In the cultures of West Africa from which most slaves were taken, music had been an integral part of everyday life in the community, not a special activity reserved for specific times and places. Making music was also fully connected with dancing, and so music and dance constituted meaningful performances where everyone was expected to participate in some way. Music and dance were expressive activities with a crucial role in the rituals and beliefs of West African religions, as they did not divide the sacred from the secular in the absolute manner that Europeans did. As such, music and dance also embodied the ethical and aesthetic ideals of West African cultures, their notions of how to live right and practice the art of happiness. When social norms were violated or a community was in disorder, performances of music and dance were used to dramatize transgression and release tension. West African cultures did not separate these aspects of social life which had been sharply differentiated in modern European societies, and the most important activity of this unified culture involved music and dance.
These performances of music and dance both expressed and brought into being an interdependent, reciprocal relationship between participants in the community. Music and dance enacted relationships which enabled individuals to develop their unique creative gifts with the support of a wider community. West African reverence for improvisation and stylization opened opportunities for displays of individual skill and self-expression, and in turn they believed that a good individual performance could strengthen and uplift the entire group. This relationship extended beyond the immediately present to include one’s ancestors, whose spirits were summoned and venerated in performances of music and dance. West Africans understood themselves as embedded in long-running traditions of music and dance, whose standards are flexible and loose enough that they allow individuals to develop a distinct sound or movement within a larger ensemble. They might spend most of their time in a performance as part of a chorus or a line of drummers or dancers, but everyone periodically gets a turn to lead the chants, improvise a solo, or step inside the dance circle to show others what they can do.
The esteemed art historian Robert Farris Thompson identified four key characteristics of West African music and dance; he added a fifth trait which was nonmusical yet crucial for their social significance. The first is the overriding importance of rhythm in West African music and dance, what Thompson calls “the dominance of a percussive concept of performance”. The stark contrast between European and African approaches to making music in this manner was noted by the pioneering ethnomusicologist A.M. Jones: “Rhythm is to the African what harmony is to the European, and it is in the complex interweaving of contrasting rhythmic patterns that he finds his greatest aesthetic satisfaction.” Thompson discussed the ways that African musicians played various instruments with an energetic plucking that created a percussive sound, as opposed to Western symphonies which were dominated by melodic instruments and organized in a hierarchy of harmonic tones. This use of percussion connects music with the body, as it is equally important to the West African performance for dancers to hear and feel the rhythms while expressing them in their bodily movements. Dancers make different rhythmic nuances apparent through their bodies, and their movements become part of the percussive sound itself through actions like clapping, stomping, or rattling objects.
The second element of West African music and dance which Thompson examined was its use of multiple meter. In playing different rhythms at the same time, ensembles realize a worldview that stresses the pivotal nature of relationships and the ability to live with conflict and contradiction. John Miller Chernoff, an ethnomusicologist who learned and studied drumming in the Ewe tradition in Ghana, observed that the relationships between the varying beats composed a unified musical performance: “The most significant point is that while each of the rhythms is simple, in combination their relationship is a bit complicated…The diverse rhythms establish themselves in intricate and changing relationships to each other analogously to the way that tones establish harmony in Western music.” As multiple rhythms cross and clash with one another, they create a body of sound where simple, repetitive rhythms are involved in a complicated, dynamic relationship. The use of multiple meter reveals a cultural orientation that can absorb contradictions and turn conflict into a source of creative innovation. This capacity to appropriate, improvise, and synthesize would prove essential for the survival of African culture under conditions of slavery in the Americas.
The third attribute is what Thompson called apart playing and dancing, in which musicians and dancers perform separate parts and make different contributions to the whole ensemble. Thompson contrasted this approach with the uniformity of a European symphony orchestra: “Africans unite music and dance but play apart; Europeans separate dance and music but play together.” The simultaneous playing of different musical sounds represents a West African sensibility about the individual’s relationship to their community, creating a dynamic where musicians must follow the beats so they can find a space to improvise in response to what others are playing. Chernoff described how apart playing occurs in the musical performance: “Each musician contributes his own part in the total polymetric fabric, and there are never two or more playing the same thing unless their specific drums are the same.” The social group is extended to include ancestral figures and the collective memory of various developments in music and dance. An individual musician is in dialogue with the music of the past in the same sense that one interacts with the other musicians who are immediately present.
The fourth and final musical trait Thompson identified was call-and-response, the form of antiphony that alternates between a leader and a chorus. Call-and-response has an enduring history of vocal forms, which can regularly be heard at hip-hop performances, black church services, and chants during protest marches. However, call-and-response also encompasses non-vocal types of dialogue between musical instrumentalists as well as bodily interactions between improvising dancers and the group surrounding them. Call-and-response thus fulfills the wider sensibility of African culture that is expressed in music and dance, as the musicologist Christopher Small explained: “The balance between leader and followers, between innovation and tradition, between individual and society, is perhaps most strikingly embodied in that ubiquitous feature of African choral singing which is known as call and response.”
