We hear it said a lot… Whenever our conversations turn to music, we hear it said a lot. “What’s your favourite genre of music?” Persons seeking to know each other better find themselves taking turns asking, ‘What’s your favourite genre of music?’ And that’s when we hear this said a lot. In the list, being answers to the inquiry, you are bound to hear this word pronounced ever-so proudly, “Jazz…”
Oh, so fancy! And ‘fancy’ is exactly the word we almost always are shooting for when we announce this taste of ours. Well, add to that, words like ‘intellectual’, ‘deep’, ‘classy’ and all that jazz. Hoping to be put in the same sentence with these words, we find ourselves say it quite a lot—Jazz.
This is all well and good, up until there is this follow up question: ‘who is your favourite Jazz artiste?’ And God forbid one hears the answer: ‘Kenny G’. This right here is where all hell breaks loose. But that’s beside the point.
Note: A History on Black Notes
First of all, I must say that I have listened to too much music in my lifetime to be this dense about music. I mean, technically, I still don’t understand what a chord really is—even though I have perhaps listened to music longer than I have read books. But here we are, writing thesis of articles week after week, yet not knowing with all certainty what a musical chord even is. So bear with me this attempted musical analogy…
Like everything in the world around us, music, we know, has composition—a fabric which can be spread out, taught and learnt, studied like words on a page. Like everything in the world around us, music is tainted with Eurocentrism. A flaw which we shall seek to dissect and break free off later. But the subject matter of today’s article (and last week’s) being an African American artiste, a people in whom we must be deeply invested (and we showed reason why in the article ‘The Scattering, the Gathering—the Diaspora’), and with these people having their histories intertwined with the West, we will proceed with this piece, with focus begrudgingly given to European music. Let’s begin with Classical music…
If music is a fabric, Classical music is easily a straitjacket. It is beautiful, yet formulaic. Classical music is the ‘1+1 = 2’ of music. Music has physical form—Classical music requires adherence. But what are rules if not for the breaking?—sometimes.
- Symptoms of an Inferiority Complex
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the White folk, still suffering from immense inferiority complex, held tightly still to their need to belittle. So the African American remained the subject of constant belittling in all aspects of American society. Sure, you could deny them the study that prepared them for landing on the moon, yet you could not inhibit their art. Sure, you could deny them places in your classrooms, to study your music theories—your ‘Classical music’, yet you could not inhibit their own music and dance. So onwards the transported African went with Borboorbor, Kpanlogo, Adowa, Fontomfrom, Bamaya, Agbadza, Apala, Fuji, Juju, and co. to their new home—America. And through these centuries of pain, trauma, enslavements, imprisonments, servitudes, the inhumane, these Black folks would gather still, in the small time afforded them, to celebrate life—through music and dance.
What hurts more than to painstakingly cause pain to a person only to find them moments later singing and dancing joyously? The White folk suffering, then, still from excruciating inferiority complex, felt they had failed in cruelty. To remedy this, cruelty was heightened. Enter, the Black Codes. Also known as the Black Laws, this set of inhibiting regulations took the drums away from Black music. Yet the Black folk, they found rhythm in their body. To replace the drum were the hands, clapping to the rhythm, and the feet, stomping to the tune.
With slavery facing a total phasing out, the Black Codes was one of the many resorts the White folk had to keep the Black folk captive. The White man took freedom of association from the Black folk every chance they could get, even to the extent of prohibiting them from meeting in groups in worship of God—because isn’t it this same God who bragged, promising ‘liberty to the captives’. No, the White man did not want that happening. They so badly sought to take life away from the African American that even in music, they tried taking away what they believed gave Black music its vigour, its life—drums. But they were wrong.
