Rich Musical Tradition Wrought from Intense Oppression

Upon attending an event titled “A Collision of Worldviews: An interview with Dr. Ysaye Maria Barnwell”, which was part of this year’s commemoration for Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. here at Geneseo, my eyes were opened to a whole new way of perceiving musical traditions in terms of both their origins and their power.

Dr. Barnwell’s compelling words prompted me to consider the roots of African American musical traditions, as well as the implications of these roots and the role they have played in the shaping of this musical culture throughout centuries. The pattern that becomes visible within this musical tradition resembles the kind of “churning” we have been discussing in our course thus far, and upon returning to Roach’s Echoes in the Bone, it turns out that what Dr. Barnwell’s interview has done is actually clarify for me what I had already read in Roach. It is ironic, really, because I feel as if I am cycling through the material of this course (and the ideas that develop along with that material) in a way that somewhat resembles the patterns of churning and cycling-back that we have been discussing throughout the course as I continually return to certain concepts and see them in a slightly altered light each time as I return with something new “in my tool belt”, so to speak.

During Dr. Barnwell’s interview, she talked about the way that African music was transformed when enslaved Africans in America sang for purposes such as making tedious work pass more quickly, remembering history, expressing emotion, and even as a means of transmitting coded communication about revolts and escape plans. Dr. Barnwell discussed how many of these songs born out of slavery made a return into culture during the civil rights movement, sung for an adjusted contemporary purpose but carrying the significance of tradition. These songs had the power of transmitting memories of past oppression during slavery, as well as memories of the strength and perseverance shown by the enslaved ancestors of those who now sung these songs as they fought for their civil rights. Dr. Barnwell mentioned the song “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round” as an example of a song that originated as an African American gospel song during times of slavery and became well-known later as it became known as a civil rights song. The lyrics of the song, especially the line “marchin’ into freedom land”, make it unsurprising that this song has its roots in slavery despite its popularity mainly as a “civil rights song”. If you’re interested, this Civil Rights Songs blog has compiled several versions of the song, including one version by Sweet Honey in the Rock (the a cappella group Dr. Ysaye Barnwell sang in for 34 years!).

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself recognized both the power of music during the civil rights movement, as well as the origins of this musical tradition being deeply rooted in African culture. As part of the foreword for a Berlin jazz festival held in 1964, he wrote, “Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.” Not only did Rev. Dr. King acknowledge the power of this music, but he recognized its meaningful roots as well: “It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by Jazz musicians. Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of racial identity as a problem for a multiracial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls.” Roach quotes James C. Scott in Echoes in the Bone, who writes, “If domination is particularly severe, it is likely to produce a hidden transcript of corresponding richness”; African American musical tradition seems a prime example of a rich hidden transcript born out of severe domination, and both Dr. Barnwell and Rev. Dr. King seem to recognize this link (56).

In Echoes in the Bone, Roach examines how such rich tradition as African American music can be born out of oppression. He writes: “Even acts of rigorous prohibition produce alternative, displaced versions of proscribed behaviors when performers test the limits of the law, incorporating innovations that would not have existed otherwise, creating routines of words and gestures on the margins of legal sanction” (56). African American musical traditions fit the bill of being on the margins of legality, as enslaved people were obviously prohibited from communicating about escape or revolt, but found ways to do so through song. Additionally, they were prohibited from gathering so as to prevent them from building a sense of community, and yet through music African Americans were able to create and maintain a strong sense of community in spite of the laws that attempted to prevent this. Roach says laws that prevented the enslaved from public assembly were a result of the French knowing about “the power of public performances to consolidate a sense of community, inside or outside of the law” (59). Rich musical tradition stands as a testament to the failure of oppressive attempts to stifle any sense of community that African Americans might collectively establish.

Dr. Ysaye Barnwell calls music “the glue that holds communities together”, and a look at history tells us that this glue has been invaluable throughout African American history as it has helped bind together communities which propelled both the fight against slavery and the fight for civil rights in the United States. While the fight for racial equality in the nation clearly continues, Dr. Barnwell expressed in her interview at Geneseo that she does not understand why people have stopped including singing in their fights for equality. She voiced her frustrations with the lack of incorporation of music into contemporary protests and movements, proposing that these demonstrations could develop a much stronger sense of community by singing together.

While Dr. Barnwell’s point that music doesn’t play the same role in today’s protests and demonstrations may have some truth to it, music certainly does seem to have maintained a place in today’s fight for equality. Specifically in regards to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, songs by prominent artists have been recently released which quite clearly pertain to the movement. This Pitchfork article cites albums like Beyonce’s Lemonade and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly as some of “the sounds of Black Lives Matter”, pointing out that even though tracks don’t overtly mention the BLM movement, their charged lyrical content is more than enough to show alignment between the artists’ messages and the messages of the movement itself. In fact, at a BLM protest in Cleveland several years ago, protestors began chanting the words to Kendrick’s “Alright” (from his To Pimp a Butterfly album) which led sites like Slate.com to ask the question: “Has Kendrick Lamar Recorded the New Black National Anthem?”

Speaking of a Black National Anthem, did you know there already is one? The song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” written by James Weldon Johnson is widely recognized as the current Black National Anthem. This song was beautifully performed by Geneseo’s Gospel Choir immediately after Dr. Barnwell’s interview, being introduced as the Black National Anthem. While I can see strong justification for Dr. Barnwell’s point that music and singing should play an integral role in contemporary movements, demonstrations, and protests, I also think it’s important to take note of the ways music is already playing a powerful role in movements like Black Lives Matter. While the role of music in contemporary movements might take different forms than it did during the Civil Rights Movement (before you could tweet #BlackGirlMagic along with Beyonce lyrics to show support), it seems that music certainly does have a place in today’s struggle for racial equality. And, just like Dr. Barnwell (and Rev. Dr. King, and Joseph Roach, for that matter) have noted, this music has the power to draw up all of the emotional history that African American musical tradition was born from, harnessing the commanding potential for change that comes to the surface along with those memories of both oppression and progress.

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