From the first arrival of Africans on the shores and islands of the Americas as captives, music, and often acapella (or without instrumentation) became the central tool of communication.
Chained together like two-legged cattle, under the fierce gaze of gun-toting guards (called ‘overseers’), working from sun-up to sun-down, only the songs of those among us kept us alive in mind and body. W.E.B. DuBois, in his classic The Souls of Black Folk, called this music, which gave birth to the gospels, “sorrow songs.”
It gave a human pace to our toil of building the nation from the ground up, and feeding it, even while we, and our children, slowly starved to death. We starved, not just for healthy foods, but for fairness, for dignity, for justice, for love.
And in this barren wilderness, we looked within to bring forth the music of our soul; in gospel, in blues, in rhythm ‘n’ blues, in jazz, in funk, in early rap.
These musics were our collective wails made melodious.
Unlike any other national group or ethnicity, Blacks have created a new art form almost every generation, reflecting our passage throughout this society.
Each form, each genre, reflected not just our continuing hunger for fairness, dignity and justice, but it also served to give us a place to be fully human, to refute the deadly lies of white supremacy, and to showcase Black genius.
In a nation that proclaimed freedom while it practiced apartheid, Black music was the rare space that Blacks could use to express the rolling volcanoes churning within us.
Some artists became iconic figures of the Black musical tradition, notably in jazz. Among the finest were people like John Coltrane, a saxophonist who was able to transmit deep spiritual yearning in pieces like “A Love Supreme.”
Rahsaan Roland Kirk was more earthbound and his work reflected the enormous virtuosity of the artist (who often played three wind instruments at the same time!), as he sung of “B-L-A-C-K-N-U-S-S!”
Straight out of North Philly, (to be precise, Richard Allen Projects), came Lee Morgan, whose trumpet displayed control, tone and strength that transfixed his listeners, even at an early age.
Jazz, often offering pure improvisational instrumentals, communicated to diverse, global audiences our depth and our profundity. Like early gospels and sorrow songs sung in shackles, jazz went deep to communicate both our pain and our presence. It also signaled our survival.
The music of jazz, an expression of our heights, has been transformed into yet another commodity, largely drained of its early revolutionary spirit. The same might be said of rap, which began as urban expression of our discontent: “Don’t mess with me, ‘cuz I’m close to the eddgge!’ I’m tryin’, not to lose my head!” Remember? From that to “Gold on my neck”, a paean to sheer materialism, devoid of any social commentary, is a deep fall indeed.
Corporate forces, which have ever exploited and dogged the tracks of our creativity, have leached toxic poisons into the wells of our culture, contaminating all it touches.
Our music, which once gave life to the entire earth, is now shallow sounds with which to sell cars.
The soul is gone.
Yet, it need not be so for long.
We are the creators of our music.
We must restoreth our Soul.
We must sing the songs of our People: and not sing for those who toss poisoned pennies into our cups.