I think that the question suggests the enormity of the range and scope of the African-American experience in the New World over the last several hundred years and of his African ancestors before that. In order to address the question we must examine the nature of a couple of things. One of those is certainly what it is we mean when we say “Black” in the context of music and in the context of America and in the context of American music. I find it curiously intriguing that the question does not use the term “Black Music.” I suspect this is quite deliberate, as it invites us to ask, as Stuart Hall (1992) cagily queries: “What is this “Black” in Black Popular Culture?” Our mission here is similar, to wit: what is this “Black” in American music? (pun unintended but acceptable).
The question hints at whether we can distinguish the validity of something called “Black music,” and if so, how are we to identify it? It also gets at whether “Black Music,” if it exists, is the same or something different than “American music.” Does it exist as a sub-genre of American music but is something separate and equal? (or unequal?). Or, is to speak of Blackness as “an aesthetic marker” in American music to “mark” American music as Africanized? It seems we must consider the African-Americanization of African music on the one hand, and the Africanization of American music on the other. These issues are as intriguing to consider as they are complex. To ponder them is to appreciate the elusive nature of an extended late-era John Coltrane solo, potentially inexhaustible in its polytonality (reference points) and motifs (themes). Coltrane never got to the end of a solo, at least not in the studio, but at some point, he simply had to quit playing after he reached the end of the recording time. Given the scope of our concerns, time and space do not seem enough to fully address everything that we might want to consider, but I will address these issues as thoroughly as I can without continuing to the end of recorded time.
Let me return for a moment to Hall (Hall, Stuart 1992 “What is this “Black” in Black Popular Culture” in Black Popular Culture. Gina Dent, ed.), who suggests that “the people of the black diaspora have…found the deep form, the deep structure of their cultural life in music.” Further, that “there are deep questions here of cultural transmission and inheritance, and of the complex relations between African origins and the irreversible scatterings of the Diaspora (Hall 27).” This suggests a number of things. Hall correctly points to Africa in order to begin to identify Black cultural products in America. There are issues of cultural inheritance and transmission that have been well documented in the scholarly literature, as well as the complexity and diversity of the geographical locations and cultural manifestations this inheritance has produced in “the irreversible scattering of the Diaspora,” or what Paul Gilroy refers to as “the Black Atlantic.” In examining the scope and nature of Black music, we must consider certain processes, including selective appropriation, incorporation, and rearticulation of European ideologies, cultures, and institutions, alongside an African heritage [which led to] linguistic innovations in rhetorical stylization of the body, forms of occupying an alien social space, heightened expressions, hairstyles, ways of walking, standing, and talking, and a means of constituting and sustaining camaraderie and community (Hall 28).
What we must consider here is that when we speak of “Black” in the context of anything American, we speak of a syncretized process, perhaps more appropriately understood when we use the term “African-American.” This term points to the concern with origins and cultural inheritances that have been mapped out in cultural terms, and which suggests things that we might look at in determining, to return to my earlier question, “What is this Black in American music.” We must consider too, why Hall chooses to emphasize music as most representing “the deep form, the deep structure of their cultural life” when he speaks of the Black Diaspora. Hall’s query collapses two independent queries into one: what do we mean by “Black?” And why is Black culture most represented by expression in music? Do these two inquiries point in the direction of something we can come to know as “Black Music?” I suggest that this is the case, but others have also suggested it.
H. E. Krehbiel (Afro-American Folkssongs. 1914, Erich M. von Hornbostel, (“American Negro Songs,” Int. Rev. Missions. 1926) and Melville J. Herskovits (The Myth of the Negro Past, 1941) represent three early and important points of reference establishing both the prominence of music and the importance of an African heritage in African-American culture. There are many other examples (I think Richard Waterman’s articles “Hot Rhythm in Negro Music,” Journal of the American Musicological Society, 1948, and “On Flogging a Dead Horse: Lessons Learned from the Africanisms Controversy,” Ethnomusicology 1963, are especially critical) but we’ll look at only a few; certainly these three bear examination because of their historical precedent. Herskovits dispels the notion that the American Negro is a man without a past, writing that
it is seen that the African past is no more to be thought of as having been thrown away by those of African descent than it is to assume that the traits that distinguish Italians or German or Old Americans or Jew or Irish or Mexicans or Swedes from the entire population of which they form a part can be understood in their present forms without a reference to a preceding cultural heritage (Herskovits 299).
