The Black Atlantic: Black Music and its Relation to Modernity

For my English class at UW, I’ve been assigned a reading of Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Rather than encapsulating the African American tradition within national borders, Gilroy recognizes the actual significance of European and African travels of many African American writers. To prove his point, Gilroy re-reads the works of African American intellectuals against the background of a trans-Atlantic context. Particularly, Gilroy chooses to focus on how the roots of Modernity, which is the Enlightenment,  influenced the depiction of race and culture today. However, I want to focus particularly on Gilroy’s discussion of black music. For this post I’m mostly going to quote Gilroy to demonstrate the interesting manner in which he presents music in context to Modernity.

Gilroy establishes the foundation of his argument by stating that ” I will use a brief consideration of black musical development to move beyond an understanding of cultural processes…currently torn between seeing them either as the expression of an essential, unchanging, soverign racial self or as the effluent from a constitued subjectivity that emerges contingently from the endless play of racial signification.” Jesus that’s a mouthful to say and a real pisser to read and analyze. Let’s see if Gilroy’s following quote makes it easier: “The power of music in developing black struggles by communicating information, organising consciousness…I want to concentrate instead on the moral aspects and in particular on the disjunction between the ethical value of the music and its status as an ethnic sign.” For Gilroy, music is important not only because of its popular status, but also because it unseats language and textuality as “preeminent expressions of human consciousness” (74). That alternative becomes even more important in the wake of slavery and the attempt to express the unsayable. Broadest of all the chapters in historical scope, it covers territroy from the Fisk University Singers’ 1871 trip to England through discussions about authenticity in Jazz and Jimi Hendrix and up to the present as he looks at Reggae, Bhangra and Hip-Hop.  Gilroy does not simplify music into a matter of influence from prominent centers to new arenas, but rather shows how ideas and styles have travelled, interacted, and become a transnational debate about authentic identity.

Particularly, Gilroy cites North London’s Funki Dreds as a hybrid identity between the notion of race and national belonging, a highlight of modernity. The Funki Dreds’ song “Keep On Moving” was notable for having been produced in England by the children of Caribbean settlers and then remixed in a Jamican dub format in the US by Teddy Riley, an African American. It included segments / samples of music taken from both American and Jamican records. The unity of diverse cultural elements demonstrated what Gilroy calls the “playful diasporic intimacy that has been a marked feature of transnational black Atlantic creativity.” The history of this black Atlantic culture demonstrates the criss cross manner in which seemingly exclusive cultures British, Jamican, and American cultures seem to interact with one another. However, that’s the significance of it all, because Gilroy sees how the distinct culture and rhythm of life of black Britain is portrayed to the world through a variety of means. The plurality of influences raises further question about modernity, especially regarding the notion of nationalism, especially with the incorporation of race and belonging.

Read a bit more regarding the subject matter


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