Research Paper on Rebellion Origins of African American Music Culture

Rebellion Origins of African American Music Culture


            The United States is known to be the biggest exporter of entertainment in the world. Music and movies are two of the major forms of entertainment the United States distributes to the rest of the world. Both forms of entertainment are held in high regard both inside the United States itself and throughout most of the cultures of the rest of the world. Of particular interest to this paper is American music, in particular the type of music that is played by African Americans.

Literature Review

There exist varied theories as to the origin of African American music. Saouli recounted that music as a means of communicating between Africans slaves, since they had different cultures and spoke different languages (1). Saouli’s paper further argues that the music evolved in response to social, economic and racial issues that African Americans faced to various forms like jazz, R&B, blues, hip-hop, rock and many others. In fact, Appiah agrees that all the various forms of American music can be traced back to the period of drum playing during slavery (123). Floyd links African American music the need for cultural cohesion and spirituality among the early slaves (6). The studies seem to show that American music owes its origins not just to African Americans as people, but their removal from their society and the conditions and challenges they faced in the new land and the slavery.


            At the dawn of the 17th century, the flourishing slave trade encouraged the capture of Africans and further fueled their trade. The ships took them to new lands. These Africans were from different parts of the world and hence of different cultures. It was a culture shock for them. Though physically taken away from their home lands, their bodies were in a foreign land while their minds still remained at home. Some of their original cultures were preserved in the popular songs they brought with them. A cultural evolution took place-there was a fusion of cultures. Africans were starting to identify themselves as African Americans.

            Music developed in the harsh conditions of slavery that followed their arrival in America. The slaves used music as form of rebellion. Besides being a protest to enslavement, music also it they used music as reminder of and a store of their African heritage. The twin competing use of music saw to the evolution and development of varies socioculturally rich music.   

            The uprising role of music played a bigger role in its evolution and development than the role of keeping and preserving the Africans’ cultural heritage. In the traditional African societies, drums were used for communication. Messages were disseminated in rhythms and beats which could be deciphered by those for whom the message was meant. Africans knew what a particular rhythm and beat symbolized. This use of drums goes way back in the past before arrival of the slave capturers and traders. Most Africans could play drum, some of them were among the slaves that were captured. The slaves used the same technique of transmission of information by drumbeating to communicate among themselves and express their disapproval of the harsh conditions of slavery they were being put through (Friedman 6).

 It took long for the slave owners and slave traders realize that what they heard was not merely music. From then onwards, African Americans were forbidden from playing drums. The drums were confiscated and those found in possession of drums faced punishment. This move by the slave owners and slave traders disoriented the cultural ties among the Africans that had been developing and becoming stronger with time. Their cultures were being taken away from them.

In their refusal to let go of music, they resorted to playing music in forms that did not require the drums that had been taken away from them. Anything that could contribute to rhythm making, they picked it up. Among them were household equipments. European instruments were not spared either. The whites thought that by taking away drums from the Africans would stop the music. It seems they had only taken away the instrument-the drum was still in possession of African Americans. The sounds of the drums were still at large. The sounds of the drums were mimicked in vocal rhythms and styles. They were so skilled as to be able to vocally replicate the sound of multiple drums. African sounds and rhythms had secured new homes in new instruments. This was a rebirth of the role of music in the lives of the African as had been played with the drums.

As time went on, the African Americans learnt the English language, the consequence of which was that the voice could not only mimic drums; it could also compose lyrics. Owing to the accessibility of the English language to the slave owners and slave traders, the lyrics composed by the Africans were so coded that they could only be understood by fellow Africans. The white Americans were now being confronted with a new form of rebellion, one that could not take away.

In addition to singing, African Americans parodied the style of dance that was done by their slave owners; their mockery of the white dances were masqueraded as normal dancing, even in the sight of the slave owners they were mocking. The white people who noticed it mistook it for an inability of Africans to dance, and liked it for that reason.