Herskovits argues eloquently for evidence of African retentions in African-American culture and provides a summation (important for our purposes here) of the earlier contributions of Krehbiel and Hornbostel. Herskovits also articulates a critical observation with respect to Black American culture, writing that: “Its has long been held that the principal contribution of the Negro to the culture of the Americas, and most particularly to the culture of the United States, lies in the expression of his musical gift (Herskovits, 261).” More will be said of this observation later, and many others will make it, the point being that despite other cultural attributes that the African may have brought with him to the United States, music was considered the most important, and the most important for American culture. First however, the music of the Negro slave had to be recognized as comprising something distinctly and substantially African rather than something European.
As Herskovits summarizes, Krehbiel most clearly and vigorously expressed the opinion that “Africa was to be looked to for an explanation of [Negro music’s] essential characteristics (Herskovits 262)” in what had become a controversial debate regarding the derivation – African or European – of Negro religious songs. Krehbiel’s writing — which looked for instance, at the use of scales and of the “rebellious” approach to fourths and sevenths in the diatonic major scale and to the fourth, sixth and seventh of the minor scale — only suggested serious differences in the way Africans approached the performance of European music and hinted at an African explanation. Hornbostel later brought a new critical perspective to the conversation by observing the use of “leading lines sung by a single voice, alternating with a refrain sung by a chorus (Herskovits 263),” suggesting to him that “in the United States the Negroes have evolved a real folk music which, while neither European nor African, is an expression of the African musical genius for adaptation that has come out under contact with foreign musical values (Herskovits 263).” Hornbostel, writes Paul Oliver, (Paul Oliver, Max Harrison and William Bolcom. The New Grove Gospel, Blues and Jazz, 1986) was the first scholar to hear Black music both in African and America, and his 1926 finding “made an important distinction between transcriptions of spirituals and their performance by American Blacks (Oliver: 6).”
This recognition of the call-response pattern, an critical aspect of African music making, was enough, according to convince Hornbostel that something new occurred as a result of African and European syncretization, and that these things could perhaps be observed and codified, that they were tangible and salient in Negro culture. Christopher Small (Christopher Small. Music of the Common Tongue. 1987) fleshes out the picture for us, writing that by the time slaves were converted to Christianity in the mid-1750’s, “at least some of the slaves were singing psalms, and it is strongly to be inferred that they were singing them in their own way (Small: 82).” Small documents in detail “the musicking of black people, as well as of the alarm felt by some white clergy at discovering that their way of singing was finding its way into white religious practices also (Small: 89),” so that by the time Hornbostel wrote his findings in 1929, African-musical practice in a European idiom was well established, including “their heightened rhythmic sense and their penchant for call and response (Small, 90).”
Gena Dagel Caponi (“The Case for an African American Aesthetic,” in Signifying, Sanctifying’ and Slam Dunking. A Reader in African-American Expressive Culture, Gena Caponi, ed. 1999) suggests that, even though Herskovits did not conduct his own extensive study of African music (nor did Krehbiel), he nonetheless helped bring about broader discussion of continuities between African and African-American music, including three hallmarks of African music: the call-and-response pattern, the integration of song and dance and the prominence of the rhythmic element (Caponi 1999: 18).
