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Musical Crossroads: African American Influence on American Music

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Musical Crossroads: African American Influence on American Music

Wooden drum

by Steven Lewis

Roots in Africa

Describing the African-American influence on American music in all of its glory and variety is an intimidating—if not impossible—task. African-American influences are so fundamental to American music that there would be no American music without them. People of African descent were among the earliest non-indigenous settlers of what would become the United States, and the rich African musical heritage that they carried with them was part of the foundation of a new American musical culture that mixed African traditions with those of Europe and the Americas. Their work songs, dance tunes, and religious music—and the syncopated, swung, remixed, rocked, and rapped music of their descendants—would become the lingua franca of American music, eventually influencing Americans of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. The music of African Americans is one of the most poetic and inescapable examples of the importance of the African American experience to the cultural heritage of all Americans, regardless of race or origin.

Given its importance in American history and culture, exploring the history and impact of African American music is a key part of the mission of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Music occupies a unique place in the museum both because of its importance in its own right and the integral role that music and musicians played in all aspects of African American history, from civil rights struggles and religious ceremonies to social commentary and community building. Musical Crossroads, the permanent music exhibition at the NMAAHC, explores this history through the lens of five central themes: Roots in Africa, Hybridization, Agency and Identity, Mass Media & Entertainment, and Global Impact and Influence.

Banjo made in the style of William Esperance Boucher, Jr., ca. 1850s, Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Robert Bockee Winans

Hybridization

Although the African elements of African American musical culture remain strong, the music of African Americans is a hybrid of the musical traditions of Africa, Europe, and Native American cultures, along with other influences from around the world. This process, which began in the 17th century with the arrival of the first enslaved Africans at Jamestown, continues into the present as black musicians continue to draw on diverse influences to create new sounds. It is this hybridity that makes African American music a distinctly American phenomenon. A nineteenth century banjo in the NMAAHC’s Slavery and Freedom exhibition is a vivid example of the fusion of African and European musical traditions that African Americans created in America.

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