Music has been the heartbeat of Black culture, giving value to a community that has struggled encapsulate its true sense of worth. From 1619 to 2019, 400 years of following the drumbeat on the shores of America, Blacks have created music that feed not just their souls but the breath of all who have planted foot in this space.

Author and ethnomusicologist, Pascal Archimede has written a book unpacking the complicated evolution of Black music over the years, looking at the maafa experiences and juxtaposing it to the trap on modern day radio. He has done it with a well written and documented book entitled, Black American History, From Plantations to Rap Culture.

Archimede spotlights three major “pillars of emancipation” that Black people have used over those 400 years: Church, School and The Press. Check out this interview with him about his book.

Why did you write this book?

This book explores Black American history through the various types of music that they created: work songs on plantations to rap music today.

I wrote it for 2 main reasons:

  • From a personal standpoint. I’m from Guadeloupe, a French speaking island in the Caribbean, and I’m aware that our fate is linked to the African-Americans’ fatw. Our common ancestors who were brothers, sisters, cousins, parents and other types of relatives were massively deported from Africa on the same boats.  They were essentially dispatched on various lands. So, we all got isolated geographically, culturally, spiritually and linguistically. When writing this book I had in mind this quote by late Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe, “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
  • Writing this book was for me a duty of memory. From an educational standpoint, I have a Master’s degree in English with a specialization in American civilization.  I focused my research on the link between the evolution of Black people on American soil and the various musical genres that they created.

I must confess that I never felt concerned by history when I was at school. It’s only when I got to the university that I had a revelation. For the 1st time in my life, I was taught a part of history which is connected to my ancestors’ one. I realized how people who evolve in a society in which nothing is made and designed for them, have to fight to keep their heads above water. This reminded me of the situation of French speaking Black people who are until today considered and treated as second class citizens. Since then, I decided to write a widely accessible and easy to read book in which I would share what I learned.

Has there been any culture as inspired by music as African Americans?

I think that all cultures and all ethnic groups have shown a particular interest in music. The specificity of “Black music” is that at each step of their integration on American soil, Black people created the type of music that reflected their social and economic integration as well as their state of mind.

Western nations drew inspiration from those types of music that were widely influenced by African musical traditions. The spread of these musical genres is undoubtedly linked to the issue of cultural re-appropriation. In France, for example, the term “pop culture” refers to all Black cultural expressions including music, fashion, cinema and so forth. African American music has impacted the whole world: James Brown or Tupac Shakur are compelling evidence. Today, we are witnessing this with the phenomenon of B-stylers in Asia. These Japanese teens love American Hip-Hop culture so much that they are ready to do everything in their power to look as African American as possible.Similar examples certainly exist throughout the planet.

What similarities did the plantations have that the modern day urban jungle/ projects have? What are the differences?

The setting has changed and things have slightly evolved. Slavery was more characterized by a system of domination than by the plantation itself. Today, decisions are still made by the same people and the system is perpetuated by limiting the delusive social advancement of the same communities.

Statistically, Blacks have long outnumbered the other communities in US prisons. They have less job opportunities and black poverty rates are more than twice as high as white poverty rates.

Today, too many Black people keep killing their own brothers and sisters in urban projects.

The chains are no longer around the ankles, but more in the mind. I strongly believe that it is vital to overcome the self-devaluation, self-hatred and self-denigration mental work that has been subtly implemented for centuries.

Marcus Garvey said, “A people without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots ». This quote may be a relevant track of reflection.”

However, I don’t want to sound pessimistic. Indeed, on the plantations, when you were born a slave, you were likely to die a slave. Despite the obstacles that may be faced when being raised in a ghetto, it is still possible to make it and to climb up the social ladder. I have in mind JAY-Z, who grew up in a project and who, according to Forbes, is the 1st rapper to become a billionaire.

Looking at your three pillars of emancipation, identify how rap music has lifted them in their music… and if they have not are they really pillars?

In the book, I refer to church, school and the press as three institutions that have brought the African descendants together for a common cause, shaped collective consciousness and have been means to blend into the American mainstream.

Black people, intrinsically, live their faith, no matter how it is expressed and no matter where they are geographically on planet earth. You will hardly find an atheist Black person. If so, their choices are mainly driven by an opposition or a rejection linked to the role that religions historically played in the situation of Black people across the globe. In the context of mass deportation and slavery, church was at the same time a place that federated, comforted and maintained social ties. Church has also been the leading singing class of the greatest artists of our time. Some rappers, such as Chance the Rapper, claim to be Christian. Snoop Dog won the “Best Gospel” award at the 2019 BET awards with his album Bible of Love.

These examples show how church has impacted some Black Americans’ education.

School allowed African-descendants to access knowledge, to become aware of how the system works. Whatever the artists’ educational backgrounds, rap definitely requires writing skills!

The press involves empowerment, re-appropriation of the spoken word, and conveys the voice of the people.Artists need the media, they spread through the media and can express themselves, beyond rap music. Having said that, rap music is just like the other musical genres that preceded it. It originally reflected the litany of a people, and was the soundtrack of a brutal social reality. Consequently, rap music doesn’t necessarily intend to raise and uplift these three pillars which anyway, are an integral part of everyone’s history. Despite the fact that the business logic often prevails over the message, the claim doesn’t, in any way, remove those pillars because African-descendants don’t need a “crutch” to express their suffering. They don’t need to preach to know that God exists, they don’t need to encourage young people to go to school to be aware that illiteracy may put them back “in chains.” They also don’t need to give interviews to know that the media can both make and break their careers.

How is the music from he civil rights similar to modern day rap… is there a connection?

The African American civil rights movement arose in the 1950’s/1960’s. It aimed at giving equal rights and justice to the African-descendants. Soul and Funk appeared at this time. Those musical genres enhanced the culture and pride of the African American community and were used as a means of expression in that quest for equality.

Rap would have never existed without soul and funk. The subversion through language that can be found in soul and funk is present in rap today.

The claim for equality or equal rights and justice is still relevant today and expressed in some rap songs.

Musically also, there are close similarities. Indeed, all these musical genres have not developed independently of each other, they have aligned themselves with each other. They even often come back or draw inspiration from the genres that preceded them. Maybe will we, in the near or distant future,witness the advent of other still unexplored musical genres!!!