Waterman’s 1962 article “On Flogging a Dead Horse,” was critical in summing up what had come before him, and in observing, from a musician’s perspective, several critical aspects African musical practice together and providing detailed musicological analysis to suggest how they comprise aspects of African-American music making, and offering his now infamous commentary that, obviously, (and I paraphrase) Negro slaves were not blind, paralytic deft mutes. Clearly, he intended here to make the point that Herskovits made, that African immigrants carried traits of their culture with them as surely as did immigrants from other lands, so that it should not be surprising to find retentions of African musical aesthetics in African-American musical practice – what began to be referred to as “Africanisms.” Among the musical traits he identifies are call-and-response, a sense of operating in complex musical time that he refers to as “Metronome sense, dense musical textures and a heightened use of rhythm and syncopation.
Leroy Jones (Blues People, 1963) offers one of the first critical assessments of Black music making by an African-American , linking it to African musical practice but also providing a more expansive look at its development in the context of American culture and a reason why it has persisted. Jones, in fact uses music as a metaphor for those forces that produced the American Negro, arguing that “the development and transmutation of African music to American Negro music (a new music) represents to me this whole process in microcosm (Jones 8).” As he writes:
Only religion (and magic) and the arts were not completely submerged by Euro-American concepts [after slavery]. Music, dance, religion, do not have artifacts as their end products, so they were saved. These nonmaterial aspects of the African’s culture were almost impossible to eradicate (Jones 16).”
Jones notes the emphasis on polyphonic or contrapuntal rhythmic effects as well as antiphonal singing techniques, the use of word games like “the Dozens” and folk tales, but he also suggests something more, that “the survival of the system of African music is much more significant than the existence of a few isolated and finally superfluous features. The notable fact is that the only so-called popular music in this country of any real value is of African derivation (Jones 28).” This last statement I find rather remarkable, for is suggests rather early on what had not been as yet fully acknowledged by music scholars, which is to say, the enormous role that African-American music-making had already had on the development of American popular music, most notably in the development and influence of ragtime, the blues and jazz not only on American music but American culture. Caponi (1999), acknowledges a singular contribution of Jones’ viewing all Black music as culturally linked, and in insisting that “any form of African American music had to be studied in relation to all others and within a larger social context” (Caponi 19).
Jones articulates various points at which African-American expressive culture either emerges or is transformed through a variety of historical and social forces. At various points in his narrative he identifies points of dynamic stress, or rupture i.e., the Middle Passage, adaptation to bondage and to freedom, the massive migration from the South, adaptation to the urban city, social divisions based on class, privilege and education, the politics of nationalism versus assimilation, and discusses how these shaped the development of musical styles, particularly of the blues but also of the various genres which followed it; this development represents a continuum of an African aesthetic of music making which enabled blacks in the United States to make the spiritual transition from capture and slavery to freedom and aspiration in America with an intact historical and cultural referent which continued to define a sustaining and essentially African identity separate from that of the European.
Blues songs, particularly of the rural south, are rich depositories of double-meaning and messages intended only for a certain listener. Often, rural blues songs that may seem on the surface to be about sadness and defeat may actually convey quite opposite themes, so that these songs took on socio-political as well as cultural significance. Ames (Ames, Russell 1973  “Protest and Irony in Negro Folksong” in Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpretation of Afro-American Folklore) argues that “defiance, endurance, action, and heroism, however, prevail in theme and mood despite the seeming passivity of the much song blues songs (Ames, 492).”
Instrumental blues such as that developed by New Orleans musicians, most prominently players like Louis Armstrong, Buddy Bolden and Joe King Oliver, used traits that had come to be long associated now with Black music, and which developed into what would become the distinctly Black form called jazz (the innovation of ragtime by Scott Joplin, which brought African sensibilities to European march music, would develop along somewhat different lines). The use of slurs, shaded tonal coloration, spontaneous improvisation and call/response, marked the music as distinctly black, but it would not be until the 1940s with the development of bebop and the 1960s, with the development of the Black Arts Movement and the development of so-called “Free Jazz” that the music would come to be associated with the Black push for social change rather than merely as entertainment. The music of the 1960s especially became aligned with Black Nationalism, and it attempted to reject virtually every aspect of European musical aesthetics in favor a more radical approach – squawks, squeals, dispensing with chords and changes, polytonality, chaotic meters and clashing sonorities — in order to further Africanize an African-American music. Writes Budds (Michael J. Budds, Jazz in the Sixties. 1990).