A new form of music was born into the African American community that came to be known as the African American spiritual. It was actually advocated by the slave owners, on the ground that, they thought, it was a sign of conversion from the tradition African religions to Christianity. They did not have any problems with Africans singing praises and worship to God. They encouraged it, on the contrary. Unknown to the slave owners was the fact that African Americans incorporated undertones in their singing that served as a vessel passing of messages about escape directions, solidarity and rebellion. All that the slave owners thought was the African Americans’ yearning to be within proximity to God.

At the core of the spirituality of African Americans was the theme of escape from enslavement and pursuit of freedom. African Americans’ concept of freedom was tactfully incorporated into spiritual music. Spiritual music became its channel of transmission and dissemination. Black preachers discovered the potential of music assemble and unite people, and so exploited it to garner power from the multitudes. The possibility of emancipation was becoming higher. Upon realizing what was actually going on behind the scenes, restrictions on the assembly of African Americans for no purpose were put in place. The African American music was restricted from the public throughout most of the slavery period. It was constrained to slave quarters and, occasionally, entertainment of slave owners and their guests.

In the infancy of the 19th century, some white people started mimicking the dance and singing of African Americans. These racist shows gained popularity with the Americans. When African Americans were allowed to the performance, something that was originally meant to ridicule them, they did it better than the whites had crudely portrayed them. As a result, they earned notoriety. The audiences preferred them. Finally, the availability of public exposure meant that these first performers were had pioneered a wave of African American music.

Towards the end of the 19th century, ragtime came into the scene and gained not only attention but popularity also. Playing on the piano, they amalgamated and reconciled the harmonics of the white music with the syncopation of the African-American syncopation, creating the starting point for defined style. This evolution carried on blues, a new variant of the African American music.  

The blues grew out of disillusion of the African Americans as a result of disenfranchisement and denial of full equality to African Americans after the civil war. Most of lyrics of the songs focused on these subjects they were not explicit- they were culturally coded. One needed to be familiar with the African American society and culture to understand what they actually mean. In the rebuilding years that followed, blues musicians started to express their concerns openly. The cultural coding of the blues music was adopted as the music’s language. Jazz is developed around the same time as blues.

The United State’s entry into World War II saw to the drafting of young and skilled labor into the army, leaving opportunities and vacancies for the less skilled African Americans left behind to fill. Furthermore, some young black women were employed to entertain the army. With the employment, the African Americans gained confidence in themselves. Consequently, a wave of young African American musicians who could not be drafted into the army because of their age swept into the New York jazz scene.

Towards the end of the world war, there appeared a split in the music scene. On one hand there was a group of musicians who saw the opportunity to profit from the commercial demand African American music; on the other hand were those who sought to use music as a tool for personal expression and they also wanted to innovate it. The former incorporated vocal lines into urban blues, giving rise to the form of music called rhythm and blues or R&B. R&B later became the precursor to funk, disco and rock and roll. The latter gave rise to a myriad of other styles.

At the end of world war, solders returned home to retake the positions that had been filled by African Americans when they left for the war. This once created social and civil unrest. The African Americans once more felt looked down upon. There was a resort to spirituality music in search of patience and patience. The church had always involved with the advocating for civil rights. The turns of events revived the spiritual songs. Only this time the lyrics openly asked God to relieve African Americans from oppression.


The journey of African American music has been long and tough, from the time of slavery to through to this point in time. The African American music started as a rebellion against oppression during the enslavement era, and has gone on to express the disapproval of social injustice and denial of civil rights. The spirituals sang in the church also share the same origin as other forms of African American music. Today, social and civil reformation having taken place, the music is fully entertainment rather, rather than the rebellion and expression of oppression, the reasons to which they owe their evolution and development.

Works Cited

Appiah, Anthony. Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience.

 Oxford [u.a.: Oxford Univ. Press, n.d.. Print.

Floyd, Samuel A. The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.

Friedman, Jonathan C. “The Routledge History Of Social Protest In Popular Music Author:

            Jonathan C. Friedman, Publisher: Routledge Pages: 336 Pu.” (2013): 336.

Saouli, Halima. “The Origins and Development of the Africo-American Music.” (2014).

Southern, Eileen. The music of black Americans: A history. WW Norton & Company, 1997.