As the years went by the Black man and woman, denied every chance at decent society, and inhibited in all aspects of life, saw increase in their body of music yet still. All over the world, where the Black folk was spread, inspiration was drawn. The African American drew inspiration from, among others, their African roots and from the Caribbean. These African music traditions were merged with the European music traditions of their new home nation, America—whenever this uppity European music would allow it. After a series of metamorphosis, Jazz emerged. A music with a very eventful history; music which had a personality; music which had a soul—Jazz. If Classical music was the ‘1+1 = 2’ of music, Jazz showed that one could derive the same answer with a little more twisting around—that ‘1+1+2-2 also equals 2’
2. The Prohibition and Black Inhibition Still
Like every dystopian society, you had the oppressed African American denied access to all the ‘good places’. Yet the oppressed, being human still, and needing to carry out social and economic activities for meaningful survival, needing to fulfil that human need to be ‘somewhere’, they had no option but to couch a niche for themselves in the supposed ‘bad places.’
So in the early 1900s, when the White folk realised that there was in fact an evil lurking in them and on their land that needed ridding of—evils such as crime, corruption, brutality etc., in their White society that needed purging, they incorrectly blamed it on the alcohol. And many of these locations for social gatherings such as those leftovers the Black folks were left with in this cruel society were not only conveniently made target of the ‘immoral’ tag, but of actual prosecutions and incarcerations. The Black folk was right where the White folk wanted them; their music, right where the White folk wanted it—in the slums, in the ‘bad places’. Ergo, Black music—Jazz music was ‘bad’ music.
An imbecilic White man, a man whose name, funnily enough, is now a slur, a certain Mr. Dyke, called Jazz a ‘…music invented for the torture of the imbeciles.’ Stupidity personified, Henry van Dyke, he went on, “As I understand it, it is not music at all. It is merely an irritation of the nerves of hearing, a sensual teasing of the strings of physical passion…” Dyke is still shaking in his grave as we speak, finding himself a certified imbecile in death. Dyke and many White men and women of his kind plagued with the curse of the majority, who dared to speak ill of something they knew little of, are convulsing in their graves as we speak. Because what do we have now? A world of people, a world containing the United States of America, the United States of America containing a whole chunk of White folks, us all in this world, pronouncing our chests, cocking our necks, turning up our noses, as we declare proudly—hoping to find in the declaration an imbued sense of importance—‘Jazz music’ as answer to the question: ‘what is your favourite music genre?’
The Curse of the Majority
‘History repeats itself’ has repeated itself so much that one, even in repeating this saying, is bound to miss the truth of the matter—that history does, in fact, repeat itself. Remember Black folks… the same people who when stripped off the drum, went for their bodies in order to generate rhythm… In Rap music, we find the Black folk pull off yet another wonder. Using words, they generate content (meaningful content), flow (rhymes and rhythm), and delivery (impressive delivery expressed in distinct tone and speed). Take a Rap song, strip it off all its added beats, leave it with its verses alone, and what you have is speech—speech having rhyme and reason, rhythm and rapidity. There is an urgency to Rap music. Well, because the Black person has had things to share urgently. It is an urgency beautifully expressed through music—one that cannot so easily be mimicked without dedicated study of the craft.
Put together a string of words on your own, or take a rap lyric and attempt a rap-along, and you’ll sooner find that those words, they are not just said with rapidity, but there is such rhythm to them—a rhythm innate and learnt, one that cannot just be easily mimicked. Music had for long been the human voice, singing (a feat of which we have come to find that not all of us can pull off), or instruments doing their own things, but here comes Rap music, acting as though it is merely the act of speaking (a feat of which most of us all humans are blessed with). Yet Rap music, it lied, because speaking to a tune, as it does, it is a harder feat still.
Just like that, a new genre had emerged in the late-1900s. No sooner had the Black folk found in Rap music, a voice than they began seeing the need to use this voice to mirror the societies in which they lived—the American society deeply steeped in social injustices, Black injustices. Rap music, having roots in West African music-storytelling tradition, took on a more urgent approach to confront the urgency of the matter of American reality—a reality of police brutality, of incarcerations, racism on all fronts, segregation, White gentrifications, White flights, the list is long.
