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African Diasporic Music: Designed to Conquer the World

Singer/songwriter Rosetta Tharpe owning the building. Tharpe is one of few women artists remembered for fronting a band in the 1930s and 1940s. Source: Michael Ochs Archives

Some of the biggest syrupy theories on the origin of rock & roll and jazz tie it inevitably to slavery, as if that is what you get when humble African melodies and rhythm crawl through the horrors of U.S. bondage and back out the other side. And when it staggered to its feet, it allegedly pounded with the kind of passion, pain and fire that could engulf the world.


There was nothing humble about the music’s African origins, however, says Jackson State University Associate Professor Dr. Lisa Beckley-Roberts. The things that give it magic evolved independent of America’s centuries-long love affair with slavery.


“What creates a groove is the space between the sounds, the anticipation of the beat dropping or the baseline or the hook,” says Beckley-Roberts. “It’s not something that can be written. It’s the expectation of what’s to come. I think that element that we find in all African (diasporic) music is what makes it so powerful.”


“We talk about ‘backbeat’ in music with the accent on beats ‘Two’ and ‘Four’ in the measures."

The professor smiles and holds up her hands. "African music emphasizes: One … Two/*CLAP* … Three … Four/*CLAP*,” she says with two timely smacks. “European folk music emphasizes: One/*CLAP* … Two … Three/*CLAP* … Four. That’s the only difference between blues and country & western, because they’re sister traditions, really. That backbeat right there is part of what makes the music so powerful.”


I heard the adage: “white folk always come in on the first and third,” but it’s hilarious to see it presented with such mathematical flourish.



The Sound that Seizes

African diasporic music is also unique in that it doesn’t just entertain the listener. It seeks to possess them in much the same manner as “spiritual possession” rituals in places like Haiti—a nation that maintains robust roots to African religious practices.


Jackson State University Associate Professor Lisa Beckley-Roberts, who specializes in Ethnomusicology, African Music/Dance and Africana religious practices, says the sound that makes Black music so contagious goes back much further than slavery.

“All of this is part of the same African aesthetic and spirituality,” says Beckley-Roberts. “Africans go to a place of worship to embody and become God—that’s the whole idea of possession—whereas Europeans go to places of worship just to feel the spirit. I think there’s a big difference.”

And because African diasporic music has always been about embodying power rather than hearing it, African people have spent years honing the sound to draw you in. Humans have been walking the African continent for more than 300,000 years, so they’ve likely been refining the style since the time of dire wolves, American mastodons and saber-tooth cats. They’ve certainly been hammering on it long before the first person kidnapped into slavery started a "call and response" exchange on a hot Mississippi plantation.


Beckley-Roberts says the style arises from the desire to make music a communal event, to embody the spirit and to come together and interact. Even when people aren’t directly involved in the act of dancing and drumming in this music, they’re lending energy to the effort through their voice or by hand clapping or foot stomping. And to this day it’s extremely hard not to move when the music hits. A strong, powerful gospel singer can make the most jaded atheist want a piece of whatever it is that’s inspiring that sound.


“African rooted music has a groove, a repetitive rhythm, which is hypnotic, so it appeals to both your body and your mind. There’s a meditative element to it,” said saxophonist and composer Steve Wilson, who in addition to his impressive sound portfolio also serves as co-director for the Jazz program at the Ravinia Steans Music Institute. “The pentatonic scale, which you hear in some form in virtually all forms of pop music, particularly the blues, is the sound of humanity. That’s the sound of moaning. That’s the sound of joy. That’s the sound of the human condition.”


It’s no surprise then that “modern” 1930s-era jazz caught fire wherever it touched down in Europe. It connected on such a fundamental level with humanity that it even spooked Nazis. Hitler’s regime took one look at all the “Negroid excesses in tempo” devouring German nightclubs, smelled the inevitability of it, and banned it outright.


“Jazz and rock & roll always represented freedom of expression,” said Wilson. “Despite all the world wars and the segregation of the 20th century the sound was still the best example of the freedom of expression and the best example of true democracy in Europe at that point.”

A Nazi-style portrayal of “Degenerate Music.” Absolutely racist--but they still couldn't make it look any less awesome.

Later, after African Americans embarrassed Hitler at the Olympics and on WWII battlefields, it became clear “Negermusik” was going to continue to grow and evolve and would pull the whole world right along behind it. Rock & roll pioneers like Sister Rosetta Tharpe yanked gospel out of Southern Black churches while doing things with a guitar that no guitar had ever felt before. The diasporic sound, honed and hybridized in modest cotton-field temples and plantation houses, was doing what it was designed to do: possess.

Other rock gods including Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley and countless more continued to blend elements of jazz, blues, and gospel with electricity (and probably some dynamite) and set roadhouses and studios across the nation on fire. Ever-present U.S. segregation encouraged record execs to sign and promote knock-off counterparts to Black artists. This, in turn, paved the way for white wannabes like Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Elvis and others to appropriate what they could and plaster a white face on the genre. Execs worked to sanitize the new animal that rhythm & blues had become and make it “safe” for white audiences.


