We are halfway through the United Nations’ designated International Year for People of African Descent and still not a word from any level of government here in Canada in recognition of the year. We are more than halfway through Black Music Month and although the month has been recognized with a proclamation by the Mayor of Toronto for more than 20 years, Rob Ford has not seen fit to continue the tradition. It would seem there is a message here for us. Not to worry, we have overcome way more than this seeming disrespect and neglect. As a people we survived more than four hundred years of brutal, horrific chattel slavery. We are here today because we are the survivors. As Robert “Bob” Nesta Marley sang in his song Survival (released 1979): We're the survivors, yes the Black survivors! Yes, we're the survivors, like Daniel out of the lions' den Black survivors. And music was used as a survival tool by enslaved Africans; whether it was chanting, singing work songs or religious songs. Whether Africans were enslaved by the British in Barbados, Guyana and Jamaica, the French in Haiti, the Portuguese in Brazil or the Spanish in Argentina, Colombia and Peru, our music comforted, encouraged and fired the imagination. Even in the midst of the brutality, horror and terror of slavery our music contributed to how we survived. The African traditions of the griot was transported on the slave ships and survived the many generations and hundreds of years of disconnect to give birth to calypsonians and dub poets. From Peru, the powerful poetry of Nicomedes Santa Cruz (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kZoqLcWfsjc) and his sister Victoria Santa Cruz (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfQ-cJ6DTdE) is comparable to the poetry of Bob Marley as he urges us to “Chant Down Babylon” or Maya Angelou as she encourages us to understand “Why the Caged Bird Sings” or why “Our Grandmothers” would not be moved.
Recognizing the similarities of our experience (regardless of our birthplace) as African people who have used music to survive; in his May 28, 2010 proclamation for African American Music Appreciation Month US President Barack Obama wrote: Throughout our history, African-American music has conveyed the hopes and hardships of a people who have struggled, persevered and overcome. Through centuries of injustice, music comforted slaves, fueled a cultural renaissance, and sustained a movement for equality. Today, from the shores of Africa and the islands of the Caribbean to the jazz clubs of New Orleans and the music halls of Detroit, African-American music reflects the rich sounds of many experiences, cultures, and locales
Not everyone understands that this as a “Black thing.” In his 1999 published book A Change Is Gonna Come: Music Race & The Soul of America white American professor Craig Werner writes: “It’s not just a black thing. When West Africans confronted the nightmare realities of slavery, they improvised ways of surviving that have come down to us through the voices of Mahalia Jackson and Sam Cooke, the instruments of Jimi Hendrix and John Coltrane, and the communal explorations of Sly and the Family Stone and the Wu Tang Clan. While those strategies are grounded in the specific history of blacks in what Bob Marley called “Babylon,” they’re available to anyone who doesn’t call Babylon home. Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, and Steve Cropper have their place in the story.” Werner whose biography proclaims that he is a professor of Afro-American Studies and teaches courses on Black Music and American Cultural History follows a well known European tradition of claiming and renaming racialized people’s culture and history. Admittedly the good professor has named some names in his book and has received high praise from a couple of African American professors including Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. However, in spite of efforts to pretend that white people can understand or share in our history of brutal oppression where we were stripped of everything including our names and language, our experience is unique. Our music documents this horrific experience, whether in calypso by Slinger “the Mighty Sparrow” Francisco: I’m a slave from a land so far. I was caught and I was brought here from Africa or reggae by Bob Marley: Ole pirates yes they rab I, sold I to the merchant ships minutes after they took I from the bottomless pit. Who else has a history of gazing for the last time at the land of their birth after being brutally torn away from friends and family, forced en-masse onto slave ships and taken on a terrifying journey into the unknown at the mercy of strange looking people who would rip families apart by selling children away from parents? Many never completed that journey, murdered or starved to death on the voyage into hell; because hell is what the ones who survived encountered when they arrived at journey’s end. Many were unceremoniously thrown overboard to perish in the Atlantic and it has been said that if the waters of the Atlantic disappeared we could walk on the bones of our ancestors from here all the way back to Africa. Sharks followed those ships because they could be sure of a meal of African bodies. Countless others were worked to death within five to seven years, especially in the cane fields of Brazil and the Caribbean.
The music that comes out of that experience is black music which no other group can claim. Yes it is a black thing, it is black music. Others may offer a pale copy of black music but let us be clear that anything else (rock and roll, rock etc.,) offered by anyone else (Elvis Presley, Beatles, Rolling Stones, Eminem etc.,) is an imitation of black music regardless of what it is renamed or how it is repackaged. An article published the June 2003 edition of Ebony Magazine with the headline Why White stars are ripping off rap and R&B says it very well. “Al Jolson did it in the 1920s. Sophie Tucker did it in the 1930s. Elvis Presley did it in the 1950s, and the Beatles and Rolling Stones did it in the 1960s. This disturbed a number of people who said, with Langston Hughes, "You've taken my blues, and my jazz, and my gospel, and gone." And the taking is not over. For in 2003, White singers and performers are still looting the historically Black music sanctuary of hip-hop, R&B, soul jazz and the blues. Dwight Edwards, associate professor of music at Atlanta's Emory University, says it's shamefully ironic that throughout the annals of time, White artists with limited talent and vast resources have become fast millionaires by impersonating Black performers, whereas some of the greatest Black artists, performers and lyrical geniuses die practically penniless.”
It is almost the end of June but you can still celebrate Black Music Month by attending the free performance of the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin on Friday, June 24 at 55 John Street. For more on Black Music Month visit www.ckln.fm on Tuesday nights 7:00 to 7:30 p.m. throughout June.