The awareness of non-Western musical cultures by American jazz musicians was not a purely musical development. Extra-musical, sociological factors were of extreme importance to the jazz musicians’s investigation of exotic instruments and practices. Because of the new-found solidarity among blacks in America during the sixties and the newly defined alienation from White America resulting from it, American blacks begin to look to the Third World…with new interest. African was, of course, the primary interest (Budds: 16).
Also in the 1960s, Black protest songs became more openly critical and less hidden in terms of their meaning. As criticism became less obvious, one could argue that the need for subterfuge and for irony, (hallmarks of Black song from plantation songs to rap music) became less critical. One protest spirituals might contains the following phrases:
Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ‘round,
turn me ‘round, turn me ‘round
Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ‘round,
gonna keep on walking, keep on walking
walking up to Freedom’s Land.
Later on, however, the lyrics would be changed to reflect a particular situation and address a specific oppressor, and with the following lyric:
Ain’t gonna let Jim Crow, turn me ‘round, turn me ‘round, etc.
Soul music and funk of the 1950s and 1960s, begins to expose more overt and varied expressions of emotions, thoughts and attitudes of black Americans. And while it musically transformed the landscape of American pop, the oral ingenuity of its performers would not be eclipsed by the music. Many of the songs of James Brown during this period can be considered protest songs, but of a new, more assertive variety as well, including “Say It Loud I’m Black and I’m Proud” and “I Don’t Want Nobody To Give Me Nothing [Open Up the Door, I’ll Get It Myself”], both militant, non-apologetic paeans to racial pride and black nationalism at a time when the some segments of society strongly resisted Afro-American efforts to overturn discriminatory Jim Crow laws in the Deep South. But Brown’s music in particular, and Southern music in general as exemplified in the recordings by Stax Studios and some of the Stax/Atlantic collaborations, were also marked as especially black because they featured less refined elements – a roughness, rawness and gospel intensity — associated with vernacular Black music styles of the South, as opposed to Black music that had been refined for popular appeal, e.g., Motown and doowop. Stax studios, in fact, which was fairly antithetical to the more conservative Motown, became directly affiliated with Black nationalist politics when it sponsored an event in Los Angeles known as WattStax with the Rev. Jessie Jackson.
Portia K. Maultsby (“Africanisms in African-American Music” in Africanisms in American Culture, 1990) underscores the importance of salient features in Black music as well as other cultural expressions, writing that “the continuum of an African consciousness in America manifests itself in the evolution of an African-American culture. The music, dance, folklore, religion, language, and other expressive forms associated with the culture of slaves were transmitted orally to subsequent generations of American blacks (Maultsby 185).”
Maultsby, like Jones, also critically observes (and here she draws from other scholars including Olly Wilson and J. H. Kwabena Nketia) that to discuss the retention of musical traits in American Blacks is not merely to discuss these in quantitative terms but in qualitative terms, that “Africanisms in African-American music extend beyond trait lists” and must be viewed in terms of creative processes and conceptual approaches to music-making. Here in fact, she is critical of the approaches of Waterman and Krehbiel and others for emphasizing the quantitative ways in which Black musical retentions can be observed and not the qualitative ones.
