Kalamu ya Salaam's information blog


photo by Alex Lear

photo by Alex Lear







Hey, everybody, let’s have some fun.

You only live but once, and when you’re dead, you’re done.


Pleasure is essential to life. Indeed, the desire to fulfill the pleasure principle is the fundamental hunger of life. Even at the basic survival level of food, we prefer down home cooking that gives us pleasure to dishes that solely give us nutrients. The first law of human nature is survival. The second law is find a way to enjoy surviving!


While we all know the pursuit of pleasure can lead to excesses such as greed, gluttony and hedonism, we all also would prefer a smile to a scowl, a caress to a slap, a kiss to a moral lecture. Most of us would prefer to enjoy ourselves rather than grimly go through life rigidly disciplined. Why is this?


Pleasure is essential because life is hard. A grain of sugar (or a proverbial “taste of honey”) is never so sweet as when savored by a tongue accustomed to a poverty enforced regimen of starch and vinegar. Those who have had the harshest experiences possess the deepest appreciation of pleasure. Moreover, for those who live a life of toil rather than leisure, pleasure is not just a salve soothing over hard times, pleasure is also a necessary encouragement to optimistically face the future. Or, as the blues bards sing: I believe / the sun gonna shine / in my backdoor someday. We face the future because we believe there will be some pleasure to be gained by holding on, otherwise, why stay alive?


In the United States, the pursuit of pleasure is very often linked to popular music, and, in turn, the popular music of the United States is Black music and/or musical forms (such as Broadway show tunes, Country & Western, or Rock & Roll) that are strongly influenced by Black popular music.


This little essay will talk a bit about the function of Black popular music, specifically Rhythm and Blues (R&B)—and by extension Rap music, in modern American society. I understand that not everyone will appreciate popular music in America as being one and the same with Black music. Some argue that music has no color. Others argue that Black music is not the only popular music of America — such people, of course, deny any connection between country and western, for example, and Rhythm & Blues, or between bluegrass and traditional jazz. While I respect everyone’s right to their own beliefs, that right in no way negates an accurate appreciation of reality.


In reality there is no popular music in America that did not come from Black music or that is not strongly influenced by Black music. For example, the very notion of a backbeat and of swing is proof of the Black origins of popular music. If the rhythmic emphasis is on two and four, rather than one and three, better believe “Negroes” had something to do with it.


I use the term Negro both ironically and seriously. Ironically, because currently we former Negroes no longer use that term to identify ourselves, preferring African American or Black, and yet both African American and Black are ambiguous with respect to identifying us as specifically and/or exclusively coming from the USA; in reality all Blacks who are born and reared anywhere in the western hemisphere are African Americans. Moreover, just as African does not identify where in Africa our ancestors came from, American does not identify where in the western hemisphere we come from unless one assumes the great nation chauvinism which claims that when we say American we are ipso facto talking only about the United States and that anywhere else in the western hemisphere is not America.


I use the term “Negro” seriously to specify that we are talking about those of us in the African Diaspora who were culturally shaped by and in turn have shaped and/or significantly influenced the culture of the United States of America. The term “Negroes” differentiates us from Afro-Cubans, Brazilians, Haitians or others “Blacks” born and reared in the Western Hemisphere. Negroes initiated the backbeat and the concept of swing in music. Samba, zouk, calypso, etc. do not have a pronounced backbeat, and those forms which do, such as reggae, do so as a direct result of the influence of “Negro” music. The upshot of all of this is that when we abandoned “Negro” we actually muddied the water of self-identification, even as we thought we were making things clearer. In one sense we were clearer in identifying with Africa—which “Negro” obviously does not since there were and are no “Negroes” in Africa—but in another sense we confused the issue of the specificity of our Americaness by simply saying America. The irony is that we dropped one label and picked up another in an effort to be clearer, but our new term is actually more ambiguous than the older term even though the older term had its own limitations.


Although this is an obvious aside, it is an important digression in that it helps us understand how it is that our music can be identified primarily as “Black” music within the USA and primarily as American music outside the USA. Now, let us return to the main thread of our discussion.


Essentially, modern American pop music all started with the ragtime craze and minstrel music. We may not know Scott Joplin, the greatest composer of ragtime, but we do know Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”


The invention of popular American music is distinct from the various popular ethnic musics—e.g. the polkas of the Polish peoples; the ballads of the English, Irish and Scottish peoples; the martial music of the Germans—the John Phillip Sousa inspired marching bands that still parade through downtown Main Street in the American heartland; the light opera of the Italians; all of these ethnically identified musical forms merged into and were subsumed by the wave of popular music unleashed by newly emancipated enslaved Africans (who by the turn of the century had officially become “citizens,” i.e. products of the American social matrix).


