African American Music Roots of African American Music

African American music cannot be separated from the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the forced transportation of millions of African people across the Atlantic who were then enslaved. The cultures from which they were torn and the conditions into which they were forced both contributed to the sounds of African American music. Many of the instruments historically used in African American music, including the banjo and the drum, have antecedents in African musical instruments, and many features common to African American music likewise have roots in African musical traditions, such as the call and response song form and an immersive approach to singing.

Slaves' lives were restricted in innumerable ways, but among them included limits on literacy and property ownership. Music was therefore passed down orally, and early records of African American music indicate that songs changed frequently, not just from singer to singer, but also from day to day when sung by the same musician.  Music was a solace, a community-builder, and voice for hope during enslavement and afterward, in the days of Reconstruction and then Jim Crow.

Although many of them are less well known than their later counterparts, there were plenty of professional African American musicians and singers during Reconstruction, including a group of African American university students, led by their music instructor, and billed as the Fisk Jubilee Singers. They sang African American folk music and religious music, including slave songs, to white audiences, and raised enough money through their ventures to fund a building on campus named, appropriately, Jubilee Hall.