Among the concepts she stresses are a communal approach to music-making, style of delivery, manipulation of timbre, texture and tonal coloration, call-response structure and rhythmic complexity or rhythm “organized in multi-linear forms (Maultsby 193).” Further, An African approach to music-making ahs been translated from one genre to the next throughout African-American musical history…each genre is distinctly African-American because it is governed by the conceptual framework” which links performer and audience in terms of a unique delivery style (body movements, facial expressions, dress that accompanies the performative context), quality of sound (raspy timbres, heightened pitch and dynamic variation, use of “hollers” “moans” “hooting”) and a mechanics of delivery.
We can begin then, to identity not only specific musical characteristics of Black African music but an approach to the practice of music-making that can be definitively traced to the music of Black Americans. As Cornel West (“On Afro-American Popular Music: Fro Bebop to Rap” in Sacred Music of the Secular City. Jon Michael Spencer, ed. 6:1 Spring 1992), suggests, “Afro-American popular music constitutes a crucial dimension of the background practices – the ways of life and struggle – of Afro-American culture. By taking seriously Afro-American popular music, one can dip into the multileveled life-worlds of black people (West 282).”
We can, then point to certain musical traits that mark Black music, and that has had a transformative effect on American music. Benzon (1997) provides a short-hand summary in arguing that “the cultural character of the United States of America has been dominated by two interacting cultural systems. One of these derives from Europe and the other from Africa (William L. Benzon. “Music Making History: Africa Meets Europe in the United States of the Blues,” in Leading Issues in African-American Studies. Nikongo BaNikongo, ed. 1997). Benzon argues the European system dominates in mattes of intellectual and scientific and political culture, but that
When we turn to expressive culture, matters are quite different. In some expressive domains, literature, architecture and perhaps even painting, the European influences have dominated through most of American history, But in other domains the cultures of sub-Saharan Africa have had a profound, even a determining, influence (Benzon 190).
But things are more complex than just pointing at European and African cultures and identifying what comes from where. Olly Wilson (“The Heterogeneous Sound Ideal in African-American Music,” in Signifying, Sanctifying’ and Slam Dunking. A Reader in African-American Expressive Culture, Gena Caponi, ed., 1999) argues that “it is difficult to pinpoint precisely the essential qualities that make this music a part of a larger African or black American tradition” because “the music of black Americans exists within a larger, multicultural social context (Wilson 158).” Nonetheless, he also identifies the presence of underlying conceptual approaches to music that marks it as specifically Black no matter what genre of Black music is being discussed. This includes “a common approach to music making in which a kaleidoscopic range of dramatically contrasting qualities of sound (timbre) is sought after in both vocal and instrumental music,” what he refers to as “the heterogeneous sound ideal.”
He also identifies:
1) The organization of rhythm based on the principle of rhythmic and implied metrical contrast (Waterman’s “metronome sense”) that forms the basis for the tense, propulsive rhythmic element in jazz referred to as “swing” [and in other Black music, notably funk and hip hop].
2) A percussive manner which stresses the use of accents.
3) The tendency to create music with antiphonal structures.
4) Dense musical events within a short musical time frame.
5) Body motion as an integral part of the music making process
Rap music raises African-American orality to an unprecedented level of technical brilliance, but it is built upon all that has preceded it, and draws on a continuum of rhetorical aesthetic practice that begins with the birth of the American Negro, but extends further back in time to other shores. Rap music, in all its multiple sub-variations, did not create itself in a vacuum, nor can its complexity adequately be addressed in the absence of a particular socio-historical context. Rather, it must be viewed as an extension of an African and an African American vernacular oral aesthetic, and of a folkloric tradition in the United States that has continually revitalized itself in the crucible of hegemonic domination at virtually every socio-cultural level.
Rap music relies heavily on technology, particularly “New School” rap of the digital era. But rap nonetheless is a heavily oral practice, and as such, can be said to be part of Afro-American oral tradition, arguably, more so than some of the genres earlier discussed (e.g., the “love raps” of Isaac Hayes and Barry White), since rap music by its very nature foregrounds spoken word skill and artistry rather than have it act as a tangential, contextual zing technique in a song where there is also singing. Rose (Tricia Rose. Black Noise. Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. 1994) suggests that “the power of rapper’s voices and their role as storytellers ensured that rapping would become the central expression in hip hop culture (Rose, 55).”