For an army of talented but obscure Black artists, this often meant drawing scant revenue while serving as the unpaid inspiration to wealthy white musicians. One common refrain for the time was: “We’ll just keep on doing what we do, and they’ll keep on doing what we do.”

Wilson said record studios that did support Black artists were hard to find, and often economically vulnerable.


“STAX Records developed by recording young Black musicians, which was an anomaly in segregation-era Memphis, TN,” says Wilson. “Black and white musicians created an integrated house, and they defied the odds. But what happened with STAX is that Jerry Wexler, from Atlantic Records, bought STAX. But the STAX owner made a terrible deal that inadvertently sold Atlantic their entire library and lost all their masters. All those artists lost the rights to their own work. And many of them and their families are still fighting for those rights.”


Post-War Conquest

Europe’s love of Black American music went nowhere during all this. Berry, Richard, Diddley and others found European audiences less racist and more welcoming. Still, while international audiences were tolerant, Holly, Cochran, Elvis and the rest of the “I-can-play-too brigade,” could more easily hop planes to Europe and Asia with generous record labels footing the bill.


Many of these artists, both Black and white, lingered in Europe and taught new generations of eager youth some of rock & roll’s most memorable, iconic chords. Their mentoring helped make the world music scene what it is today, from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to Talk Talk, David Bowie and all the artists they  directly or indirectly inspired. In fact, it’s hard to find any pop music coming out of Europe today that doesn't have a steamy, southern Mississippi church prancing around and singing somewhere deep in its guts. Black America already knows this, of course, but white America still sometimes fights with it. It’s one of the reasons British singer/songwriter David Bowie had to hand a hapless MTV reporter his own ass when the interviewer defended MTV execs’ early policy of boycotting videos by Black music artists. In that 1983 interview, Bowie noted how the few Black artists MTV did play usually ran between 2:30 a.m. to “around 6.”


“Why is that?” he asked VJ/host Mark Goodman.


Goodman responded that MTV was “doing what we think not only New York and Los Angeles will appreciate but also Poughkeepsie or the Midwest … which would be scared to death by Prince.”


Goodman—who is not an MTV spokesman—further argued New Yorkers might approve of the Isley Brothers and the Spinners, but implied Black artists mean substantially less to a young middle American audience member: “What do they mean to a 17-year-old?” Goodman challenged.


“Well, I’ll tell you what maybe the Isley Brothers and Marvin Gaye mean to a Black 17-year-old,” said Bowie, “and surely, he’s part of America as well? … Should it not be a challenge to make the media far more integrated, especially—if anything—in musical terms?”


Goodman suggested things were already changing, possibly due to rampant cultural appropriation: “I think it’s (already) happening," he said, "because white music and white musicians are now starting to play, more than ever, … what Black artists have been into. And now, hopefully, lines are going to start to blur.”


You know, like Elvis! ... Pictured below is Bowie knowing he’s gotten nowhere with his host and quietly accepting the futility of talking to white Americans about their racism. Bless his heart.

Yes, Bowie later married international supermodel Iman, who is Black. But as a U.K. performative musician influenced by the likes of the Velvet Underground and the Beatles’ John Lennon, Bowie knew the roots of his art ultimately sprang from the force-of-nature fingers of icons like Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. And it’s not just Bowie. British Music Hall of Famers Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones and countless others acknowledge how much they owe their sound and careers to Muddy Waters, Bobby Womack, Willie Dickson and a whole underserved American population that white America is still more than happy to exclude from being “American.”


The Chemistry of Boom

There’s no denying the scary potency of African diasporic sound in the aftermath of MTV’s historic “Come to Jesus” moment with Bowie. Within a mere handful of decades, the desperate human connection of “call and response,” which made slavery only slightly more tolerable, has blossomed into hip hop, trip hop, house music, New Jack swing, bluegrass, folk rock, K-pop, and enough genre names to fill the operating system repair manuals at Microsoft. And still the music balloons and mutates at a viral pace every five years.


The Borg-like embrace of slavery’s most prolific coping mechanism feels ironic, like a worldwide rebuke of our nation’s worst evil. But that simile ignores thousands of years of African aesthetic and spirituality that preceded the Year 1619.


Beckley-Roberts and others say the triumph of African diasporic music, which is the point of Black Music Month, doesn’t exist as an antithesis to any national sin. The music was never about throwing up a middle finger to every black-faced minstrel who belted a contemptible tune of made up gibberish. Neither is it about prancing about and proclaiming what race really runs the world (as evidenced by regularly setting the pace of its music and art), or catcalling all the Amy Winehouses, Adeles, Jaggers, Elvises (Elvii?), Beatles, Lynyrd Skynyrds and every other artist who got rich off somebody else’s sound.


It’s not about any of these things because two piddly centuries of captivity can’t possibly define 300,000 years of African vigor and existence. What really defines the African diasporic sound is the principle of music as a communal event—as well as everybody’s compulsion to chime in, stomp, or contribute when they hear it. To Beckley-Roberts, it’s not merely about the music, it’s about the joyful crowd beating the floor to pieces behind it. And there will always be a crowd.


“When I first started learning African music, there was this idea that there’s always got to be a screaming mob. That inclusion is essential to the music making process,” says Beckley-Roberts. “That’s the genius of the way the music works.”


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