Music Class Taught Me My African-American Culture is Valued
For most of my life, I felt like my people didn’t have a culture. In elementary school, I was taught that African people were taken from western countries on the continent and brought to America and the surrounding areas as slaves. I also learned after centuries of enduring harsh, uncompensated labor, the newly-named African-Americans marched, protested, and were finally set free.
This is often where the timeline of African-American history ended for me.
In the following years, most of the history I learned surrounded American history and how the culture of European descendants changed and flourished in the United States. Whenever I questioned the culture of African-American people, I received the same answer.
“African-Americans don’t know their culture. It was taken away from us during slavery."
I often believed this to be true.
I grew up on the south side of Chicago, one of America’s brightest and best-known centers of black culture. I accepted that “my” culture remained on the African continent and that I would never know exactly who I am because I did not fully know where I was from.
Upon arriving at a predominantly white institution for college, I quickly learned the idea of African-American people “not having a culture” was untrue, but I still internalized a lot of thinking that deemed African-American culture less valuable and rich than cultures of black people from Jamaica, Nigeria, Cuba, and other places besides mainland North America.
But now, in my “Music in the African Diaspora” class, I'm learning that not only is no black culture more valuable than another, but also all Africans and African descended people are connected. We are all one.
In many older African societies, music served as a communal affair. There was usually not just one person designated as the performer while others served as an audience. Music was a bonding and spiritual process. During times of slavery, African-Americans did the same. At church, they sang and danced together to pray for freedom.
As Americans, African descendants participate in musical performances with a musician and audience. But there are still many religious African-Americans who use music as a way of bonding and connecting with their higher power, just as Africans societies did years ago and today.
One particular aspect of “Music in the African Diaspora” that stands out to me is the unity black people show in their struggles. When Fela Kuti, creator of the Afrobeat genre, came to the United States, he saw the struggles that African-Americans were facing in the late '60s and early '70s, most of which he learned about from Black Panther Party member Sandra Smith.
African-Americans wore African dashikis to show their strength and solidarity despite the institutional systems holding them back. Kuti saw African-Americans’ pride and took it back to Nigeria, where he created the cross-cultural music genre Afrobeat--a mix of African-American funk, jazz, Nigerian music, Ghanian highlife, Afro-Cuban music, and more.
African-Americans created jazz, rhythm, and blues music. We created hip-hop with influence from black Jamaicans who moved from overseas and displayed their turntable techniques. African descendants from all over the world have shared and borrowed each others’ culture in music and beyond since the beginning of time. Just as Africans and Caribbeans have distinct cultures from their respective countries, African-Americans have held on to and created practices of their own in the United States.
Our contributions to America certainly stretch beyond music, art, vernacular (which usually later becomes popular culture), dance, and more. My blackness is cultured and has value, just as the cultures of other Africans in the diaspora. And I am glad to finally fully understand that.
Scenarios USA is a nonprofit that uses writing and film to foster youth leadership, advocacy, and self-expression in students across the country, with a focus on marginalized communities. Teens who win Scenarios' writing contests see their stories get translated into movies by professional filmmakers. These movies are viewed by up to 20 million people every year.