Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Robert Nesta “Bob” Marley sang; “One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain.” Music has always played a very important role in the lives of Africans. As we approach June, Black Music Month it is time to remember that the popular music we hear today owes much to Africans. June has been recognized as “Black Music Month” since 1979 when President Jimmy Carter designated June as Black Music Month after being persuaded by Black Music Association founders Kenneth Gamble and Ed Wright. Music (singing, drumming, dancing) was an important part of African culture and was probably one of the few joys in the lives of enslaved Africans. They were forbidden the joy of playing drums but expressed their creativity by singing and dancing. Music served to lift their spirits as they toiled in the fields, sometimes waist deep in mud, doing the backbreaking work that enriched the white families that held them in captivity.

There has been much written about the role the spirituals played in the escape to freedom of enslaved Africans. Cloaked in non-threatening religious language, the words lulled the white enslavers into a sense of false security and enabled the Africans to share important information. The words of the spirituals were used as coded communication by enslaved Africans as they planned and executed their escape from enslavement. The words of the spiritual “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home” when heard by the enslavers meant that the enslaved were happy with their lot and looked forward to their reward in heaven. The same words meant something different when heard by the enslaved Africans. Those words meant that there was hope of escape to freedom to a “free” state or to Canada. The coded messages are evident in many other spirituals including; Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel? O Canaan, Steal Away and Wade in the water. Harriet Tubman, the most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad is said to have sung spirituals as she planned to rescue her people from slavery. Tubman, known as the “Moses” of her people was an extraordinary woman who is credited with making 19 trips to rescue more than 300 people from slavery. It has been speculated that the spiritual “Go down Moses, way down in Egypt land” was her signature song. As “Moses,” Harriet Tubman did more than “conduct” enslaved Africans to freedom on the Underground Railway. On June 2nd, 1863 she was the “brains” behind the successful rescue of more than 800 enslaved Africans in South Carolina. Many of the rescued Africans were recruited by Tubman and joined the Union army to fight in the Civil War. In November 2005, the site where the rescue took place in 1863 at the Combahee River Ferry was recognized by the South Carolina Department of Transportation. The site, where the bridge which crosses the Combahee River on U.S. Highway 17 stands, was excavated by a group of historians and archaeologists.

The spirituals, the blues, worksongs were part of the expressions of joy, despair and sorrow of the enslaved Africans. That music, steeped in African traditions of call and response gave birth to gospel, jazz, rock and roll and hip hop music. The rhythms and lyrics have helped African Americans endure tremendous suffering and face injustice, white supremacy and racism with courage, faith and hope.
The music used during the Civil Rights era helped lift spirits and also to define the time. In 1968, African Americans were singing along with James Brown, Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud. James Brown was so Black and Proud he wore his hair in an Afro for a while. One of the anthems of the Civil Rights movement was Nina Simone’s November 1969 released song Young gifted and Black. The Staple Singers asked When Will We Be Paid For the Work We’ve Done?

The spirituals were also sung during that time (Civil Rights protests) when African Americans were brutalized because they dared to demand that they be treated as human beings. The white police and their dogs attacking African American men, women and children, was not a deterrent to a group of people who were confidently singing the spirituals as they knew they had right on their side. Fannie Lou Hamer, one of my sheroes, sang This Little Light of Mine and Go Tell it on the Mountain as she put her life on the line attempting to register to vote in Mississippi in August 1962. During many of the marches, sit-ins and other protests, participants sang We shall not be moved and We shall overcome.

While African American music was better known during the 60’s than other forms of African music, there is similar music from other Africans in the Diaspora. Slinger “The Mighty Sparrow” Francisco’s Slave and Banana Boat Song sung by Harry Belafonte tell of the plight of Africans oppressed during slavery and even after slavery was abolished. Sparrow’s Dan Is the Man in the Van is also a protest against colonial education. Robert Nesta “Bob” Marley, who can be described as the first Caribbean superstar, took Reggae music, Rastafarian culture, Jamaica and the Caribbean to new heights internationally. His Africa Unite became an anthem for Africans worldwide. Marley also urged us to Get up, stand up for our rights.
Winston Hubert “Peter Tosh” McIntosh, a member of Marley’s group, The Wailers released the ultimate Black Music Month anthem in 1977 on his album “Equal Rights.”

Don’t care where you come from
As long as you're a black man
You're an African
No mind your nationality
You have got the identity of an African

'Cause if you come from Clarendon
And if you come from Portland
And if you come from Westmoreland
You're an African

'Cause if you come Trinidad
And if you come from Nassau
And if you come from Cuba
You're an African

No mind your complexion
There is no rejection
You're an African

No mind denomination
That is only segregation
You're an African

'Cause if you go to the Catholic
And if you go to the Methodist
And if you go to the Church of God
You're an African

So don’t care where you come from
As long as you're a black man
You're an African
No mind your nationality
You have got the identity of an African

'Cause if you come from Brixton
And if you come from France
And if you come from Brooklyn
And if you come from Queens
And if you come from Manhattan
And if you come from Canada
And if you come from Miami
And if you come from Switzerland
And if you come from Germany
And if you come from Russia
And if you come from Taiwan
As long as you're a black man
You're an African
Written in June 2008

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