Type: Response Essays
Sample donated: Jenny Weber
Last updated: September 18, 2019
Slaveryheld a large place in American economic and cultural history from the emergenceof the colonies in 1607 through the 1865 abolition of slavery. During this timeof severe mistreatment, slaves created their own culture of art as an aid tocope with their painful, malnourished, oppressed, violent lives.
One of themost important aspects of this culture was the music. There are three knownmajor categories that slave music is usually grouped into: work music,religious music, and recreational music. Each category of music employs certainmusical elements that can be traced back to African culture, includingbody-percussion, call-and-response, and emotive lyrics. To this day, modern hip-hop music can beunderstood to have representations of slave music lyrically, musically, andemotionally.
Slaveswould often sing while they worked long, strenuous hours. Singing collectivelywould help them pass the time, enjoy feeling like a cohesive community, and aidin the efficiency of their work, something in the favor of their owners.However, once it was revealed that slaves were using music and singing as amedium to plan forbidden acts or escapes, many owners began banning singingaltogether. “Work songs,” also called “field hollers,” featured acall-and-response mechanism between one or more people.
This musical call-and-responsebecame a universal cultural language, providing a communal link for slaves whocame from different backgrounds and languages. Recreationalsongs, on the other hand, were performed in the free time of slaves. Thesesongs tended to be accompanied by musical instruments, specifically stringinstruments such as the banjo. Sometimes, slaves would even be invited by theirowners to play European music at festivals or gatherings. However, this demandto perform sometimes overran the enjoyment of singing, as slaves would bedemanded to perform music and dance for their owners after a long and hard dayworking. The third category of slave music is known as religious songs, commonlydubbed as “spirituals.
” In some cases, these songscould be included as a branch of recreational music, as many of them wereinspired by Christianity. These songs were typically sung A’Capella, insteadaccompanied by body-instrumentation such as foot stomping or hand clapping.These songs tended to be written in the Pentatonic scale, often includinggrunts, yells, cries, and moans.
Manymodern Hip-Hop and Rap artists translate these historical musical elements intotheir work. A great example of this is a song titled “40 Acres,” performed by Pusha-T andThe Dream. The first verse features a prominent call-and-response elementbetween The Dream and Pusha-T where they alternate singing and rapping. Mostimportantly in this work, however, is the direct reference to slave culture.The song is titled “40acres,”referring to a phenomenon post-Civil War when slaves thought they were “morally due” to receiving 40 acres ofland and a mule (Shillen 2013). An especially powerful lyric reads, “I’d rather die than go homewithout my 40 acres,”showcasing the dedication to the history of their ancestry carrying through tothe twenty first century. Another modern representation occurs in the song “Battlezone” by Bone Thungs n Harmony.This song is from the 1970s, when the culture of hip hop was being formedthrough “blockparties.
” Thissong features lots of call-and-response, bringing forward the body percussionand mixing it with modern electronic sounds. This era can be credited with thebirth of the legendary 1960 Roland TR-808 drum machine, which is still frequentlyused in Hip-Hop, Rap, RnB and more. The 808 is a collection of sounds thatfeatures a deep bass drum, a snare, toms, a conga, claves, a handclap, maracas/snaps,cowbells, cymbals, and a hi-hat.It is thought that these sounds may have beengenerated to aid producers in preserving the “authentic black sound” in modern/Pop music thathad been set since slave music set that standard for cultural percussive representation. Thisbody percussion in slave music additionally transformed into what is known as “Crunk” music. This genre featuresbeats classified by the word “hard” or “heavy.” Lil Jon’s “Get Crunk” and Kanye West’s “Fade” are two examples of what sounds like popularhip-hop, but when dissected, many body percussive sounds such as hand claps,snaps, and stomps, can be distinguished.
Anadditional method for translating slave culture into modern music, is throughemotion. Jay-Z’s song “4:44” is one of the strongestexamples of this. Most importantly, the song features a powerful music video,showcasing a series of visuals including homemade political and cultural videosthat represent all areas of black culture. These video shots alternate betweenshots of a dark-skinned woman dressed in a drape-y cloth dress, moving freelythrough what appears to be a large field. This video could possibly be decodedinto representing the merging of each era of black culture, showcasing the samewoman learning how to Hip-Hop dance from a black man, dressed in popular 2000s Hip-Hopera fashion.
Inconclusion, it is evident that modern Hip-Hop and Rap music artists continue toevolve while drawing upon the roots of slave culture, through music elements. Lyricalreferences, and emotional visuals. Body percussion has evolved through anelectronic drum machine that is heavily used in popular music artists, such asKanye West. The call-and-response musical element continues to be a cleardictation of slave culture references in songs that culturally massage issuesof black culture. Many artists such as Jay-Z and Kendrick Lamar choose to explicitlyaddress slavery, whether through the title of their songs, lyrics, or visualsfrom the era.
Thus, it is clear that common elements of modern Hip Hop and Rapgenres are continually able to be traced back to Afro-American roots.