Stolen Songs

An issue we have often discussed in class is the lack of recognition of African American artists’ impact on American culture. Du Bois raises the question in Call & Response, “would America have been America without her Negro people?” (Call & Response 754). Without the contributions of African Americans, what would American culture be today? Much of our American culture exploits and appropriates African Americans and disregards the importance of their art in our society. Du Bois, in his writings displayed in Call & Response, discusses the role African Americans had in building up America and the importance of their music. Without African Americans and their contributions, American culture would not be the same today.

Slave Songs were nothing like other music that had ever been created in America. Their meaning, rhythm, and beauty was unmatched. Du Bois claims that “little of beauty has America given the world save the rude grandeur God himself stamped on her bosom; the human spirit in this new world has expressed itself in vigor and ingenuity rather than in beauty” (Call & Response 749). America was trying to succeed and prosper, and the focus was on goals of wealth and power. There was nothing comparable to the beauty and creativity that African Americans were producing at the time. Their music “stands to-day not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas” (Call & Response 749). These songs came from the heart and soul and reflected the spirit and struggles of African Americans. No other music in American contained this exact beauty, meaning, and depth.

As the music grew more popular, especially with the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who “sang the slave songs so deeply into the world’s heart that it can never wholly forget them again” (Call & Response 749), it was imitated rather crudely. Although others can try and replicate these songs, they will never have the same power or impact of the originals. Du Bois also points out that “caricature has sought again to spoil the quaint beauty of the music… But the true Negro folk-song still lives in the hearts of those who have heard them truly sung and in the hearts of the Negro people” (Call & Response 750). No matter how many replications and distortions are created based on the songs, those who know the originals will never lose them.

White Americans often pick out aspects of African American culture to use as their own. We see this in modern culture, especially in music, and sometimes it goes unnoticed; sometimes those appropriating a culture don’t even realize that what they’re doing is harmful. This appropriation began with imitating aspects of slave songs and African American rhythms and melodies, and today continues with white people creating rap and hip-hop music. Had African Americans never created this music, Americans would not have it today. Much of this country was built on the backs of African Americans, yet they are continually de-valued and ignored by white Americans trying to take credit for their impact. The original beauty, however, holds true in the spirit of African American art and will not be taken away. As Du Bois states a black woman said of a slave song, “It can’t be sung without a full heart and a troubled sperrit” (Call & Response 752), therefore their original beauty and authenticity cannot be matched.

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