Legacies: stereotypes, racism and the civil rights movement

Legacies of slavery: music

by Dr Alan Rice

The experiences of slavery had a significant impact on art and culture. These cultural expressions show how transatlantic slavery did not end and then disappear without trace but continues to be around us today. The subject of this article, music, is only one example of the legacy of slavery in our everyday lives today.

It is hoped that reading about artistic legacies will inspire you to think about other cultural forms that demonstrate how the transatlantic slave trade has had an impact on our world. For instance, in sport you might think of athlete Jesse Owens at the Olympics of 1936 and Hitler's snub to him. In boxing, you might think of world champions such as Jack Johnson the first black world heavyweight champion in 1908, or Joe Louis who was the champion in 1937 or Muhammad Ali who won his first world championship in 1964. These three boxing champions were only the latest in a line of prizefighters that began with ex-slaves in Britain such as Tom Molineux who fought in the early nineteenth century.


'A lot of people seem to think I started this business. But rock ‘n' roll was here a long time before I came along. Nobody can sing that kind of music like colored people. I can't sing it like Fats Domino can. I know that.' Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley owed a great debt to the gospel musicians of black churches and the rhythm and blues musicians on the records he heard in his youth. Some of his most famous songs were cover versions of blues songs. For instance Big Mama Thornton originally sung Hound Dog but most people now associate this song with the hip-swinging King of Rock and Roll rather than the earthy female black singer. Elvis's debt was not only musical, it was also a question of style. His vibrant dance energy was taken directly from black religious and secular dance.

The Beatles also owed a great deal to black musical style. They rode on the back of a skiffle explosion in Britain in the early 1960s which used black musical rhythms. The question has been asked: who put the Beat in the Mersey Beat? The answer is black musical form.

Sometimes the debt to black musicians and musical forms has been forgotten by white musicians who have made millions out of using such musical forms of black origin such as jazz and the blues. For instance, one of the major reasons for forming the campaign called Rock against Racism (RAR) in the mid-seventies was the rock musician Eric Clapton's ugly words in support of the racist policies of Enoch Powell.

At the time the racist organisation called the National Front were using street violence against black people and anti-racists on British streets.

Rock Against Racism organised as a protest against racists by promoting small local gigs involving black and white youths playing together as well as large carnivals with more famous musicians. They combined the new punk bands such as X Ray Spex and The Clash with young British reggae bands such as Misty in Roots, Steel Pulse and Aswad. In this way, they helped create a radical cultural youth movement that used music with black roots to engage young people politically. This coming together of black and white on the music scene was crucial to the development of the music genre called Two Tone in the Midlands in the early eighties, where groups such as The Specials gigged continuously. As they played their music, these groups spoke out against racism and extreme right wing views such as fascism.

More recently the Love Music: Hate Racism campaign has been energising the youth against the extremist, British National Party. Love Music: Hate Racism organisers have deliberately made a connection between their campaign and the Rock against Racism years. They organised an anniversary party in Victoria Park, Hackney in 2008 celebrating the Rock against Racism event of 1978.

'Maybe my grandfather was whipped for real, but they whip me too, man; only they whip me mentally. I'm just as fucked up as he was so that when I play, the same shit is going to come out of me as came out of him when he had to hum to get some strength in his body to finish picking all that cotton.' Hampton Hawes, Jazz musician

Hampton Hawes (1928-1977) was an African American jazz pianist. His father, Hampton Hawes Sr, was minister of the Westminster Presbysterian Church, and his mother was the church pianist. Hawes was reported to have been able to pick out fairly complex tunes on the piano at the age of two.

Entirely self-taught, by his teens Hawes was playing with some of the best jazz musicians on the west coast, including Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray, Sonny Criss, and Art Pepper. His second professional job, at the age of 19, was playing for eight months with the Howard McGhee Quintet at the Hi De Ho club, in a group that included Charlie Parker.

Hampton Hawes died unexpectedly of a brain haemorrhage in 1977, at only 48 years old. In 2004, the City of Los Angeles passed a resolution declaring 13 November 'Hampton Hawes Day' throughout the state of California.

It is appropriate that the spirit of black music has been evoked as protest because the roots of black music lie in opposition to slavery and the racism that followed throughout the black diaspora. Forms like spirituals, blues, rhythm and blues, funk, reggae and hip-hop have always been fighting against injustice and have their roots in black history.