Tevin James, Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Music is a huge part of black culture and has been for over four hundred years. It has been a means to keep spirits high in times of slavery, and through the years, music has changed and transitioned with the times. It remains filled with substance, pertaining to current events keeping African roots intact. But with this comes pros and cons: from how music can raise awareness, to how it can be portrayed on a visual level, in the beginning- it was all about the context.
Initially, during the times of slavery, African drums were used as a method of communication. The drums were used to pass along messages in secrecy. Eventually, Europeans caught on to this way of communication and had African drums banned. Within North America, instruments were made from washboards and other utensils to create sound. Some lyrics are known and have been interpreted along the lines of “the big bee flies high, the little bee makes the honey…” This was another method of secrecy but is also a double entendre. It was a means of saying that the slavery issue at hand was replacing the black man (little bee), and the white man is the big bee. (Sullivan, p. 27) These songs were perceived as songs that pertained to the new taught religion, and not a threat or something to be concerned about. Later with the change of laws came blues, which spoke on the hardships coming from Jim Crow laws and more. After World War II, unfair treatment was still widely known and negro spirituals were tweaked lyrically creating a powerful new genre. Jazz was a prominent secular sound of the African American culture for many years. Eventually came Rap, a type of music that correlated with current events on a more upbeat scale.
In the beginning, the music of African American music instilled hope and unity in the black community and operated as a part of our culture that separated us from them. It was a disguise for our escape and keeping our will high. Today, with social media and the power of technology, messages can be dispersed at a rapid pace. It can spark a movement that can last for some time, and a good song is always remembered. It has the potential to be just as powerful as it was in the times of slavery. Along with being dispersed, it isn’t limited to just North America but can be distributed across the world; but in today’s world with the access to music, community, and technology, there is a downfall.
Since music of Black culture is listened to by a major amount of the world, it is important to watch what is said. With today’s music, you find a lot of lyrics praising drugs, fast money, violence, and sex. Being mainstream, it gives a certain perspective on our culture. Being a voice of a community comes with a responsibility. Many artists do not realize or do not care about what is being said, and that they’re representing more than themselves, and with that, the black culture can be perceived as people who indulge in such activity or praise those same things. It can also cause youth to idolize these things. What the masses want to hear may not be something of substance. It also may not portray the best image for the youth, and what music does have substance may not fit the “standard” of the masses.
Ultimately, I can’t think of a true solution because some lyrics may be exactly what some artists have been through. It is their occupation, and that being the case you’re supposed to do your job to the best of your ability. What sells is what the artist makes, and sometimes what matters is overshadowed by what sells. So, we’re left with people gravitating towards a sound and what they want to hear over what should be heard.
Sullivan, M. African-American Music as Rebellion: From Slavesong to Hip-Hop Retrieved from http://www.arts.cornell.edu/knight_institute/publicationsprizes/discoveries/discoveriesspring2001/03sullivan.pdf