How significant was popular media in the progression of African-American Civil Rights from 1830-1969?
Jimi Hendrix stated that 'music doesn't lie - if there is something to be changed in this world then it can only happen through music ’1 and perhaps this attitude towards music is the starting point for my argument on the impact it had on the Civil Rights Movement. Billy Joel called it 'an explosive expression of humanity,'2 whilst Beethoven stated it to have 'higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy'.3 Whatever the belief, music has always been known for its profound ability to affect human beings. Whether that is to cause emotions of happiness or of sorrow, to motivate them, to allow them understanding of one another, music has the power to connect people in ways few other methods of entertainment have been able to achieve. During this essay, I aim to prove how crucial it was that this power was used to progress Civil Rights. Additionally, to give this study depth, I aim to look at music as part of a much larger genre – that is, 'popular media'. Professor of music Philip Tagg claimed that 'black music' is much more common than 'white music’ - arguing that ‘such terms are relative to the hegemony of the culture of their user. They need identification cards, we don’t’.4 Perhaps this viewpoint is one which can explain how significant music has always been in African American culture; a vital part, not simply an addition. Drawing on traditional work songs, black slaves began performing a wide variety of Negro spirituals and other Christian music. 5 Through their skills and talents in this field, African American people were able to hold on to, and pass on, a fairly large and important piece of their cultural identity, and in addition retain an aspect of their humanity. One supporting source states how ‘because slaves were proscribed from reading or writing, American slaves adopted a strong oral tradition-passing down songs, prayers, laments, and stories through music and storytelling.’6 Slaves used music and storytelling as a means of entertainment, sanity and cultural identity. This was highly important in the advancement of civil rights, as it prevented slaves from becoming entirely the property of their masters, and fought against the movements towards domination and oppression, as well as providing them with hope for a better future. However, this is in contrast to the opinion from historian Paul Levengood who claims 'slaves were by their owners' design', thus suggesting that slaves had their entire identity removed, not just parts of it. What is believed by some, that music helped slaves retain their cultural identity and so provided a platform from which to unite in protest for civil rights, has been significantly challenged. Historian Junius P Rodriguez supports this opinion as he states that 'whether a slave was a Muslim or had practised an indigenous African animist faith, planters in the Americas believed that they had to be stripped of that cultural identity.'7 This source once again suggests that slaves had their identity completely stripped and goes on to explain that 'another task performed on the breaking plantation was to discourage the slave from retaining African cultural values. Slaves had to be indoctrinated into the culture of slavery, and in doing so they had to lose all aspects of their African identity.'8 Most certainly, all aspects of their identity would include their most favoured traditions such as music and song, and Rodriguez explains that 'African languages and other traditions were also stripped'.9 The idea of a 'culture of slavery' suggests instead a reinvention of the slave altogether, and indeed a move to make them 'of their owners' design'. Therefore, it is difficult to judge whether slave songs and 'traditions' were in reality quite so 'traditional' as it is likely they were significantly altered from their archetypal origin in order to accommodate changing circumstances,...
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