To some degree, rap music draws upon every style of black musical and oral expression that precedes it. The “jive scat” of Cab Calloway, the heated monologues of soul singer Millie Jackson, the spontaneous oratory of the Sunday Sermon, black disc jockeys, pimps and oral performers like Malcolm X, and H. Rap Brown, all find continuity amid the successive ruptures (including the many smaller ruptures along the way) in African-American culture. Each rupture has interrupted the relative socio-cultural cohesion (enslaved Africans being from a variety of ethnic backgrounds but nonetheless sharing more cultural traits in common than not) of a large community; but that splintering has produced in each major instance, a flowering of new cultural forms. As Perkins (Perkins, William Eric, “The Rap Attack: An Introduction,” in Droppin’ Science. Critical Essays on Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture. William Eric Perkins, ed 1996.) astutely observes
The rap tradition has been nurtured on the accumulated and residual forms of African and African American music, verbal art, and personal style as well as the constant process of self-innovation within each of these elements. This cultural residue is the source of much of the strength and vitality of rap and African American culture (Perkins, 5).
But rap, more than being simply the newest link on the chain of black oral invention, has added new sonic strategies to the process of sound organization and musical representation, owing to the new array of technological devices available to them, including digital samplers, cross-faders and drum machines. Rose identifies three of these strategies as flow, layer and rupture, concepts that also appear in other aspects of hip-hop culture, including breakdancing and graffiti (Rose, 38).
In Rose’s description, flow refers to “an ability to move easily and powerfully through complex lyrics as well as the flow in the music,” in other words to orally deliver words dramatically, in rhyme and time, over the beat laid down by the DJ. The DJ, in turn, may layer by stacking sounds “literally one on top of the other, creating a dialogue between sampled sounds and words; rappers, on the other hand, may layer “by using the same word to signify a variety of actions and objects.”
Rupture, by comparison, indicates a break of the lyrical flow by the rapper, or the musical flow, by the DJ. The DJ may cause a rupture in the rhythmic flow of the music in a variety of ways, including scratching or by the injection of musical passages from another song. By his repetition of a word or a passage, for instance or by playing with vocal timing, a rapper may cause a rupture in the flow of a line, only to recapture it at a later point so that the flow is first broken, then continued. These ideas are particularly intriguing when viewed in light of the primary themes we have examined, namely, rupture and continuity as dominant tropes in the gradual development of Afro-American culture, in particular, oral vernacular forms of cultural expression. While we have seen that these themes function in ways that have allowed the continuation of an “ever same but ever changing” African-derived cultural identity in the midst of a succession of critical ruptures, in rap music they become reified as sonic strategies in the production of musical sound, or if you like, musically informed noise. Rose perhaps speaks to this best, in her observation that
Interpreting these concepts theoretically, one can argue that they create and sustain rhythmic motion, continuity, and circularity via flow; accumulate, reinforce, and embellish this continuity through layering; and manage threatens to these narratives by building in ruptures that highlight the continuity as it momentarily challenges it. These effects at the level of style and aesthetics suggest affirmative ways in which profound social dislocation and rupture can be managed and perhaps contested in the cultural arena (Rose, 39).
Rap certainly has its antecedents in Black funk music, in verbal games and street poems, but it is a new point of musical department, as Rose suggests and Benzon affirms. Benzon notes that rap 1) employs musical collage which depends on extant records 2) is the most insistently rhythmic of black genres, 3) has the most elaborate lyrics 4) often substitutes anger for the sensuality which had been basic to earlier forms (Benzon 218).