When people argue the existence of American popular music they are really acknowledging the disappearance of distinct European ethnic musical forms and the emergence of a unique music. By the twenties (which, incidentally, immediately follows World War I, the historical starting line for the rise of America as an international superpower), American music (i.e. “jazz”) sweeps Europe and the rest of the world for the “second” time. Before jazz, there was the ragtime craze and there was the near insatiable appetite for Negro spirituals. All of this was represented as “American” music, a music which did not exist anywhere else in the world unless exported by the U.S.A.


Added to this, is the technological dominance exerted by American “inventions” and “improvements” on twentieth century technology. Specifically, the phonograph (1917 was the first jazz recording, 1920 the first blues recording) and the cinema. Although photography was not invented in America, Hollywood is purely American in its exploiting of the technology. Moreover, the first “talkie” and first film musical was “The Jazz Singer” (1927) starring Al Jolson, a man of Jewish heritage performing in black face.


To raise the ante a bit, during the period of American ascendancy as a world power, Euro-ethnic immigrants signified their transformation into “Americans” via their (re)presentation of “American” music, i.e. music which had been initially created by “colored people.” What do I mean? I mean the Berlins, the Gershwins, the Goodmans, the Whitemans, not to mention Bing Crosby who started off singing jazz or Gene Autrey who sang blues! Check the records. To be an American was to be able to make or emulate some form of Black popular music.


The three major musical branches of “American music” were jazz, blues and gospel, and the three major musical roots were ragtime, minstrel and Negro spirituals. Everything we know as popular America music either came directly from these six elements or was indelibly influenced by those roots and branches. I do not claim the Broadway musical is “Black” but I do claim that the origins of Broadway  music is directly inspired and influenced by ragtime and the minstrel tradition. The contemporary dominance of “rap” is nothing but a reoccurrence of the dominance of jazz and before that the dominance of ragtime. That is the history of American music in a cursory but not inaccurate nutshell.


“Black” is not solely a racial designation. For the purposes under discussion here, Black is a cultural designation that refers to a very broad, but nonetheless, specific cultural aesthetic. This aesthetic is sometimes misleadingly labeled “always for pleasure.” Actually, this music is produced by the same people who literally slaved to build America. Clearly there is more to “Blackness” than the unbridled pursuit of pleasure. At the same time however, in the case of what is popularly known as R&B, undoubtedly and unashamedly, pleasure is the primary purpose. And that’s good.


Acknowledging that pleasure is good is a given among those of us who like our good times hot and loud, but the philosophical goodness of pursuing pleasure is alien to the traditional, Anglo-oriented status quo of America. Engaging the body in dance and celebration specifically for the pleasure of the experience is a concept both integral to African-heritage aesthetics and as foreign to Anglicized, puritan philosophy as is the distance between tepid clam chowder spiced with only a pinch of salt and cayenne flavored filé gumbo.


Music, song and dance is the holy trinity of the Black music aesthetic, and R&B/Rap, in particular, is the paragon of pleasure seeking within the context of Black music. Plato never trusted music precisely because music foregrounded emotion and backgrounded cognition. Christian ministers were always condemning Black popular music as the “devil’s music” pointing out that such music inflamed pagan passions. When we say that “music” is the first aspect of the eternal triangle, we mean that music communicates at a visceral level, connects through sensations, feelings. Popular music is then a music you don’t have to think about, in fact, any thinking you may do is incidental or secondary. The first commandment is what is real, is what is felt. This only makes sense, when you consider that feeling precedes thinking—before you can think about the world, you must “feel” the world, or, as we commonly say in New Orleans, “I feel to believe.”


The second commandment is “sing,” express yourself lyrically. Singing represents your conscious thoughts about the world presented with emotional ardor. When we sing we are not only making music, we are also expressing our thoughts, and regardless of how base or ordinary the thoughts may be, and regardless of how emotionally charged the music may be, all popular music expresses thoughts as well as feeling. R&B is primarily a vocal music, i.e. the lyrics are sung, whereas jazz is primarily an instrumental music. In the early days of jazz, the music was both sung (vocal) and played (instrumental). In fact, jazz introduced “scat singing,” which was a new way to vocalize music. But when jazz ceased being popular music, the emphasis swung heavily toward instrumental music.


The vocal element, is then, a key element in popular music. It is significant that R&B/Rap has lyrics, significant that you can “articulate” (emotionally communicate) your thoughts and feelings without the need of an instrument other than your own body. Popular music is then literally “self”-sufficient—the body is the only vehicle absolutely required for presenting both sensation (feeling) and cognition (thought), whereas jazz is almost impossible without instruments, without the use of material objects (instruments of “noise making”) outside of the performer’s body. Moreover, it is extremely significant that jazz instrumental techniques mimic the human voice rather than some abstract pure tonality. The jazz “vocalization” emphasis for the playing of instruments points to jazz’s origin as popular music based in an African aesthetic. This vocal-orientation is a major demarcation between how one plays jazz and plays Euro-centric musics. “Vocalness” is then the second element of the tri-part focus.