Authenticity: A Blessing or Curse
The stories told on Rap music were, have been, and still are, as raw as they come—unfiltered, unadulterated. The African American, still having boiling within them an African blood, hence suffering the ‘curse or blessing of authenticity’, have painted vivid pictures of their realities through their music, specifically through this talky genre of music, Hip hop. We must remember, this is a reality that was painstakingly and cruelly dealt them by a White society. It is important to remember this because this reality, when so taken without its historical and factual context of White cruelty creates the impression that makes for a good stereotype.
All of a sudden, as the Black folk is decrying incarcerations in their music, what is heard by the uninformed listener is this: ‘the Black folk is a natural criminal’. But what the listener, in so stereotyping, forgets is that this entire race was and have been treated like a mass of inmates. Inmates who faced varying degrees of imprisonments as the years went by—from absolute imprisonment during the slavery era, to mental imprisonment during the years of racialism that followed. As freed men and women, they were strategically, economically imprisoned, denied all the tools that allowed for proper functioning in the American society—education, decent employment, and inclusion in all aspects of societal and economic life. Crime, in many cases, became the only logical resort.
As the African American raps odes to guns, what is heard by the uninformed listener is: ‘the Black man is a savage’. But this misinterpretation occurs when we forget that in their very eventful history in America, the African American suffered through, among others, what is dubbed the ‘Terror lynchings’ era. During this period, the Black man and woman could be grabbed at whim, lynched, burnt at stake, hanged on trees to die and rot away, just for committing the crime of walking around in their Blackness. And that lasted up until the 1940s—just some eighty years ago.
So the gun, to the Black man, being per the Second Amendment of the gun-loving nation of America, a Constitutionally endowed right, became a necessary accessory for survival. The Black activist Ida B. Wells put it succinctly, “A … rifle should have a place of honour in every Black home, and it should be used for that protection which the law refuses to give.
When the White man who is always the aggressor knows he runs as great a risk of biting the dust every time his Afro-American victim does, he will have a greater respect for Afro-American life. The more the Afro-American yields and cringes and begs, the more he has to do so, the more he is insulted, outraged, and lynched.” Elsewhere, she noted, “I bought a pistol for protection…I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap…”
The Burden of Rectification
And now, the Black folk, worldwide in fact, bears a burden of rectification. Like every global dynamic surrounding us now, the Black man and woman is left to rectify the White folk’s mess. And rectification, the Black person has attempted since this whole White mess started. Some portions of these White folk have also attempted joining in this rectification.
And how is rectification to ensue if one does not acknowledge the problem in the first place? Yet we see how in attempting this rectification by first addressing the problem, we find the Black folk at a conundrum:
By acknowledging the problem and expressing them through music, art, written texts, is the Black folk unknowingly further enforcing these stereotypes? As artistes like Kendrick Lamar shed light on the plights their communities are burdened with, as generations of rappers before him have done, is he helping the White folk—who is conveniently silently sitting on their own evils, painting over them gold—to enforce these stereotypes fraudulently placed on the Black man and woman? These plights and vices, having been repeated so much in relation to the African American, do they not become in the minds of these people, something of a culture?
Still on the Power of Naming
Violent killings expressed by the White American through terrorisms—the very frequent mass shootings, serial killings, police brutalities, etc., are glossed over, as Black-on-Black crimes in poor Black communities receive the stereotyping. The White American ‘drug culture’—the cocaine and heroin culture, sometimes almost receiving praises in their movies and music, sits by, glossed over, as the African American ‘weed culture’ receives the stereotyping.