Rap, argues Benzon, “is the most relentlessly and consciously Black, as in Not-White, form African America has produced. It is also the angriest (Benzon, 219).” Angry in that, certainly it was born in a climate of social chaos and despair. Cornell West (1992) sees rap as the continuation of traditional black aesthetic values and musical practices, but with little contemporary contextualization except as a demeaned expression of the spiritual and material poverty of its adherents (Rose takes issue with this kind of analysis of rap). He locates black musical styles, including jazz, soul, funk, techno funk and rap, within a continuum he calls the “Afro-American spiritual-blues impulse” and its related practices “of polyphonic, rhythmic effects and antiphonal vocal techniques, of kinetic orality and affective physicality (West 282);” there is something explicitly uplifting, culturally sustaining and ultimately spiritual about this epic tradition of black creative expression, he suggests. But West posits rap music as “emblematically symptomatic of a shift in sensibilities and moods in Afro-America” even as he considers that it “recovers and revises elements of black rhetorical styles.” For West, this shift is fundamentally narcissistic and endemic of a youth-oriented culture that, having been essentially abandoned in the social, political and economic upheaval of the post-Civil Rights era, has lost a humanistic sense of itself and its own spiritual moorings. What he champions most in rap music is that it nonetheless appears to retain tradition, to wit, “the two major organic artistic traditions in black America – black rhetoric and black music (West 293).”
Some of the most problematic expressions of newly emerging concepts of African American identity have come about with the creation of hip-hop culture, which Neal (Neal, Mark Anthony. Soul Babies. Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic 2002) regards as “most profound aesthetic movement in black popular music in the post-Civil Rights era (Neal, 136),” and one fueled “a distinct urban-based African American youth culture (Neal, 135)” with its own existential impulses and world-view. The music is, suggests Neal, “perhaps the first popular form of black music that offered little or not hope to its audience. The fatalistic experience has become a standard trope of urban-based hip-hop,” the rap song “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five being the clarion example of that bleak vision, a vision whose roots can be traced to the disintegrating social conditions and expectant life chances of young black youth as a result of the abandonment of the inner city beginning after the 1968 urban riots.
Despite the fact that rap music has become part of the American popular culture mainstream, it continues to be “a black cultural expression that prioritizes black voices from the margins of urban America,” argues Rose (Rose 1994: 2). It follows in the aesthetic tradition of other Black expressive forms as “a form of rhymed storytelling accompanied by highly rhythmic, electronically based music (ibid),” but its stories also “continue to articulate the shifting terms of black marginality in contemporary American culture (Rose 1994: 3).” The age of digital technology has offered new creative strategies that have become part of the music, privileging flow, layering and ruptures in line as well as other aspects associated with the music, namely break dancing, graffiti art, style of dress and street poetry.
Rap can be analyzed in terms that explicitly relate to the hallmarks of African music-making as mentioned earlier, but rap music uses these in new and more complex ways as well as introducing new elements that have come about because of the technology. These practices, sampling for instance, and the use of low-sound frequencies in conjunction with sonic density and high levels of volume as aesthetic considerations, marks the music as a distinctly Black musical expression in the way that they are combined in production. Yet, as Rose argues, “the study of popular music has been quite inattentive to the specificity of black practices in the popular realm. There is a significant intellectual divide between the study of black music and the study of American popular music (Rose 83).”
To bring this to some sort of close, because we are now nearing the end of recorded time, we have identified both quantitative and qualitative elements that we can point to that marks the music of African-derived peoples as distinctly Black, or Africanized. These elements can not only be recognized in African-American music making, but in mainstream American popular music as well dating back for decades as Black approaches to music making have increasingly become absorbed into American music in general via spiritual, the blues, jazz and virtually every form of black musical expression. And it is difficult, I would argue, to separate much black music from political and social considerations in addition to its cultural aspects. If the personal is political, then African American music is deeply and irrevocably both. And while it is not the only cultural expression that points to – indeed sustains – Black identity in the broader American landscape, it is certainly the most potent, and as we have seen, it has been the most important in terms of its influence on American culture.
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