Dr. Ysaye M. Barnwell

Evolution of African American Music

Ysaye Barnwell explains the progression of African music. At the event, she even did some singing of her own. (Photo by Chantelle SImmons)

Ysaye Barnwell explains the progression of African music. At the event, she even did some singing of her own. (Photo by Chantelle SImmons)

On Sept. 4, Ysaye M. Barnwell, author, teacher and former member of the acapella ensemble “Sweet Honey in the Rock,” explained the progression of African American music. Barnwell began the event in song, singing the spiritual “Kumbayah,” which originated in Charleston, in front of a diverse crowd.

“In an African worldview, music cannot exist for no reason. It exists because there are reasons,” Barnwell said.

Barnwell went on to describe how worldviews affect how each person explains what happens in the world.

“Culture and language are really the same. You can tell a person’s worldview by the language they use and how they use that language,” Barnwell said.

She affirmed that when looking at music, one must understand what worldview he or she is viewing.

Barnwell then spoke in depth about the African worldview of music. She conferred that African music has always been and still is functional. It is used for communication and aligning African Americans to the past.

“The music is the way in which we communicate with God. The music is the way we have documented what happened way back,” Barnwell said.

Rhythm is another major aspect of African music according to Barnwell.

“You are not only listening to something, you are also listening for something. Rhythm is essential,” Barnwell said.

Repetition is yet another key aspect of African music according to Barnwell.

“Repetition is very healing. Repetition allows people to move outside of their personal selves into another realm where they don’t have to process the same way, but we can allow forces to take control,” Barnwell said.

She then explained how African music evolved once Africans were brought to American shores on which they had to create new methods of communication and incorporate new cultural aspects, such as the old testament of the Bible.

“We have these spirituals that talk about people in the Bible. We have spirituals that talk about what it felt like to be enslaved. We also have spirituals that tell us what we forgot we knew,” Barnwell said.

During the Reconstruction period, the music genre of  blues essentially communicated, “Look, I’m going to Chicago, and I’m sorry I can’t take you,” Barnwell said.

After the discussion, Barnwell gave the audience a chance to ask questions. Audience members asked about the connection of current rap music to traditional African music, to which Barnwell replied, “Rap music is all about rhythm and documentation,” just like traditional music.

Barnwell emphasized that understanding the concepts of function, rhythm, and repetition will help people to understand African Americans, where they come from and who they are.

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