This past weekend was like one giant “ah-ha” moment for me. The big revelation was that just like Black history is American history, Black music IS American music. There is no segregating the two. I know that this is not news to Black Americans. And that, like me, most white Americans understand that Black artists have had a huge impact on our popular culture, particularly when it comes to music. Yet I came away from the weekend feeling as though I had been living under a rock.
Why didn’t I know that the music I drive, cook, exercise, shower, sing and dance to has its roots in America’s original sin?
Like some of you, I’ve been watching The 1619 Project, streaming on Hulu. This important and thought-provoking documentary is based on the New York Times Magazine Pulitzer Prize winning series, created by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. The 1619 Project, in all its evolutions (essays in the NYT Magazine, a podcast, book, and now docu-series), centers the legacy of slavery in the telling of American history. Saturday night I viewed the third episode, which examines the history of American music. The music episode is derived from NYT writer and critic Wesley Morris’s essay in the magazine version of the project ( Why Is Everyone Always Stealing Black Music? – The New York Times (nytimes.com) ).
The next night happened to be “music’s biggest night,” The Grammy Awards.
If I began to understand the connection between slavery and Black music on Saturday night, Sunday it was laid out before me in all its glory, joy, beauty, complexity, and history. Wesley Morris’s words kept coming back to me as I watched performances of both artists who are Black and not Black: “There are centuries in that music”. It didn’t take much effort to hear the voices of the enslaved ancestors as they toiled in the fields or recovered after a long day of providing grueling, free labor to those who held them in bondage.
In the documentary version of The 1619 Project, Hannah-Jones sits with Mr. Morris for much of the episode. They take us from the sorrow, faith, and beauty of field songs and spirituals of the enslaved to the repulsion of blackface and minstrels. They discuss Blues, Jazz, Funk, Disco, R&B, and Hip Hop. It’s hard to fathom what American music would be without Black artists and their ancestors. I can not do the documentary justice by attempting to summarize it, but I’ll share just a few things I learned by watching it.
- Minstrelsy gave white people a platform to define Black Americans with absurd racist stereotypes. Not only were Black Americans prevented from representing themselves in public forums, they were intentionally mischaracterized and dehumanized by whites in black face. It was the beginning of what would be generations, including our own, of appropriation by white people, gaining financially by taking from Black people. From the grotesque spectacle of black face to the snubbing of Beyonce in the most prestigious categories of the Grammys, white people in the music business have always taken creative license with the work of Black artists, depriving them of credit for what is theirs, and segregating their music into less important, Black tiers (think “Dance”, R&B, and “Urban”).
- 1871 marked the creation of the Fisk Jubilee Singers in Nashville at Fisk University. They traveled from town to town, performing Negro spirituals a capella, songs that had been sung by enslaved people before the Civil War. Their music blended Negro spirituals with a European sound, becoming what was known as “concert spirituals”. Within a few short years the group began traveling to Europe, ultimately performing in front of various heads of state. Europeans recognized the new, unique sound as America’s first original music genre. The Fisk Jubilee Singers are still going strong today (Our History – Fisk Jubilee Singers). It is this music, according to Hannah-Jones, that “ensured that the songs of the enslaved would be firmly entrenched in the musical fabric of the country”.
- When Motown became all the rage in the age of television, Morris says it “forced white people to have to look at Black people ”. After a lifetime of being exposed to the gross mischaracterization of Black people, most white Americans knew very little about them. They loved Black music and could now see, from the comfort of their living rooms, Black singers and musicians “comporting themselves as human beings”. In essence, he says, Motown artists were “arguing for their humanity”, singing songs about love and heartbreak that were relatable to everyone.
- Honoring those who came before is an important element of Black music. We see it in the covers of beloved songs and in the practice of “sampling”, which incorporates parts of an older song into a new one. The song Motherless Child is a spiritual that dates back to the era of slavery and has been performed by the Fisk Jubilee Singers (first in the 1870s), Richie Havens (Woodstock), Billy Preston, Van Morrison, Prince and many others. American rapper Rapsody is a contemporary artist who is especially mindful of honoring the memory of her ancestors, as well as the lives of other Black women. https://www.npr.org/2019/08/09/749645215/with-eve-rapsody-wields-the-legacies-of-legendary-black-women-from-nina-to-seren
- Perhaps emphasized more than anything else during this discussion is the concept of freedom. While discussing the advent of Funk, Ms. Hannah-Jones states emphatically, “When I hear funk, I hear freedom.” Over and over, through different genres and generations, we see Black artists allowed the freedom through their music that they are not allowed in their daily lives. (Of course, they were only afforded a large stage when white people embraced their music. Whenever Black music wasn’t embraced by white audiences, it was, and still is, considered to be a danger to society).
When you watch The 1619 Project: Music, you will hear that word, “freedom”, throughout the hour-long episode: The relative freedom experienced by the enslaved to create music and to sing in the fields; freedom in the riffs of jazz, funk, and rock and in the words, rhythms, and rhymes of rap; freedom of self-definition, to show the world who they are on their own terms, through their art; freedom to party and to protest using instruments, voice, and movement.
As the show nears its end, Mr. Morris says something that played over and over in my head as I watched the Grammys:
“The sound of Black music is the sound of freedom. Black music is uncatchable.”