“Who’s that man, calling me stranger
In my land, my mamaland
Who’s that man, telling me go
From my land, my mamaland”
This is my heart where I belong
My roots are here in Africa”
–from “Motherland (Tribute to Africa)” by Yvonne Chaka Chaka, a South African Zulu singer

Music is the expression of life, love, honor, war, and politics. It is the way we communicate, inspire, and revolutionize. We make love to it, dance to it, think to it, and live life to it. Music is the foundation of our existence.
You know how proud moms and dads say, “It’s in his blood,” when they revel in the talent of their offspring. Maybe it is true. If we take a moment to reflect on the foundations of civilization, the essence of life on earth, we can take it to a place some of us proudly call “Mamaland” or “Motherland,” home, Africa. Others of us may not like to acknowledge the ancestral connection at all, but that is a different article.
Africa is where the heart of Black music, perhaps even music itself, began. The heart rhythms of our ancestors are heard and felt from the bass drone of old Negro Spirituals to the offbeats of modern rap songs. African rhythms are even prevalent among European dominated music, like classical.
Paul Sweetnam (aka Paul Calistus Ashley), a classical pianist and music scholar, has found that the African influence is in every form of music internationally.
“The African Diaspora has really dominated the entire world musically, everything has that flavor in it … that’s what pop music is now,” Sweetnam explained. “They are all in some way or another trying to emulate that (African Diaspora) sound.”
He said without a doubt, the Black influence can be heard in all parts of world music.
Music was important to Africans on the continent, pre-colonization. It was a natural incorporation into life, and every occasion called for a melodious song, or war-beat drum cadence. When Europeans began to invade Africa, they wrote accounts of admiration, recognizing the musical ingenious of the native people.
Eileen Southern, author of “The Music of Black Americans: A History,” writes that during the slave trade, European invaders often recorded their observations about African music, amazed at the elaborate cultures and important role it played in African life.
“One of the most striking features of African life was the importance given to music and dance, and travelers seldom failed to comment upon this,” Southern writes. An English sea captain, Richard Jobson, was sent to explore the Gambia River and found the richness of Africa not in the soil, but within the culture of the people. He writes in “The Golden Trade or a Discovery of the River Gambra and the Golden Trade of the Aethiopians” his account:
“There is without doubt, no people on the earth more naturally affected to the sound of musicke than these people; which the principall persons do hold as an ornament of their state, so as when wee come to see them their musicke will seldome be wanting …. Also, if at any time the Kings persons come unto us trading in the River, they will have their musicke playing before them, and will follow in order after their manner, presenting a shew of state.”
Southern also emphasizes Olaudah Equiano’s remembered accounts of his life in Africa. He writes in his biography, “The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equinao,” that we were almost a nation of dancers, musicians, and poets.
As you can see, African cultural music transcends all music.

“The Gospel train’s comin’
I hear it just at hand
I hear the car wheel rumblin’
And rollin’ thro’ the land
Get on board little children
Get on board little children
Get on board little children
There’s room for many more
I hear the train a-comin’
She’s comin’ round the curve
She’s loosened all her steam and brakes
And strainin’ ev’ry nerve
The fare is cheap and all can go
The rich and poor are there
No second class aboard this train
No difference in the fare”
–“The Gospel Train”

They are commonly called Negro Spirituals or slave songs. These somber expressions of spiritual freedom, physical bondage and hope were, in fact, coded messages to enslaved Africans. In the unseen hearts and minds of Africans, the songs contained a map or instructions to find freedom.
According to Owen Sound’s Black History (osblackhistory.com), which is a collection of research and history of the freedom trails of Blacks through the Underground Railroad, Spirituals were inconspicuous ways enslaved Africans communicated to find freedom in the North.
“The spirituals and their lyrics were part of a sophisticated system that involved no incriminating evidence for plantation owners or overseers to find. Codes imbedded in the spirituals instructed slaves as to when, how and where to escape. They also included warning signals, such as the message of ‘Wade in the Water,’ informing slaves to travel along the riverbank so the dogs giving chase would be thrown off their scent,” the website said.
Despite slaveholders’ efforts to incapacitate and mentally paralyze Africans, their ancestral essence overruled evil and intelligence was manifested, creating an avenue for liberation.
Today, Spirituals are sung in the church as hymns or have been revamped into modern gospel songs. They move people to remember, transform, and empower. They inspire, draw people closer to God, and bring souls to tears.
The Black church is one of those places that feels like home, to some folks. Most places of worship incorporate music to usher in the spirit of God and eradicate malice in the atmosphere. When the spirit is in the building, hands go up, tears start flowing, and worship ensues.
Gospel music, an upgraded version of Spirituals, is one way Black people connect with God and experience the metaphysical world.
Aundrae Russell, KJLH program director and air personality, has witnessed the power of Gospel music in the lives of his listeners. Russell hosts a Gospel show every Sunday called “Spread the Word.” Listeners have the opportunity to call in and express how they have been blessed by a song, a prayer, or by some encouraging words said on air. Russell said the music, in particular, changes lives.
“Gospel touches souls. It’s more emotional,” he said. “People call in crying … saying ‘Wow that song is talking to me.’”
“Southern trees bear a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh
Here is the fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot for the tree to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop”
–“Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday

