The roots of African-American music are buried deep within the music of the African continent. The history and evolution of African-American music is as rich and complex as the history of African Americans themselves. The essence of African-American music lies in its expression of the human experience. Although the different styles vary widely in their tone, topic and the tools used to produce them, African-American music has the ability to cross all color and culture lines. Styles such as the blues, jazz, gospel and hip hop have spread their influence all over the world.
Although music in ancient Africa varied widely by location, it was an important part of African culture. Africans who came to the Americas during the slave trade brought much of their African heritage with them. This included their musical traditions. In many parts of West Africa—from which many slaves were taken—music was very rhythmic and incorporated a heavy use of drums. Most slave owners did not permit slaves on their plantations to use drums. They feared that the slaves would use the drums as a means of communication in order to plan rebellions. As a result, slaves had to adopt European instruments such as the fiddle. Nevertheless, African American slaves used music to help them make it through the horrors of slavery. "Work songs" and "field hollers" were sung by slaves while doing hard labor in the fields. These songs incorporated the "call-and-response" style used widely in Africa, where the lead singer calls out a phrase and the other singers call back a response.
Despite the ultimate termination of slavery, African Americans still remained in poverty and occupied a second-class citizenship during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Out of this suffering arose an African-American music form known as the blues. The "work songs" and "field hollers" sang by slaves on the plantations paved the way for blues music. Like the songs sung by suffering slaves, the blues is known for its brutally honest depiction of everyday life. Popular blues topics include sex, drinking, railroads, poverty, labor and unrequited love. The blues continues in the "call-and-response" pattern. It's form is rhythm-centered, focuses on a beat and includes flattened notes or "blue notes." Although the style generally places more emphasis on words than on instruments, instruments commonly used in blues music include the guitar, banjo, piano and harmonica. Blues singers usually possess powerful voices which they use to express the pains and heartaches of life. Popular blues singers include B.B. King, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey.
The jazz music form developed on the heels of the blues. However, unlike the blues, jazz music was meant to be danced to. Jazz reached the height of its popularity during a period called the "Roaring 20s" when the mood of the day was more upbeat. The quick-tempo music of jazz was composed to reflect this new mood. Although jazz music did include lyrics and also utilized the "call-and-response" style, it placed a heavier emphasis on instruments. Popular jazz instruments included the saxophone, trumpet, piano and the drums. Jazz music developed during a time when African Americans were more concerned with being accepted by mainstream American culture than connecting with their African heritage. As a result, jazz was ultimately more closely linked to European music in style than to African music. Jazz music was born in New Orleans, Louisiana. It resulted from a fusion of the different musical styles that coexisted in the city including folk music, brass bands and ragtime. Popular jazz musicians include Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald.
One of the principles used to justify slavery was that Africans were uncivilized and pagan. In an effort to convert Africans to Christianity and to "save their souls," slave owners made their slaves learn the Bible and attend church services. Nevertheless, African American church services remained segregated from white services. As a result, African American congregations developed a unique style of hymns that would later evolve into gospel music. Gospel music descended from the original "spirituals" sang by slaves on plantations. Songs such as "Go Down Moses," "When the Saints Go Marching In" and "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" included messages of hope, anger and anguish. Like the blues and jazz, gospel music also included the African "call-and-response" format. Gospel music utilizes instruments such as the piano and the organ, and includes the use of choirs. In 2009, the African American church continues to be a significant cornerstone of the African American community and Gospel music has grown to achieve worldwide popularity.
African-American music has continued to evolve, even into the modern day. Many elements of previous plantation songs, the blues, jazz and gospel have found their way into the newer forms of African-American music such as hip hop. Hip hop began in the Bronx during the late 1970s. Like most of its predecessors, it developed out of a need for young African Americans to express themselves and the world around them. Unlike earlier African-American music forms, hip hop places a heavy emphasis on both rhyming lyrics and beats. Like the blues, it is a form of storytelling used to reveal the harsh realities, hopes and dreams of everyday life. It also resembles jazz music in its more upbeat tempo and emphasis on dancing. Instead of traditional live instruments, hip hop artists tend to utilize modern equipment such turntables and beat machines.
Tamara Moffett is a freelance copywriter with a bachelor's degree in English and over seven years of experience. She specializes in writing persuasive sales copy, news stories and feature articles for magazines. Her work has appeared online and in the pages of publications like "Green Business Quarterly," "Black Ink Magazine" and the "Daily Journal of Commerce."