Of all of the places for the idea of “Black Music'' to begin taking hold of me, the last I would have expected was the Berlin subway. There I was in the country almost single handedly responsible for the European classical music tradition, the birthplace of the “three B’s”, and an entirely different capital B was beginning to change the way I thought of the music tradition in which I was raised. It was on a sign at Richard-Wagner Platz, of all places, advertising an upcoming event featuring funk, soul, and disco. As a Black man in a European city, and having never before seen the term printed, I have to admit I was somewhat taken aback, even a bit – dare I say – triggered, when I first saw “Black Music” on that poster. After all, funk, soul and disco are entirely different genres with their own histories, fans, and heroes. Sure, we all know where, and who, they came from. But to use “Black”, a political word by definition in my home country, to describe such a vast swathe of music struck me as out of touch and reductive.
But then I began to consider it differently. Growing up in the Black community, one hears endless talk of our culture being exploited, whitewashed, appropriated, or any other number of expressions to describe the phenomenon of culture that came from hardship being sold to the general public stripped of its authenticity. I can’t say how many times I’ve heard “Elvis was a thief”. While I appreciated the sentiment and the inevitable humor that accompanies such drunk uncle declamations, the underlying idea never sat right with me. Elvis couldn’t have been any more of a thief for being inspired by the Black musicians that preceded him than I was as a Black dude studying the works of Beethoven, right? Or than the white DJ who was about to play Kool & the Gang for middle aged Germans in Charlottenburg the following night?
That’s when the idea of “Black Music” started making sense. It wasn’t about ownership, but acknowledgement. The problem with Elvis wasn’t that he was inspired by Black musicians, it was that the racist system of his time couldn’t possibly allow for the burgeoning influence of Black America to be recognized. In the 1950s, Elvis and Buddy Holly had to be the inventors of Rock & Roll, whether they liked it or not. But times have changed, strides have been made, stories rewritten, and “Black Music” being enjoyed and celebrated so casually in one of the whitest capital cities in Europe had to mean something good.
The advertisement was clearly impactful – but although it somehow inspired hours of reading, thinking, an album, and now a series of essays, I must admit I didn’t actually hit up the party in the end. Still, as my mind continued to open up to the “Black Music” idea, I started thinking the programming of the event didn’t go nearly far enough. After all, if that was the angle, on top of funk, soul, and disco, they could have tugged on heartstrings with some jazz and blues, inspired the crowd with a hint of gospel, some rock, and perhaps a bit of reggae for good measure. Some cumbia, merengue, salsa, and samba might go down well. Then maybe they could pick up the energy a bit with some afrobeat, highlife, soca, and calypso, before tearing the club up with some hip-hop, house, techno, jungle, and… the list goes on. Conversely, perhaps instead of agonizing over which floor is more house or techno – the narcissism of small differences – on any given night, the hippest clubs in Berlin could just be done with it and call their clubs what they are; Black Music venues. The implications of understanding modern music’s Black origins are endless.
It began in Africa… To speak of the second largest and most populous continent in the world in general terms is rightfully a faux pas. With well over 3000 distinct cultural groups and practices within the continent, it can feel even more reductive to speak about a unifying African culture than it does to speak about that of its wide variety of musical descendants. Yet, in spite of the incredible diversity within the continent, there are similarities across the myriad rituals, religions, and ideas which distinguish the mosaic of African culture, and its music is no exception. The rhythmic intricacy, the percussion, the vocal calls and hollers, and the communal style of performance that come to mind when considering the music of Africa do, in fact, define nearly every style of music endemic to the continent, and are suited to unique aspects of African spiritual practice such as its lesser divide between spiritual and secular life, and more participatory, communal form of worship.
The big bang of modern music took place when the slave trade brought African people to the New World. While the tragedy of slavery stripped millions of native Africans from their homeland over 400 years, those who survived the transatlantic journey brought with them their cultural sense and identity, indelibly shaping the mixed-up cultures of the New World into which they were transplanted. Music, the most portable form of culture, was one of the main vehicles by which African identity, spirituality, and ritual could continue to be expressed in unfamiliar and hostile environments. Even filtered through entirely new languages, religions, and surroundings, the millennia old musical practices of Africa were distinct enough to allow enslaved Africans to maintain them, and with them a defiant connection to their homeland. These markedly African adaptations to new environments resulted in genres of music as new as the circumstances which produced them. Yet much like the many distinctive cultures of Africa itself were linked by certain fundamental characteristics, so too were the musical cultures which emerged from its diaspora. That same mosaic quality of African culture was now superimposed on a global scale. Black Music was born.
As far from its primordial African roots as Black Music continues to evolve, there are certain musical techniques which have persisted through each step along the way. This is where our study of the Principles of Black Music begins. With your attention drawn to musical devices that feature prominently throughout every branch of the Black musical tree – such as Call & Response, Blue Notes, Polyrhythms, and Improvisation – a broader understanding of modern music, and in turn the modern world, emerges. You’ll begin to realize the fact that Motown and Techno came from the same people in the same city wasn’t a coincidence, but a variation on a theme. Understanding the numerous genres of music which have been brought forth by Black people as Black music doesn’t preclude anyone from enjoying or creating it. In fact, it’s just the opposite. It’s a way to use the music one already enjoys as a jump off point into a thousands year old tradition whose evolution continues to define the musical landscape as much as it ever has.
Text: Adam Longman Parker
Read Part Two of Principles of Black Music on Call & Response.