The Jazz and Blues era, birthed out of the sorrowful past of slavery, became the revolutionary revitalization of the Black community, changing the landscape of America forever. From the late 1800s to today, Jazz and Blues has captured Black souls’ heavy burdens and lighthearted love. This music came from a struggle no other people will ever know.
Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” an artfully crafted arrangement, constantly reminds people of the eerie scenery common in the Jim Crow South–trees sad with hanging Black bodies dangling from their limbs. Her jazz, like so many other artists, was a political statement, a community cry, a unified voice. It was refuge from an oppressive society, a means of survival.
Ronnie Laws, saxophone musician, said Jazz sits at the foundation of American life.
“Jazz has always been the pillar of this country. It was born in this country,” he said. “Jazz provided the foundation for other genres in the ’40s and ’50s. It represented, at one period, a strong means of communication, even going back to Africa. It has been the foundation of our (Black) culture, and it plays a vital role in our culture.”
For almost 50 years, music has been Laws’ life. He grew up in a house of musicians–his mother was the church choir director, and rehearsals were always occurring in his home. So it was a natural for him to pick up on music at the age of 12. He said the Creator gifted him with such a talent that it would be an injustice not to share it.
Now that he is a successful player, Laws can see the affect music has on his listeners and appreciates its rejuvenating qualities.
“Music in general is therapeutic for a lot of people. It provides a lot of healing. It’s one of the most unique ways to express your feelings,” Laws said. “People do different things to refresh themselves and sort of relax and take a moment to reflect or meditate and collect inner feelings. It’s therapy for people.”
In the November 15, 1856 issue of Dwight’s Journal in an article entitled, “Songs of the Blacks,” (republished in “Jazz in Print 1856-1929: An Anthology of Selected Early Readings in Jazz”) the writer, although with racial biases, acknowledges the power of Black music:
“The African nature is full of poetry and song. The Negro is a natural musician. He will learn to play on an instrument more quickly than a White man. They have magnificent voices and sing without instruction … Inferior to the White race in reason and intellect, they have more imagination, more lively feelings and a more expressive manner … Their joy and grief are not pent up in the heart, but find instant expression in their eyes and voice.”
Despite the obvious ignorance of the writer, one thing is true, Black people have led the way in a not only the emotional expression of music, but also the intellectual ingenuity of the art form, simply because it stems from the bowels of our souls. It has been the shared struggle, pain, love, hope, and life of our community. Black music is the foundation of music therapy.

“Music is the soul of the man
Music makes a happy day
Music makes the clouds roll by, baby
Your music kissed my tears and set my eyes
Your music makes me want to sing
Your music is a joy to bring
Music is my heart and soul
More precious than gold
–“I’ve Got My Music” by Marvin Gaye

It is a love song, a sweet fond memory; it is a moment never to be forgotten; it is joy, it is relief, it is therapy. Over the years, music therapy has become a topic of research in the medical, educational, and psychological field.
“Music Therapy” written by Edward Podolsky explores the various ways in which music works like a living, breathing organism. Podolsky, a medical doctor in the psychiatry department at Kings County Hospital in New York, writes that ancient Egyptians believed music influenced fertility of women and was the “physic of the soul.”
According to classical pianist Sweetnam, in the past 20 years, studies have shown how much music impacts the central nervous system and intellectual development of the human brain.
“We have wonderful research papers that have shown music is one of the things that affects most of the brain more practically than any other activity,” Sweetnam shared in his doctoral research. He said in brain scans, when a person is receiving music, all areas of the brain are active, unlike other typical subject matter or activities. Those who play music are stimulated even more.
“Anther thing research is showing, is that music is not as inessential as we think. They are finding out now that the way it works with the human psyche is akin to the most essential aspects to human needs– love, sex, food–it seems to have that kind of potency,” he said.
While music is powerful beyond belief, Sweetnam emphasized that it has the power to enliven both positive and negative emotions. For example, military music has been practiced for centuries to inspire the fight in warriors.
Music’s mysterious power is a curious one. How it does what it does may never be fully realized, but we can certainly appreciate the magic it creates within humanity.