All About Music: the African American Language

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(ALL ABOUT MUSIC: The African American Language)

Thesis: Music was a means, a leverage, a shrewd resort; it was for the real Negro who was, beneath the melody, thinking, and planning and advancing. “Communication in song was certainly safer than direct talk” and “slaves could further disguise their message by singing about freedom” (Russell Ames). To understand, what was called spirituals, a person must understand the language of slaves who song them. The language established by enslaves African Americans was a colorful blend of African syntactical features and words, carefully created “code” words. This cod made communication between slave groups easier and served to effectively conceal African American goals and dreams. Naturally, their secret meanings found their way the spirituals and work songs of the slaves. Spirituals, then, besides their very obvious religions mandate, “communicate ethnic identity” within the community.

History of African American Music

The phrase ‘African American music’ is commonly used to refer to music, which has developed within the African American communities of the United States from the 1600s. African slaves brought to America from the 1600s were representative of a wide range of ethnic groups, and their music, dance, and cultural lives were similarly diverse. It is difficult to trace the myriad of cultural inputs that went into the creation of music from the grassroots in the first decades of the twentieth century. The evolution of the blues as a fundamentally African American musical genre can be traced back to the shouts, field hollers, and work songs of slavery. Certain pre-blues shouts and hollers were described in John W. Work’s American Negro Songs. African slaves brought with them to America musical traditions different from their European masters. Yet, the blending of African and European cultures in America produced a distinctive set of musical forms and traditions. It is hard to imagine what American music would be like without the contributions of African Americans. From slave spirituals to the moving and powerful writing of former slaves, from the poignant sadness of the blues to the energetic rhythms of hip-hop, blacks made important contributions to the literary and musical culture of the United States. As slaves, African Americans found ways to express their sense of joy and sorrow, their identity and their longings.

“Race” Music: The Popular Sounds of Black America (Rhythm & Blues)

One of the most unexpected developments of the post-World War I period was the discovery by recording companies of a significant and untapped African American market for classic blues recordings by black artists. The fact that this market was unrecognized says a great deal about U.S. race relations at the time. The idea of making recordings by and for blacks hadn’t occurred to anyone in a position to do anything about it. The reason? Music is powerful. As marketing categories, designations like race and hillbilly intentionally separated artists along racial lines and conveyed the impression that their music came from mutually exclusive resources. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Across the social divide of segregation, these artists were aware of and influenced by each other’s work. Music can also make you think. The term “race” was applied to forms of black music—primarily blues—that whites and the blacks elite disdained. In 1949, not satisfied with Billboard magazine’s label of “race records” for its black music chart, Jerry Wexler, a white reporter at the magazine and later a legendary record producer, introduces the designation “rhythm and blues.” In the glow of postwar affluence, the African American working class imposed its tastes on black popular music and the results were electrifying (and electrified). For decades, African American artist engage a growing political awareness that shaped the emerging Civil Rights movement....
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