One doesn’t have to be a professional musician to have a deep connection to music. Music is everywhere. It is an inherent part of the human experience. Music is inside all of us with the rhythm of our heartbeats and the melodies we dream up in our own imaginations. It’s outside of us: the sounds of nature — the song of the wind and the rhythm of the rain, the pulse of the surf crashing on the shore.
As human beings, we stood out from the natural world and we created culture: personal expression through language, through gesture, through visual representations, and yes, through music. All you need to create music is your own body: your hands to clap, your voice to sing and you’re a musician!
And just as every culture has its own languages, its own gestures, its own visual arts, every culture has its music. African-Americans who were slaves had their own music. Those forms of music were rooted in Africa. Whether they knew it or not or cared, slave traders were bringing not only people, but African rhythms, African melodies and harmonies and gestures and ideas and modes of expression to the United States.
Once those African ideas came here, they became African-American. They were born of slavery. The African-American slave experience shaped the music. Field hollers and work songs helped to ease the burden of group tasks under brutal conditions. Spirituals offered praise and thanks and search for forgiveness. Recreational songs were sung to just sing and dance to in the face of horrifying conditions. The slave experience shaped this music. The music created by slaves used many concepts and approaches not previously heard in other styles: emotive yells, bending of notes, improvisation, using washboards and spoons and other household “stuff” to make rhythms.
But how the music was created wasn’t as important as why. This was music that was honest and true. It was pure. It was created out of the unjust practice of treating people as property. But that truth and honesty and purity is what allowed something far more powerful to live on in its own way, something that all the injustices could never take away: dignity.
From the field hollers and the spirituals and all the rest came the blues. The blues is the great-grandfather of nearly every musical style popular in America today. Jazz took the blues and added more complex harmonies and rhythms and a vast array of other ideas that have made it one of the most wide-ranging and expressive forms of music yet known. The blues even makes its mark on forms of music traditionally considered “white.”
In nearly every musical form created in America today, one could draw a line back to the blues and then to the music of slavery. It might not be the only influence on these musical forms, but it is there nonetheless. American music cannot escape the music born of slavery and how an oppressed people made something beautiful out of horrible conditions and unjust practices.
It is that beauty we must look at — and consider the music being made today.
We can easily illustrate and observe how music today is connected to the music of the past in a theoretical way. But can we say the same in an aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual way? I ask not how the music of today is made, but why? Is it to preserve dignity while surrounded by horrors and injustices? Is it to praise a higher power and seek one within ourselves and our fellow human beings? Is it a celebration of who we are as a people? These are not questions for me to answer for you. I have my own answers as a person who creates music. But these are questions to ask yourselves.
We all create music within ourselves. But we also celebrate and give life to music by the music we choose to listen to. We need to ask ourselves, not only what music we listen to . . . but “why?” Does it celebrate the dignity, honesty, purity and constructive ideals contained in the music it was descended from generations ago? Or, is it there for other lesser ideals: simply for the sake of more consumption; materialism; cheap sexuality — dividing ourselves into groups as Americans and world citizens of “us” and “them” simply because it feels good to have an enemy to blame our problems on. Are these concepts sometimes celebrated in the music of today? We can blame the music industry for producing certain music that celebrates certain ideals — but what is the relationship we have with music as individuals?
I don’t have the answers. But those are the questions we must ask ourselves as musical creators and consumers.
Ramsey Emmanuel Lewis Jr., American jazz icon, composer and pianist, delivered a speech on Feb. 26, 2009, for Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White’s African American History Month Celebration at the James R. Thompson Center in Chicago. The above is an edited excerpt.