blues in America and in the world was a significant step in black people’s advancement.

Robert Johnson : Sweet home :

Recognition of African-American culture thanks to Jazz

According to experts, Jazz would be born at the beginning of the 20th century. However, they admit that it derives from more ancient music genres and African oral traditions enriched by the Euro-American trend.
Once discovered, this cosmopolitan music allowed to break down barriers between Whites and Blacks.
This music managed to merge several cultures in one: Jazz culture.

Miles Davis : Freddie Freeloader :

Soul music, Funk and the awakening of Black consciousness

The African-American civil rights movement arose in the United States in the 1950s/1960s. It aimed at giving equal rights and justice to the Blacks.
Partly influenced by both Rhythm and blues and Gospel, Soul music appeared around the end of the 1950s.

It enhanced the culture and pride of the African-American community and was used as a means of expression in that quest for equality.

Aretha Franklin : I say a little prayer :

The end of the 1960s was marked by the assassination of two black leaders: Malcolm X (1965) and Martin Luther King (1968). The tension was palpable in the United States that were embroiled in a war in Vietnam and which witnessed a significant degradation of the black citizens’ social and economic situation.

Created in the 1950s, it is in this context of racial tensions that Funk music emerged. This festive music, embodied by artists such as James Brown, then appeared as a contesting cry of freedom.

James Brown : Say it loud – I’m black and I’m proud :

Rap: from the ghetto to the White House

At the end of the 1970s, inspired by Jamaican sounds systems, Block parties were arranged in New-York black ghettos with a D.J ( Disc Jockey) on the decks and a  M.C ( Master of ceremonies ) in charge of entertaining: Rap music was born.
In 1979, Sugarhill Gang released Rappers’ Delight, the first worldwide rap hit which put this music genre on the map.

This music which originally told anecdotes with bragging festive and materialistic punchlines would turn into a genuine denunciation of the decaying of the ghettos under the Reagan administration in the 1980s.

The song Fight the Power by Public Enemy is a perfect illustration:

In 1988, conveyed by NWA (Niggas With Attitude) from Los Angeles, Gangsta Rap emerged. This rap style describes the gloomy everyday street life.

NWA : Straight outta Compton :

Doctor Dre, one of the founding members of NWA would later work with artists like Snoop Doggy Dog and Tupac.

Dr. Dre feat. Snoop Dogg : Nothin’ But a G Thang :

Dr. Dre feat. Tupac Shakur: California Love:

The 1990s saw the booming of Rap within the United States but also all over the world.
For some, this music genre has become an opportunity to escape poverty and to live the easy life described by numerous rappers, while for others, it has symbolized the cultural expression of the oppressed.
For the last forty years, this contesting and uprising music has been gentrified but still remains a bearer of hope.
At the end of this research in 1999, I never thought that less than a decade later, Barack Obama, an African-American, would become President of the United States and that rappers would be received with full honours in the White House.

By Pascal Archimède.

Bibliographic references

DAVIDAS, Lionel. Chemins d’identité. LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka et le fait culturel africain-américain. Ibis Rouge Editions. Collection Identité et Culture, 1997.

JONES, LeRoi. Blues People: The Negro experience in White America and the music that developed from it. Payback Press, 1995.

ROSE, Tricia. Black Noise. Rap music and black culture in contemporary America. London: Edited by Wesleyan University Press. Published by University Press of New England, 1994.

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