How Enslaved West Africans Heavily Influenced the Arts in America

How Enslaved West Africans Heavily Influenced the Arts in America


Bismillah.

*Important note about the term “enslaved”: Slavery has existed since the beginning of time. Different communities of people were enslaved regardless of creed or color. When it comes to Africans, the assumption is that we were always slaves. Furthermore, using the term “slaves” further perpetuates the unconscious bias that Africans were born to be “slaves,” and that’s all African people were ever going to be.  It reduces our rich history to one thing:  slavery.

Therefore, it is important to clarify the difference between using the adjective “enslaved” instead of the name “slaves.” The use of the term “enslaved” allows for the individuals that were enslaved to be associated with an identity as a human being, rather than diminishing them to the one-dimensional state of being a “slave.” All that to say, moving forward this article will feature the term “enslaved” over the more dismissive term, “slaves.” 

Now back to our scheduled programming about the arts. 

Intentional, vibrant, spiritual, and resilient are all terms one can use to describe the West African talking drum, the “Tama.” The intricate infrastructure of the Tama drum is very unique. The pitch of the drum can be controlled in a way that mimics the tone and prosody of human speech. The Tama was used by Senegambian griots for special occasions, a call to arms during wars, and to relay important messages over long distances.

For them [the enslaved], art was not merely something to admire, it was a possible way home. Once the captors realized what the enslaved people were doing, they removed the drums from their grasps and banned them from being used.

By the grace of God, some drums made it aboard some ships carrying enslaved people, and made it to some plantations. This allowed for some who were captured to use them as a way to communicate, and retain a connection to their homeland. For them, art was not merely something to admire, it was a possible way home. Once the captors realized what the enslaved people were doing, they removed the drums from their grasp, and banned them from being used.

What the captors did not realize is that rhythm was naturally embedded in the enslaved bodies. They could take their drums, but they could not break their spirits. The enslaved used their bodies and various objects that they could find to mimic the drum-like communication they had lost. They would clap with their hands, and stomp with their feet. This new tradition is widely known as the origin of modern tap dancing in the U.S.

Throughout all of the injustices and torture, the enslaved and their descendants continued to use singing as a way to remain close to their ancestors and orally preserve history.

The most used, and in turn, the most influential method of communication was shouting and singing. The songs the enslaved created replicated various sounds they heard while working, reminiscent of the griot tradition of their ancestors. Throughout all of the injustices and torture, the enslaved and their descendants continued to use singing as a way to remain close to their ancestors and orally preserve history. These songs were the seeds that formed what we know as scatting, R&B, and heavily-influenced country music.

Additionally, the banjo, a very popular instrument in the U.S., and widely used by musicians in the South, is of West African origin. Even though Black people were despised by many, their inventions were used and appropriated for entertainment. Captors used this instrument to create songs, attributing no credit to the instrument’s real origins.

The captors tried to use, abuse, and erase Black people. They tried to take their freedom, names, and spirits. Through it all, the ancestor’s resilient voices and influence permeates almost every inch of art we see and know in America today. They were strong for us, now it’s time for us to be strong for them by acknowledging how their fight was not in vain. We must honor them, and the art they left us.

Author’s Footnote: Shoutout to my colleagues Dr. Harriet Lewis and Sadia Nawab for the quick education lesson on the use of the term slave vs. enslaved.



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