The White American foul language culture, expressed blatantly through their movies, are glossed over, praised as masterpieces—they receive top awards during the Oscars and Emmys. Language so foul, sometimes outright degrading, like the infamous ‘nigger’ (a total abomination when White uttered), are in White movies uttered freely, and accepted as high art, deserving of high praises and top awards, while the African American foul language culture, expressed through their music, are interestingly, consistently overlooked, downgraded as lower art—you can give Hip hop all but the coveted topmost music award at the Grammys. ‘Album of the Year’ Kendrick’s masterpieces have been, yet have been conveniently snubbed.
That is easily what happens when a people have the power of numbers—we discussed this last week. More so a people wanting so badly to be ‘something’ as the White folk have historically been… Wanting so badly to be ‘something’ that the means conveniently sought by them has been to make others ‘nothing’. This is what happens when such a people have the power of naming—that they can choose to, at whim, assign to all that is theirs ‘good’, and to others, in the particular case, the Black folk, ‘bad’. Even when all one can find between what is ‘theirs’ and what is ‘ours’ is similarities.
The Making of a Utopia
Before we end, let me quickly note: it’s funny, isn’t it? To find a historically charged word such as ‘nigger’ being typed in its totality right here, in the Business & Financial Times, the nation’s very distinguished newspaper, without so much as a blink of an eye… It’s funny, isn’t it? How on one end of the world a thing could be ‘something’—‘all that’, yet on the other end, ‘nothing’ at all. This emotionally-charged word ‘nigger’, when uttered to the Ghanaian by a White man, might just elicit from us, a dotting ‘nigger’ uttered right back, in return.
Also, isn’t it funny how this supposed ‘filthy’ music, Jazz, now is to us all a means of asserting distinguishedness (arguably, the White person especially). It is funny still, knowing how notorious history is of repeating itself, that in some years to come, when this same familiar question is asked a person, they will, with their chest protruded, necks stiffened proudly, nose upturned, respond, ‘Rap music!’ And in so responding, they will hope to illicit words such as ‘fancy’, ‘intellectual’, ‘deep’, ‘classy’, and all that rap. And the word ‘rap’ would have undergone a semantic shift to mean ‘all things as profoundly great as this’.
This is going to happen in no time. But I do hope that we do not wait for the White folk’s supposed full stamp of approval, before this happens.
So all ye fancy people, go give Rap music (from all over the world) a chance. Most especially do so with Kendrick Lamar. And remember, any reference to penises and vaginas you stumble upon are metaphors—sometimes they are personifications, err… but mostly figurative.
‘As I am’
So we have here, this young gentleman, Kendrick Lamar, running away from the saviour crown donned him by his fellow countrymen and women. Smart, right? For a mere mortal to prance about with such a god-like crown, accepting upon themselves, the tag of ‘saviour of the masses’, that is blasphemy, isn’t it? It comes as no surprise that this Black gentleman, blessed/cursed with the urge for authenticity and respect for Deity as we the Black folks have taught ourselves to be, would want nothing to do with any accolade that seeks to uplift one from positions of ‘mere mortal’ to the realm of ‘gods’. With a crown on his head, and a gun in his trousers, this young man chooses to be so-called ‘saviour’ of his little confinement called family—nuclear and extended. But to play god and guide to all, that is plain blasphemy, so he runs away.
But tell me this, why does the White folk, even the most mundanely talented, find it so easy to accept and perpetuate this tag of ‘god’ and ‘perfection’ upon themselves without even the littlest scruples? Kendrick rejects the crown from the Rap community, but a White person will just as easily pick it up—and run with it.
I mean, just look at how Jesus Himself was easily misappropriated by the White folk—bleached white to the bone, bearded to look like every average White man with a beard. So that even as they bow down in supposed worship of a Deity, it is in fact their own selves that they worship…Even as you and I bow down in supposed worship of our God, it is in fact to them that we do…
Eh? Jesus, finding trouble to pass by this earth in a short suicidal vacation, now perpetually hanged on crosses worldwide, bleached white to the bone… basaa like that.
I may just be detouring, please remind me again, what is this article about?