Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: The Sacred Music of the African American Diaspora

Music of the Revolution: Sacred Music and Protest

From the colonial period to the present day Americans have often practiced their right to freedom of speech through song. Music is used to call attention to social causes and provides a means of personal commentary on societal issues. Songs are easily shared, convey emotion, and can be performed in many contexts, with or without instrumentation. Their message can be direct or implied, giving power to people who may be socially constrained. For all of these reasons, music is historically one of the most powerful tools of African Americans in resisting and protesting oppression and inequality.

The spirituals of American slaves are one of the earliest examples of music as protest. Slaves could not directly express the desire to be free; instead, they sang songs based on the Old Testament stories that related to their condition. The songs were more than entertainment for plantation overseers or expressions of sadness. At its core, a slave’s singing was an act of protest, a momentary respite from the environment that allowed them to be enslaved.

After the Civil War, prison laborers replaced slave labor. The majority of these laborers were African American, particularly in the South. The spirituals of the slave era were repurposed to complain about their plight, protesting prison conditions and unequal treatment. Many of these work songs have the qualities of both early spirituals and the blues. Blues music traces its roots to the spirituals, work songs, and chants of African American culture, evolving to reflect new social circumstances while maintaining its core as a means of expression and commentary.

One of the most notable examples of this is Billie Holiday’s 1939 song “Strange Fruit.” Originally a poem written by Abel Meeropol, “Strange Fruit” was written in reaction to the lynching of African American men in the 1930s. Meeropol later set his poem to music, and Holiday famously sang the song to close her performances. The song was so controversial that her recording company, Columbia, refused to record it for fear of retaliation. Unlike the protest songs of the Civil War era, “Strange Fruit” wasn’t a chant or a call to arms. It was a pointed commentary on the state of the country, which drew in listeners with its rich melody and commanded their attention with its vivid lyrics.

Slave spirituals and evolving styles of African American music also greatly influenced the creation of the Freedom Songs during the Civil Rights Movement. “We Shall Overcome” is one example of a Civil Rights Movement anthem that is still sung at protests today. Influenced by early 20th century gospel music, this version was arranged by Zilphia Horton, a union organizer who turned several hymns into protest songs used by the Civil Rights Movement. In addition to “We Shall Overcome,” Horton and Fannie Lou Hamer revived “This Little Light of Mine,” to apply to the Civil Rights Movement. Other songs that drove the African American Civil Rights movement include“Wade in the Water,” "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," "Peace Like a River," and "Amazing Grace."

Modern protests such as Black Lives Matter and the National School Walkout took their cues from the protests of the past, using both songs that drove the Civil Rights Movement and more recent music that blend references to the struggle for civil rights with 21st-century conflicts such as "Make Them Hear You" from the musical Ragtime , "Glory," from the 2014 film Selma, and popular music from artists such as Kendrick Lamar and Janelle Monaé. Much of modern African American popular music carries the essence of African American sacred and protest music, intertwining spirituals, work chants, blues, and gospel.

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