Not long ago, I listened to a BBC radio broadcast dealing with the influences of Islam on American music. Unfortunately, I was driving and did not take the time to pull over and properly document the program name or the reporter.
However, the salient points of the report proved unforgettable.
I didn't realize it but, according to this report, a large percentage of all African slaves transported to the New World in the 17th century were practicing Muslims.
The report went on to demonstrate the influence of Islam on the music of the slave quarters in North America, with particular emphasis on the music of the black church.
As the report unfolded, I was amazed by the similarities in sound and melodies that became clear as the music of Islam was compared to the music of the slave spirituals.
Even more fascinating was the obvious and enduring connection to Blues, Jazz, Rock and Roll and Hip-Hop, all examples of American's unique contribution to the world's musical expression.
A couple of my reflections have stuck with me since hearing the report.
For one thing, our connections and exposure as a people to the culture, thought and religion of Islam are not limited to our recent history. The influences go way back before the founding of the nation.
Ironically, some of the cultural and artistic influences that modern day, fundamentalist Muslims find most abhorrent in the West, and especially in the United States, are largely the result of the mixture of the North American slave experience and what was an early attempt, albeit unknowing after many years, to preserve and honor the sounds, influences and memories of Islam.
Who would have thought that Elvis, B. B. King, Miles Davis and Snoop Dog shared the same cultural and artistic family tree with Islam?
It is as if, once strained through the horrible filter of 17th, 18th and 19th century American slavery, Islam's music "corrupted" and "turned rotten" (at least according to modern day Islamic fundamentalists). One result has been to inflame a world of backlash among millions of modern day Muslims. This part of our national musical heritage, now exported back to the nations responsible for at least a part of its origins, rouses intense hatred, conflict and violence, at least in some quarters.
Of course, from my very Western, American perspective, the influences of African American music on my culture simply evidence the amazing creativity and resilience of the human spirit. No matter how despicable, unjust or violent the oppression, the people endured, at least in part, thanks to their music.
Now that you mentioned it. . .
Interested in gaining some helpful insights into the history and anthropology of "Hip-Hop" music?
Check out this essay in a very unexpected publication: http://www7.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0704/feature4/.