All of these elements of music and dance were evident in the ring shout, which would prove to be crucial for preserving African attributes in African-American music. During a ring shout, people gather in a circle and slowly walk in a counterclockwise direction while they sing and maintain a rhythm by clapping or making other sounds; the tempo and intensity of participation steadily increases as people shuffle their feet around the ring. The mixture of vocals alternates between repetitive singing or chanting and the periodic interjection of cries, shouts, and hollers from individuals in the ring. In short, the key characteristics of African music and dance can all be found in the ring shout: rhythmic complexity, group participation, individual improvisation, call-and-response, and a connection between music and the body. As a ritual, the ring shout developed from African burial ceremonies and symbolically represented circular beliefs about life, death, and rebirth. These rituals fit within African cultural practices that were simultaneously sacred and secular, where there were no firm boundaries separating the spiritual world from everyday life. The ring shout survived through the centuries of slavery as its essential elements were adopted in black churches and a wide array of black musical forms. In his groundbreaking work on black music and aesthetics, Samuel Floyd argued that “the ring helped preserve the elements that we have come to know as the characterizing and foundational elements of African-American music.” For example, Floyd showed how the “second line” of funerals in New Orleans, which were essential for the evolution of jazz and eventually became known as jazz funerals, originated as a straightened variation of the ring shout.
After identifying the four fundamental elements of West African music and dance, Thompson discussed a fifth characteristic which was not musical itself, but instead pertained to the social and moral significance of music. Music and dance allowed West Africans to express mounting frustrations and sanction antisocial behavior through clever wordplay and allusions that indicted their target indirectly. As Small observed, “It was in the rituals, the music and the dance forms that the society has dramatized and released tensions within it, without being under any illusion that such releases can ever be achieved once and for all, but in full awareness that they must be negotiated anew by each generation.” Songs of satire were often aimed against the powerful and the pompous, whose movements, mannerisms, and speech could be subtly mocked in ways that were sometimes mistaken for flattery. This sardonic quality enabled music and dance to act as one of the few means of resistance under slavery in the Americas, as the historian William Piersen explained:
Thus it was that throughout the era of slavery African Americans across the New World used satiric songs to resist white oppression. When, under the interdictions of bondage, blacks found themselves unable to develop formal methods of social regulation, they fought back with the informal controls that in Africa had accompanied public satire, praise, and ridicule.
The capacity to command language and meaning through witty wordplay and storytelling, insulting others in a good-humored manner while praising oneself, has an enduring history in African-American culture; rap music is merely its most presently pervasive expression. The skill of manipulating meaning through styles of speech has been known as “signifyin’” and personified in African-American folklore by the figure of the Signifying Monkey. The Signifying Monkey often appeared in African-American folk tales as a mischievous, smooth-tongued creature that uses his verbal wits to trick a lion, the supposed King of the Jungle. In a typical version of the story, the monkey tells the lion that he heard an elephant has been saying bad things about his mama and even his grandma, which provokes the lion into confronting the elephant, and results in the elephant thrashing the lion within an inch of his life. Signifyin’ thus suggested innumerable possibilities for the powerless to undermine the powerful by utilizing their superior linguistic skills in a seemingly indirect manner. As Floyd put it, “Signifyin(g) is a way of saying one thing and meaning another; it is reinterpretation, a metaphor for the revision of previous texts and figures; it is tropological thought, repetition with difference, the obscuring of meaning—all to achieve or reverse power, to improve situations, and to achieve pleasing results for the signifier.” In West Africa, the ancestor of the Signifying Monkey was Eshu-Elegbara, a divine trickster deified by the people of Yoruba. Eshu-Elegbara was regarded as “the ultimate master of potentiality” who possessed “the force to make things happen and multiply,” and in African legends he was a figure typically encountered at a crossroads, a symbolic place of crisis, decision, and possibility. The figure of Eshu-Elegbara encountered at the crossroads became legendary in the blues, and later in hard rock and heavy metal, as a representative of the Devil.
Thompson later published a second article, also titled “An Aesthetic of the Cool,” which examined the West African roots of those qualities of detachment and poise so often associated with musicians—being “cool.” Thompson listed 35 societies and languages in West and Central Africa with different terms for this concept of cool. He traced historical evidence as far back as the 9th Century, finding coolness represented in the busts of African leaders that were sculpted with relaxed facial expressions and pursed lips. Keeping one’s cool was not only called for in moments of stress and strain, but also during times of amusement and joy. As Thompson observed, “Coolness imparts order not through ascetic subtraction of body from mind, or brightness of cloth from seriousness of endeavor, but, quite the contrary, by means of static unions of sensuous pleasure and moral responsibility.”
West African culture and its rituals of music and dance thus comprised a worldview and practice that was radically different from the culture that had developed in Europe and would become dominant in the New World. Colonists, slaveholders, and Church authorities went to great lengths to repress and destroy this culture, but its remnants would survive and take new forms among slaves and their descendants across the Americas. All of the core elements of African culture discussed above are currently found in hip-hop, just as they were evident to varying degrees in the blues, jazz, gospel, rhythm & blues, soul, funk, and disco: the primacy of rhythm and multiple beats; a close connection between music and the body; call-and-response; group participation through clapping, stomping, and hollering; a dialogue between the musical past and present, which is carried on in hip-hop through sampling; improvisation in instrumental solos or freestyle raps, often in the context of competition; the verbal capacity to belittle one’s enemies or competitors through clever wordplay; respect for those who maintain an attitude of “cool.” In Africa, music and dance functioned to maintain social solidarity, but in the context of slavery, racism, and segregation in the Americas they acquired resistant, defiant meanings. Western civilization was constructed by repressing the body, sexuality, and various forms of worship that involved music and dance in creating a collective state of ecstasy; this repression had been waged against the European peasantry since the Middle Ages, and it would be carried out in numerous parts of the world as an accompaniment to imperialism. Nevertheless, an African culture rooted in music and dance did manage to survive and even thrive within repressive conditions, in part because of its capacity to absorb and appropriate select aspects of the dominant culture to create an African-American syncretism.