By 651 ARTS on February 15, 2016
Fredara M. Hadley Reflects on Classically Black
Black people’s songs have carried the fire and struggle of their lives since they first opened their mouths in this part of the world. They have always wanted a better day.—Amiri Baraka, The Changing Same (R&B and the New Black Music)
In his 1968 essay, The Changing Same (R&B and New Black Music), Amiri Baraka chronicles the spaces that incubated black music from the coasts of Africa until the 1960s. He believed that our music was a prism into the transformation that we’d undergone as the people who were captured in pre-Colonial Africa, transported to the New World, and enslaved in the ironically sloganized “land of the free.” The musical shifts from chants to folk spirituals to blues to jazz mirrored the shifts African Americans experienced from enslavement to “free.” Thus, the continuum of Black music is a testament to the resilience and creativity of a people determined, against all odds, to musically voice and declare their collective sentiments.
Later in his essay Baraka describes the following scene,
If you play James Brown (say, “Money Won’t Change You…but time will take you out”) in a bank, the total environment is changed…. An energy is released in the bank, a summoning of images that take the bank, and everybody in it, on a trip. That is, they visit another place. A place where Black People live.
But dig, not only is it a place where Black live, it is a place, in the spiritual precincts of its emotional telling, where Black people move in almost absolute openness and strength.
He describes the intransigent power of soul music to transform a sterile bank environment into an undeniably black space. Baraka alludes to the black autonomous and creative spaces in which the music is created and consumed, “a place where Black People live.” These spaces have always been critical spaces in which black people could use the fire and struggle of their lives to create something beautiful.
I am an ethnomusicologist who currently finds herself teaching in a music conservatory. And in thinking about “classically” black, I’m drawn to think about the particulars of this type of space in order to emphasize Baraka’s point of the power of spaces where Black people live.
Conservatories are places where some of the world’s most talented young musicians go to study their instrument, find their voice, and learn from the best. Conservatories—such as Julliard, the Curtis Institute of Music, and Oberlin Conservatory—that are responsible for ensuring that the music of great classical European/non-black composers, such as Mozart, Liszt, Bach, and Beethoven remain heard as a relevant hierarchy of musicians. These institutions maintain that although the “classical” era may have ended over 200 years ago, those works still move and inspire. But the root word of “conservatory” is “conserve.” By definition the conservatory must identity, savor, conserve, and protect the integrity of the music of each given era. The institutions above give slight recognition to other eras that fall outside of the Western Art Music, while reserving the designation of “classical” for a single era and applying these criteria to all other eras.
Hence classically black music has not been generously “conserved” in these spaces. However, African American music is not without its own conservatories.
The churches in which young people first learn to play the Hammond B3 organ or sing Precious Lord Take My Hand and then graduate to becoming the minister of music.
Basements and street corners where young people first realized they have a gift for rhyming and creating beats and then they graduate and become a teacher who knows who to use hip hop to relate to her students.
Nightclubs where young gay men find a space in which they can bring their entire selves and realize that their flexibility helps make for the fiercest of duck walk and then they graduate with a sense of self that allows them to provide a safe space for other gay youth.
These are the birthplaces and refining schools of being classically black. For in these spaces, it is about being connected with the “changing same” and understanding that one’s present touch, interpretation, and experience of the melody, dance, and rhythm is what gives old songs their new life. These spaces are the conservatories of black music “in the classical sense” precisely because these are the spaces in which black people live, move, and have their being.
Ultimately, African American music is classically black when it speaks to who we say we are, must be, and hope to be. And it must shout that message beyond our now and ring the ears of who we will one day be.
That is the standard.
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