Thursday, June 3, 2010


In 1975 at the Lyceum Theatre in London, England, Bob Marley sang “One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain” as part of the lyrics of the Bob Marley and the Wailers popular Trenchtown Rock. Like many African singers/songwriters Marley wrote and sang about his lived reality as an African living in a worldwide culture where Africans frequently find themselves the most marginalized. Music has been used by Africans to express their innermost feelings of joy and sorrow and music has also been used as therapy. June is Black Music Month and an ideal time for us to celebrate those talented people like Marley whose music we listen to when we need to be uplifted, to remind us how far we have come, what we have overcome and what more we need to overcome. June was first identified as Black Music Month in 1979 when President Jimmy Carter designated June as Black Music Month after being persuaded by Kenneth Gamble and Ed Wright who are the founders of the Black Music Association.

Making music was one of the few pleasures that enslaved Africans enjoyed, that helped them to retain some of the culture that was brutally torn from them by the white slave holders in their attempt to dehumanize the Africans. The spirituals that were used as a coded language by many enslaved Africans when planning their escape is a testament to the power of our music.

Music has sustained Africans dealing with myriad oppressions as expressed by the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872 - 1906) in his poem Sympathy (published 1899)
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings —
I know why the caged bird sings!

Our music has also been used as social commentary as evidenced by the songs sung by reggae artists, rappers, calypsonians and R&B singers. Some of the best examples of social commentary in reggae music are Bob Marley’s Crazy Baldheads and Rat Race. Tupac Shakur, considered a poetic genius, whose life and poetry has been documented in several books and has had university courses structured to study his poems wrote and performed some of the best known social commentary rap including Changes and Letter to the President. Dr Slinger Francisco (The Mighty Sparrow) considered the world’s best calypsonian and whose social commentary is legendary has verbalized in calypso lyrics the history of Africans in the Diaspora from slavery to the present day. Who can remain unaffected by Sparrow’s poignant lyrics of his 1963 release Slave ( Sparrow also entertained and edutained with his social commentary on education “Dan is the man in the van,” Caribbean politics “Federation,” Trinidadian politics “William the Conqueror,” American politics “Martin Luther King for President” and “Barack the Magnificent.” Several African American R&B and Jazz singers have been social commentators including the Nina Simone with Mississippi Goddam, Four Women and Young, gifted and Black; Sam Cooke with A Change is gonna come; Edwin Starr with War, Stevie Wonder with Village Ghetto Land and Marvin Gaye with Make me wanna holler and What’s going on?

As we celebrate another Black Music Month it is important to remember that our music began on the African continent with the drums, the poets, the griots etc., before those sounds were transported on the slave ships with our enslaved ancestors. Since then we have been improvising and giving voice to our joys and sorrows in whatever language our enslavers and oppressors forced on us. Africans have revolutionized the music of the world. We in the Diaspora may not speak an African language but the music of our ancestors remain with us. The Sound That Jazz Makes published in 2000, written by Carole Boston Weatherford and beautifully illustrated by Eric Velasquez can be used to educate our children about the history of the music to which they listen today.

The Sound That Jazz Makes begins with: “This is Africa where rhythm abounds/and music springs from nature sounds,/played on a drum carved from a tree/that grew in a forest of ebony." The history of Africans and the music is traced from the continent through the centuries of slavery, emancipation and through to today’s most recent genre rap music. Each two page spread focuses on a musical genre that was created by African Americans: "This is the field where slaves turned the soil,/ and chanted of freedom while they toiled/ to pass the message, through secret codes,/ of stealing away on pitch-dark roads." Ragtime, blues, Dixieland, gospel, swing and be-bop all receive mention on the way to the triumphant conclusion: "Jazz is a downbeat born in our nation,/ chords of struggle and jubilation,/ bursting forth from hearts set free/ in notes that echo history." The book suitable for children as young as three years old that begins with an African drum beat ends with a rapper who still hears "-the age-old, far-off beat/of Africa drumming on every street." This is an excellent reminder of who we are regardless of where we were born or where we live. As Peter Tosh sang in his 1977 released African: “Don't care where you come from, As long as you're a black man you're an African. Don't mind your nationality, you have got the identity, of an African.” June is Black Music Month!

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