Thirdly, R&B/Rap has a strong beat, it is dance music. The emphasis on dance is significant. Indeed, the birth of R&B happened precisely at the same time that jazz ceased being dance music. While I do not argue that dancing is necessary to receive pleasure from music, I do recognize that at the popular level in America, pleasure in music is equated with dance. Initially, R&B was nothing more than a branch of post-World War II jazz that emphasized lyrics (often humorous and/or bawdy) accompanied by a dance beat. A founding figure of this development was saxophonist / vocalist / bandleader Louis Jordan. Indeed, initially this precursor of R&B was sometimes known as “jump jazz,” a term which made the dance connection obvious.


America’s fascination with Black dance forms began with the “cakewalk” during the ragtime era and escalated from there. When we investigate the background of dancers whom are considered 100% American such as Vernon and Irene Castle, who made a career out of teaching popular (i.e. “ballroom”) dance in the twenties, or movie idol Fred Astaire, we find that they were not only directly influenced by Black dancers of their time, indeed they often studied Black dancers, both directly (as in were mentored by) and indirectly (as in imitated).


If not directly descendant from or primarily influenced by Black dance, all forms of popular America dance have an ethnic origin outside of American—need we point out that Cajun culture is French influenced? Although a case can be made for square dancing, even that has been transformed by Black contact as any quick perusal of country cable television will demonstrate. When we see contemporary country and western dance, what we are looking at is “cowboys” doing line dances whose structure and moves are clearly based on Black forms of dance. They don’t call what they do the “electric slide” or the “bus stop” but the resemblance is both obvious and unmistakable. In fact, if we look back to the late fifties/early sixties we find the immediate precedent for contemporary line dances, the “Madison” dance craze touted by Time magazine complete with a chart demonstrating the steps.


Musicality, lyricism and a dance beat are the triumvirate of essential ingredients in all popular American music.


One of the most significant “American” shifts in the Black music aesthetic is the separation of secular and spiritual forms of music, a separation which is reinforced by the mutually exclusive association of dance with secular music. Thus, although Black religious music (spirituals and gospel) clearly qualify as embodying the concepts of musicality and lyricism, spirituals are not dance music, and ditto for gospel (a music form which developed in the 1920s epitomized by the work of composer/pianist Thomas Dorsey and vocalist Mahalia Jackson). The recent attempts of Kirk “Stomp” Franklin and others within contemporary gospel notwithstanding, churches do not allow dancing.


This is a European splitting of the celebration of the body from the celebration of the soul. Moreover, because all Black dance celebrates the erotic, and because Christianity posits the body as sinful (as in “original sin”) there is a further demarcation and separation. But an African aesthetic does not consider the body sinful, nor does our aesthetic consider the erotic to ipso facto be lewd. Thus on the one hand dance and popular music are generally considered beyond the pale for good Christians, and at the same time within the Black community there is a constant cross-genre traffic.


Many of the major R&B artists originate in and get their basic foundation in the musical liturgy of the Black church and then cross over to the secular side of the street to become popular, secular music entertainers. These musicians carry the gospel way with them, for while gospel may have eschewed dancing, gospel retained a direct identification with emotionalism and with trance, which is a transformation of the body into a vehicle for sacred expression. We call it getting the holy ghost. While the number of R&B artists who started off as gospel artists is too many to shake a stick at, it is important to mention that it was Ray Charles who brought not just the expressiveness but adapted, on a wholesale level, the specifics of gospel and injected it into what was then newly emerged as R&B. For all practical purposes, if Louis Jordan was the John the Baptist of R&B, Ray Charles was the “Jesus” who had thousands of disciples, both male and female, who followed in his wailing footsteps.


At the same time that gospel was used to develop the “soul sound” of R&B, Black religious music was, and is, constantly re-energized by injections of Black secular musical forms. Gospel as we know it initially was spirituals “jazzed up.” In the twenties when Dorsey and Jackson first introduced this music they were accused of bringing he devil into the church and were actually forbidden to sing “gospel” in some churches because the church elders insisted that what they were really singing was the “devil’s music.” Mahalia Jackson’s retort is classic: Well that’s the way we sing it in the south.


