A vital life force in Africa and throughout the Diaspora is music. Historian Marcus Redeker in his work, The Slave Ship: A Human History, states that music was a primary means of communication and support among captives during the Middle Passage. The cultural fact of musical expression throughout the history of Africans in the Western Hemisphere has served to ground, sustain, and strengthen a strong sense of identity and community.

On a daily basis during the Middle Passage, Africans provided the rhythms to which fellow captives exercised and danced on the deck. Let out of the hold in limited numbers and for only short periods of time, Africans were allowed to move and breathe the air. Less restrained and responding to music, one can imagine that the enslaved were only permitted these rare instances of relief from their harsh reality as the weeks and months passed.

And then there was the other music and cadence, the other song related to the Middle Passage. Usually initiated by a woman, it was the traditional call and response. It referenced home, the loss of loved ones, the on-going suffering and the journey into the unknown. Usually at night or  before dawn, singing sustained the captives as one harsh day of brutality led to another. Music was a means of survival, of coping.

Once in the New Land depending upon circumstances, there were work songs, praise songs, spirituals, and festive music to disrupt a lifetime of enslavement. Very often this music had double meaning – what was said or heard literally, and what was understood beneath the surface — the real meaning. As Christianity became more accepted among the masses of Africans in America, the music exhibited an implicit agreement with God that the suffering and damage experienced in slavery would end. According to Ira Berlin in Generations of Captivity: A History of African American Slaves, the acceptance of Christianity by many Africans did not occur for more than one hundred years. Expressed in this religious music was the hope and confidence that everyone would be delivered out of “Egypt land.” There would be wings for people to fly away, shoes to cover and protect crippled feet, and a balm to heal wounds – both physical and emotional.

In some regions of the Americas, the rhythm of the drums defined space and time that belonged exclusively to the Africans – in New Orleans, Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, Brazil, Trinidad. For a time, Congo Square in New Orleans was just such a space. Otherwise, the drum was forbidden throughout the United States. There was a fear that drumming strengthened the Africans’ sense of community and even worse, it was believed that the drums could talk — and they could! To dance, to sing, to listen, to respond to the familiar simultaneously acknowledged loss, oppression, injustice and most importantly, reinforced a sense of self. Africans throughout the Diaspora took this portion of their knowledge and memory and blended it with other forms of the New Land culture to create a distinct musical tradition with African origins.

Most of the music that we label uniquely “American,” no matter if created in the US, Central and South America, or the Caribbean, bears the mark of the Continent. Listen to the music that emerged from this tradition. The blues was not just lament, it was a way of handling lamentation. Gospel music went beyond the double-coded messages of the spirituals into an outright connection between the Almighty, an African sense of self, and instructions for escape. It was a shout.

Work songs broke the oppression of drudgery, and festive music insisted on perseverance in the face of life’s storms and celebrated life’s joys.  In recent memory, songs of protest accompanied direct action in the push against racism, Jim Crow both North and South.  Hear in familiar music, secular and spiritual, the African drum beat of self-assertion and resistance: Billie Holiday’s rendition of Strange Fruit; The Blind Boys of Alabama singing May the Circle Be Unbroken; John Coltrane’s Alabama; James Brown’s I’m Black and I’m Proud. The music comes to us from the sustaining, persistent, fearful drum beats of African ancestors aboard a slave ship bound for a different world.