Wednesday, June 15, 2011

American pop music from Islamic Africa?

1) European-American settlers brought millions of African slaves to America. Some were likely Muslim; Alex Haley's influential Roots, tracing his ancestry back to The Gambia, depicts his enslaved ancestors as literate Muslims.

2) These Africans took their traditional cultures with them to the US, including African musical traits like call and response:
spontaneous verbal and non-verbal interaction between speaker and listener in which all of the statements (‘calls’) are punctuated by expressions (‘responses’) from the listener.
3) Black Americans adopted European instruments like piano, banjo and guitar, and distinctly African-American forms of music emerged from the mix.

4) Some whites were outraged and disgusted by the popularity of black jazz music. The president of the General Federation of Women's Clubs identified jazz as a terrifyingly foreign force:
Jazz was originally the accompaniment of the voodoo dancer, stimulating the half-crazed barbarians to the vilest deeds. The weird chant, accompanied by the syncopated rhythm of the voodoo invokers, has also been invoked by other barbaric people to stimulate brutality and sensuality.... its influence is wholly bad.
5) Despite, or because of, the shock that black American music invoked in conservatives, it spread and spread. Rock 'n Roll became its most important export, with white interpreters like Elvis Presley introducing African-American music to international audiences. Within a few decades rock music, with its roots in black blues, was dominant in the US and much of Europe.

By the 1980s another wave of black American music was emerging in hip hop, and there were quickly rapping imitators all over the world. Italians were rapping against the Mafia. Inuits were rapping about the domination of the Danish language in Greenland. Aboriginal Australian kids were rapping about swimming and fishing in the local river ('Jump off the bridge and I'll play the didge/And when I catch a fish, I put it in the fridge').

African folk call and response had come full circle and conquered the world.
6) Of course the spread of apparently American culture has provoked irritation and outrage among foreign nationalists and conservatives. Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini derided Western music:
Music dulls the mind, because it involves pleasures and ecstasy, similar to drugs. Your music I mean. Usually your music has not exalted the spirit, it puts it to sleep. And it destructs our youth who become poisoned by it, and then they no longer care about their country.
In Pakistan an official with the Islamist party Jamaat-i-Islami had similar views in 1995:
Michael Jackson and Madonna are the torchbearers of society, their cultural and social values... that are destroying humanity. They are ruining the lives of thousands of Muslims and leading them to destruction, away from their religion, ethics and morality.
7) Considering this Islamist contempt for "American" music, I'm captivated by the possibility that American popular music has its roots among African Muslims! How appropriate for cranky Islamists to be denouncing their own cultural heritage.


  1. Got reminded about this post when I came across this article in the Economist.

    how speakers of endangered languages were singing hip-hop in it to make it "cool" :D

  2. Nice one Rohan, that's interesting. Perhaps if languages are to survive then the initiative must come from the bottom up.

    Here in Ireland we were taught Irish in school, but that makes it just another subject, which many people grew to resent. None of us needed to actually use the language since everyone spoke English.

    I gather India has loads of languages! Is Hindi your first language? I know an Indian girl for whom English is her first language because her parents speak different Indian languages and only have English in common!

  3. Well, English is my 1st Language (mainly because I think in English), Konkani is my second Language, Marathi is my third and Hindi is my 4th Language.

    In Mumbai, we have a very weird incongruity where almost everything we read or write including all signboards is in English (or at least in roman characters) but most of what we speak or hear is in Indian languages.

    We also have at least 3 languages as subjects in India- hindi, english and the local language if any and sometimes along with sanskrit, french or german (don't ask :P). They are also treated as just subjects, I barely remember any of the french i learned in school.

  4. Ah that's cool, though, good to have a bunch of languages going!

    Anyway I have to go now, am off into town in a thunderstorm to buy M&Ms :P I just feel the need for M&Ms tonight!

  5. I know the feeling, I sometimes get that with snickers :P

  6. @Shane and Rohan
    Languages survive only when their native users don't give up on them.
    Most Africans in the developed world are not giving up on the past.
    Can't say the same about the Indians.

  7. Thanks Etio! Interesting to see a list of sub-Saharan African words which have crept through into English here:

    As for Indians giving up on their past, well I'm sure most of them are still ahead of most Irish. The Irish language here is taught in all schools, yet very rarely used in practice.


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