The AFLANG Project | The Influence of Blacks on Contemporary Music
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The Influence of Blacks on Contemporary Music

The Influence of Blacks on Contemporary Music

The influence of black culture on mainstream music is not exaggerated. Popular musical genres such as jazz, rock & roll, hip-hop, rhythm & blues, gospel, calypso and samba owe their existence to the contributions of the African slaves in the New World. The cultural diversity of continental Africa reflected on her musical dexterity: from the drummings of the Congo, to the griots of West Africa, the slaves in the New World were able to draw upon their African cultural background and experiences and use them as a basis for life and survival. The survival of the African culture and intercourse with Western culture birthed a new cultural order, popularly known as the African-American culture. Other than music, contemporary, dance, movies, religion, arts and literature have been immensely influenced by the African-American cultural experience.

The slaves, though physically in captivity, allowed their minds to travel freely, and were keenly nostalgic about their homeland and held firmly to the belief of returning home again, someday. The pain from the physical torture and nostalgia were expressed in many forms such as music, dance, folktales, and native religious rituals and so on. With major emphasis on music, our focus is on jazz, rhythm & blues and hip hop music genres and their link with black culture.

To get a firm grasp on the essence of music to the slaves, let’s take a look at the purposes music served to the slaves.

Music was used as palliatives to and distractions from the pain and stress they were forced to endure. Sung on the farms, and railway constructing sites, ‘work songs’ or ‘spiritual songs’ were used to encourage and convey coded information and escape routes to escaping slaves. Popular among which were “Swing Low, Swing Chariot” and “Wade in the Water”.

Another purpose music served to the slave was to comfort them and remind them of home. This was usually popular with the slaves at the Caribbean where traditional music and dance elements were incorporated into their melody. This would eventually birth calypso, samba and salsa musical genres.

Upon conversion into Christianity, songs served as an expression of their Christian faith, and as a means of supplication. This was popularized as Negro Spirituals which greatly influenced Traditional Hymnary, Country, Gospel and Blues music. “Sometimes I feel like a Motherless Child”, “Down by the Riverside” and “Take my Hand, Precious Lord”.

The music also served as moral boosters to increase the work rate of the slaves on farms. This was encouraged by slave supervisors to enable them easily pick the location of the slaves.

As illustrated above, there was a whole lot of energy, soul and ingenuity poured into the music which over the course of time would develop into various genres and creep into mainstream American culture. Due to the lack of adequate means of musical production to access global markets, white artists and businessmen capitalized on black music, and appropriated the style for their own advancements.



New Orleans, Louisiana is regarded as the birthplace of jazz music. Only slaves in New Orleans were permitted to own drums, with a good percentage of them originating from West Africa. These slaves were enthusiastic about keeping alive the tradition of music they came with, and following the abolition of slave trade and the American Civil War, found work in the entertainment industry as musicians. This gave birth to what was known as “ragtime music” that would later metamorphose into present Jazz music. This style of music is highly improvisational and expressive, and revolved around the symphony of instruments as the saxophone, trumpet, piano, trombone, bass, drums, guitar and a good vocalist. Among the surviving African traits include the vocal styles, improvisation, call-and-response patterns, and rhythmic complexity.

The 1920s, regarded as the Jazz Age featured prominent black jazz icons such as Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong amongst several others who took Jazz music to the mainstream. Paul Whiteman, a white jazz artist was able to sell jazz music to a highly segregated white American audience, effectively giving the music global prominence.  Jazz was able to evolve independently and spawned a wide range of subgenres including Bepop, Quiet Storm, Smooth Jazz, Jazz Rock, Jazzmattazz and several others and is commonly played in speakeasies, clubs and churches. Blacks have continued to dominate the jazz industry, making it one of the world’s most popular musical genres.

Hip Hop

Born in the 1970s, Hip Hop is a predominantly black musical movement and culture that grew in the South Bronx district of New York, a black belt and one of the poorest in the state. This culture was founded on four fundamental elements of emceeing (rapping), disc jockeying, breakdancing and graffiti. Hip Hop morphed from house parties in projects and outdoor street parties to a cultural movement through which blacks were able to creatively express and address the social injustices they encountered. Hip hop sprang up as a synthesis of funk and soul music, anchored by a Disc Jockey (DJ) alongside a hypeman (or MC) who would talk over the music to cheer up their dances and introduce themselves and their guests, and later lyrics were added to the mix, leading to the birth of rapping.  Like jazz, hip hop is highly improvisational and can be fused with any genre of music. DJ Kool Herc is popularly referred to as the founder of the hip hop movement, while Keef Cowboy is credited with the invention of the name.

The invention of hip hop lead to a speedy decline in the rate of violence in black settlement areas as people found a platform to constructively exact their energy through dancing. Gangsta Rap, a more violent form of hip hop containing controversial and lewd shot to cultural mainstream in the 90s, with the rise of acts like N.W.A, Tupac Shakur, The Notorious Big and Public Enemy, and is generally referred to as the golden age of hip hop. Hip hop owes its evolution to the likes of Afrika Bambaata, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Sugarhill Gang, Dr. Dre, Run DMC and other pioneers. Hip hop today has a global following are is more multiracial in appeal and audience.


Rhythm and Blues

The Rhythm and Blues (R&B) musical genre developed after World War II in an effort to replace the “race records” category of music spawning from a combination of jazz, gospel and blues components. R&B is produced and supported primarily by black Americans, and a black alternative to the white-centric Rock & Roll. Major influences on R&B include Country music, Gospel, Jazz, Rock music as well as Nigerian juju and Algerian rai musical forms. The invention of the electric guitar in the 1930s and the discovery of the German-invented tape recorder at the end of the war gave impetus to the rise and spread of R&B as it simplified recording process, enabling enterprising blacks to start independent record companies. More so, the rise in television broadcasting motivated the cheap sale of radio stations, leading to black-owned radio stations which aired the sounds of R&B to a black audience. In the 1950s, a more frantic and rhythmic style of R&B emerged. This innovative, exciting and high-spirited groove attracted both black and white teenagers leading to emergence of black rock & roll, with classics such as Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti”, Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and others being covered by white artists like Elvis Presley and Bill Haley appropriating this musical standard set by the blacks.

R&B evolved in the 1960s, with more lyrical emphasis on gospel and inspiration, epitomized by artists like Curtis Mayfield and his group the Impressions, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Steve Wonder, James Brown and Ray Charles pushing R&B to global cultural mainstream. The overall tone of R&B transformed in the 1970s with the cultural and social emphasis on African identity and black militancy, more African elements with its rhythmic complexity was brought into the mix, giving birth to funk music epitomized by James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” and the rise of George Clinton with his groups Parliament and Funkadelic. During this period, R&B evolved from a music genre to a subculture, expressed in unique fashion styles (heavy afro hairs with sideburns and leather suits), language, dance styles and overall demeanour. R&B continued to evolve, incorporating rap and scratching elements represented by modern artists TLC, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, R. Kelly, Beyoncé, Lauryn Hill, Luther Vandross and a league of others.

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