African American music has always been characterized by the ever-changing circumstances of African American life. Africans brought to the United States as slaves brought their musical traditions with them. Many of their activities, from work to worship, were rooted in song. As African American slaves were Christianized, their songs evolved to incorporate Christian hymns and psalms, resulting in the spiritual, which served as a way to express the community's new faith, as well as its sorrows and hopes. After the Civil War, as freed African Americans moved north and west to work in the industrial and railway industries, the agricultural songs of the slave era developed to suit these situations. These new songs eventually gave birth to the gospel and the blues, whose influence can be heard across genres from soul to rock’n’roll and R&B. In the early 20th century, the melding of African American musical traditions with music from other parts of the world led to an explosion of musical styles, including ragtime, jazz, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, soul, funk, and disco. During the 80s and 90s, the emergence of hip-hop and rap took African American musical traditions in new directions, drawing on the legacy of old forms to create a distinctive art form as grounded in social protest as the early spirituals. Modern African American artists and musicians continue to rediscover, remix, and reinvent their musical history in ways that have a profound impact on the shape of musical culture of the United States.
Materials in this exhibit: