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

What is African American Sacred Music?

African American sacred music was born out of the lived experiences of people captured and transported like chattel in inhumane conditions from their homes to a strange and cruel new world. The music of black enslaved peoples served as their oral traditions, an integral part of their daily lives and a way of maintaining the legacy of music, culture, politics, social organization, education, and ways of being and learning that they brought with them when they were taken from Africa. It reflects their understandings of the divine, themselves, and their circumstances.
African American sacred music encompasses everything from 19th-century concert spirituals to modern praise and worship songs in genres from the blues to hip-hop. African Americans with no formal ties to a church or congregation are still familiar with certain canonical works that influence all facets of the culture. From slave spirituals to old hymns to modern hip-hop Praise songs, African American sacred music is used to practice devotion, offer comfort, teach virtue, recall history and doctrine, and celebrate special days.

Why is it important?

In Africa, music had been central to people's lives; music making permeated important life events and daily activities. This continued in their descendants as they made new lives and traditions in the United Sates. African American Sacred Music crosses standard lines between the sacred and the secular. Beyond its place in worship, spirituals, gospel songs, and hymns have permeated a many facets of African American culture including government and social structures. Poetry, praise, power, protest, philosophy, and politics are all major themes within African American sacred and secular music. The music that their ancestors used as a tool of protest and a comfort against slavery has been moved to other stages, becoming motivation and inspiration.

African American Sacred Music has functioned as a platform for equality on multiple fronts. Spirituals played a major role in buoying the spirits of protesters during the Civil Rights Era. The songs served as a rallying cry to those who were demonstrating against laws and policies that kept African Americans from having equal rights. African American sacred and secular music has also been a support of Black Feminism. African American women were common as composers, arrangers, and performers, and many were as renown, if not more so, than their male counterparts.

African American music, both sacred and secular, has influenced popular culture in many forms. African American choirs were a mainstay in early Hollywood films and the music of spirituals and gospel can be directly linked to the evolution of popular musical forms, including the blues, jazz, rock, and hip-hop.

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