Africans are unique people with distinctive traditions embedded in literary works such as music. Olaudah Equiano’s narrative sheds some light on the cultural heritage of the African diaspora, including music that developed from that period. From the narrative, one can learn how three genres of music – spiritual, gospel, and work songs – reflect the traditions, language, identity and governance of the African Americans. Equiano states, “We are almost a nation of dancers, musicians, and poets. Thus, every great event… is celebrated in public dances, which are accompanied with songs and music suited to the occasion” (10). It is this statement that forms the background of the essay that analyzes the three genres of music as highlighted in Equiano’s narrative. The essay illustrates that slavery is at the core of the music of the African diaspora as through the music the plight, suffering, and the desire for salvation among the slaves is expressed.
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The African American spirituals are those songs that were created by the African slaves that were captured and taken to the United States. The event meant that the Africans were deprived of their language, culture, families, identity, and all that remained was their music through which they could recreate their identity. Equiano’s narrative provides a glimpse of how it all happened through his own experiences. He was kidnapped as a young boy, served in battleships, and was a slave to a brutal and cruel master. His only hope, as was the case with all other slaves suffering the same fate, was God, about whom they learned from other slaves and their masters. Upon learning that God was merciful and powerful enough to liberate them, all they could do was pray and sing to him as a way of expressing their hope. A quote from the poor Creole Negro summarizes the point when he says, “I can’t go to anybody to be righted…I must look up to God Almighty…” (Equiano 222). Therefore, the spiritual songs of the African diaspora were a plea to God to free them.
Going by the statement that the African people are people of song and dance, it can be argued that the slavery and the resulting suffering, as well as learning about God, marked an occasion worth of music. The spiritual music, according to some authors and philosophers, describes the special religious feeling of the African American slaves. The feeling has been described by Du Bois as “a sort of suppressed terror hung in the air…a demonic possession that lent terrible reality to the song and word” (Abreu 4). The spiritual songs quoted by Equiano in his narrative contain a message that confirms Du Bois’ description. For example, Equiano described a scene where a Negro is beaten until his bones are broken, and the lament, horror, and despair of that Negro is marked by the following lines:
“With shudd’ring horror pale, and eyes aghast,
“They view their lamentable lot, and find
“No rest!” (Equiano 213).
Similar spiritual songs have followed such events of suffering among the African Americans in the narrative. In chapter V, where the narrative focuses heavily on Equiano’s feat as a slave, the plight and suffering of the African diaspora are emphasized using verses of spiritual songs. Virtually all of these songs connote sorrow, suffering, cruelty, and sometimes carry the message of hope for salvation. The original African identity had been taken away, and African diaspora needed to reinvent themselves. They shared the same fate and predicament under the slave masters. The music carried the ‘sound of slavery’ that echoed across their workplaces, meeting places, and slave quarters.
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Besides the traditions and identity, the spiritual music (as will the other genres described here) reflects subversive language. Subversion is seen when the values and principles of the Africans transform into those of the African diaspora. The African language was replaced with English, and although they were not perfect at it, it was the only language they could use. The songs (spiritual, gospel, and work) of the African diaspora have changed and moved away from those of the African customs. New traditions for people facing a new fate under the governance of slave masters is the key to the transformation.
Even though the spiritual music dominates Equiano’s narrative, the gospel songs have found their way into the narrative in several occasions. Gospel music differs from the spiritual songs in the sense that it can be attributed to specific composers. The gospel music is more relevant to the years following the Civil War where the freed slaves either formed churches affiliated with the white denominations or formed their own Pentecostal or Holiness churches. The latter were associated with the less educated and poorer freedmen. It is at this point when gospel hymns (even though not attributed to a single composer, the hymns are herein categorized as gospel music) emerged.
In Equiano’s narratives, the gospel songs come in two forms: hymns and songs composed by single musicians. Gospel verses by John Milton and Chris Rice are the examples of gospel tracks written by individuals. These songs largely describe indebtedness to God and, sometimes, repentance in the search of salvation. In the narrative of the African diaspora, Equiano largely uses gospel music (from the hymns) as an expression of hope and belief in God. In Chapter XI, the author boards a ship appearing calm and resigned and quotes a hymn verse as an explanation for his behavior: “Christ is my pilot wise, my compass is his word” (Equiano 112). The author expresses his trust and faithfulness in the new-found God who promises to save and guide him, a situation well common to all the slaves in similar situations.
At this point, it is important to emphasize that the African diaspora has found a new religion and is no longer bound by the traditions of their true origin. They have a new identity and a new set of traditions. However, they still depict some traits from their roots, including marking all events with dance and song. Even though not fully liberated and free, the enslaved feel the need to cement their new identity even when the governance of the slave masters has ended.
The work songs in Equiano’s narrative are in many ways similar to the spiritual songs – they all describe the harsh working conditions and other cruel experiences faced by the slaves. To distinguish between the work and the spiritual songs, it is assumed here that those describing the work and the suffering of the slaves are work-related music while those focusing more on spirituality are spiritual songs. The experiences of the narrator can be used as the evidence of why the work tunes would focus on the suffering rather than motivating the slaves to toil. The labor was not work in the usual sense, rather it was oppression, extortion, and cruelty. Equiano described the work catalogue as tedious and disgusting, meaning there was nothing to be motivated about. Consequently, work songs did not serve as incentives for the African diaspora as they were focused on harsh labor and suffering.
In the context of slavery, the work songs hardly can be used to improve the efficiency of labor, since this case is not under normal circumstances. On the contrary, the songs among the African diaspora are majorly the lamentations of pain and suffering. Consider the following verse:
“—No peace is given
To us enslav’d, but custody severe;
And stripes and arbitrary punishment
Inflicted—What peace can we return? (Equiano 226).
The verse above does not motivate the slaves to make efforts, but laments the conditions of labor. Such music is still considered as work melodies serving a different purpose from the usual.
Three genres of music from Equiano’s narrative: spiritual, gospel, and work songs, are described in this essay. The essay is based on the statement that Africans are people of dance and song with tunes for every occasion. The spiritual and gospel songs fit the occasion of a new-found religion that promises hope and salvation for the enslaved. The work songs, on the other hand, lament the conditions of work, and the cruelty and suffering experienced under the governance of white slave masters. The songs hint at new identities, traditions, and the subversive language, all of which have been forced by the circumstances.
Abreu, Martha. “The Legacy of Slave Songs in the United States and Brazil: Musical Dialogues in the Post-emancipation Period.” Revista Brasileira de História, vol. 35, no. 69, 2015, pp. 1-28.
Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African. Gutenberg, 2005.