What is even more significant than simply “jazzing up” gospel music, and also even more significant than injecting “rap” into gospel music, is the Afro-centric reintroduction of the drum into sacred musical liturgy. If any one factor represents both dance and Afrocentricity, it is the drum. That the drum is not only accepted, but is increasingly a mainstay of religious music, signifies a move toward the merging of secular and sacred music into an aesthetic (holistic) whole that is a hallmark of the African way of life.


In a very important and Afrocentic sense, music that does not merge both body and soul, feeling and thought, is not complete. Music that is truly a people’s music (i.e. truly “popular”) ought to contain and celebrate both elements as part of a continuum rather than separate one aspect from the other. What we are witnessing, whether we realize it or not, is the push and pull of African aesthetics toward wholeness.


The sound of Blackness is the aesthetic of psychological freedom.Understanding its psychological impact is the key to appreciating the attraction and importance of R&B specifically and Black popular music in general. This music is both a music of freedom and of honesty.


The freedom to acknowledge one’s self, body and soul, to say that I exist and I matter, and all of me matters, my physical and emotional as well as my mental and spiritual capacities — admittedly, the spiritual aspect of a music of pleasure is usually limited, but that part is there also. And the honesty to admit that the reality of the self, the spectrum of concerns we inhabit, is a spectrum whose poles are good and bad, beautiful and ugly. We all live on and in that sphere, and the extremes are never fixed—each quality is relative. What is good, bad, beautiful, etc. at any given moment changes as we change.


There are no absolutes except life itself, and even that is speculative, i.e. is there life after death? Many people don’t realize that all of this is contained in going up to Slim’s on Saturday night and dancing until you fall out and, hopefully, landing in the embrace of a special someone’s arms.


What is important to understand is that many of us have been taught that we are ugly, that the physical is sinful, that physical pleasure is wrong, and yet, through the magic of music we resist such teachings with a philosophy that refuses to separate feeling from thought, body from soul. When we dance we are arguing that life is wholistic.


R&B/Rap is philosophically important. To prioritize pleasure, a pleasure that we can produce and reproduce without “buying” something, is extremely important to maintaining mental health. To understand self-production as an activity that each of us can engage, rather than an artifact we own or purchase, such as an article of clothing, or a fat bank account, or even a fine physique; this understanding is key to why we persist in singing and dancing to the music. We do so because ultimately we can not exist without recreating our sense of self, our awareness of our own beauty and goodness.  And that is why we could, indeed “had to” sing a song in a strange land.


In our communities, aesthetic (a sense of beauty and goodness) awareness is generally an unconscious awareness, nevertheless, such self awareness is absolutely necessary to life, for we can not go on if we do not believe that there is some good, some beauty within us. That screaming and hollering that the singers do, those songs that move us so, all of that informs us that within each of our lives there has been some good, some beauty, even if only momentary and fleeting, even if we are crying and moaning because that good thing is now gone, even if we believe the exquisite moment shall never return, we are still emboldened by the fact that we can stand and proudly proclaim, “I have had my fun / if I don’t get well no more.”


Finally, fun is subversive, especially when one is the object of oppression and exploitation. For when the sufferers find a way to have fun, we not only momentarily transcend our suffering, we affirm that there is a part of us, an enjoyment within us which we share with our fellow sufferers that is beyond the reach of the overseer, the master, the banker, our creditors, the boss, the hoss, and any damn other person or thing that is intent on making our lives miserable. This subversive factor is the ultimate meaning of R&B/Rap, and is also the source of why the music is always damned by the psychological gatekeepers, i.e. ministers, politicians, educators & status quo intellectuals. When social pundits argue that R&B, or Rap, or any other contemporary popular music is a morally corrupting force, or that those forms “are not music,” that our music needs to be censored if not actually prohibited, then what they are saying is that we have no right to decide what to do with our own bodies for good or for ill.


R&B asserts that “I’m three times seven / and that makes 21 / ain’t nobody’s bizness / what I do.” The ultimate determination of self is the right of self expression, and those who would limit, circumscribe, prohibit, or otherwise legislate our self expression are the very same people who have no problem with capitalism (and if they were alive during slavery time, ditto, they would have no problem with slavery). In fact, during slavery time there were those who tried to stop enslaved Africans from singing and dancing. The power of popular music is that it asserts our existence centered in a pleasurable self-determined celebration. When we holler, “let the good times roll / laissez les bon temps roullez,” we are actually uttering a war cry against psychological oppression. And when we produce our own popular music and dance outside of the purview of the status quo, then we are (re)creating the/our “living self.”


There is more, of course, just as surely as Sunday morning follows Saturday night, but that more is for another time. Right now, I just wanted to share with you the “psychological significance” and “aesthetically-African origins” of popular American music; in other words, I just wanted to tell you why it is so important for us to have some fun!


—kalamu ya salaam











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