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The African Roots of All Popular American Musical Styles

Thelonious Monk, Minton's Playhouse, New York, c. September 1947

Thelonious Monk, Minton's Playhouse, New York, c. September 1947

Debt to African Music

America owes much, if not all, of its musical innovation to African Americans. Without the musical contributions of African Americans, we wouldn’t have most of the popular music styles we know today. Everything from rock to hip-hop to bluegrass has been influenced by traditional African music styles and the music created by African slaves in America.

The Old Plantation (anonymous folk painting). Depicts African-American slaves dancing to banjo and percussion.

The Old Plantation (anonymous folk painting). Depicts African-American slaves dancing to banjo and percussion.

Music as a Means of Survival

During the early days of the African slave trade, slaves used traditional music as a means of retaining a connection to their culture and to each other, as well as to protest the conditions they were forced to endure. They also developed a way of using drums to communicate with one another via coded messages to stage revolts against their slave masters. When the slave masters eventually figured out what was really going on, they took away their drums, but the slaves developed new ways of creating similar rhythms using other objects or only their hands, as well as complex vocal techniques to simulate drumming (Sullivan, 2001). These early musical innovations by African slaves paved the way for future musical innovation by the African American community.

Megan Hilbruner (2015) makes the bold claim that “it’s not a radical assumption to claim that every single American has heard music influenced by slave song and dance. Blues, rock and roll, country, jazz, folk, if not outright invented by the Black community, were heavily influenced by the musical traditions brought over from Africa by the slaves.” Even music that is today associated almost exclusively with Caucasians, such as rock and country, have roots in musical styles developed by African American musicians. “Even bluegrass, whose name conjures up images of old white men on porches and the film Deliverance, could not exist without the Banjo: a traditional West African instrument (Hilbruner, 2015).” The musical techniques developed by early African Americans in response to their treatment by white people paved the way for many different uniquely American musical styles.

"Cake-Walk" by Leo Rauth, 1913

"Cake-Walk" by Leo Rauth, 1913

It Wasn’t a Cakewalk

During the times of slavery, African American music developed separately from white music. Slaves combined elements from their own traditional African music with European musical styles to create a unique African American style of music (Sullivan, 2001). These early African American musical styles were largely ignored by the white slave owners as being “less cultured” than the music enjoyed by whites. Most slave owners didn’t pay enough attention to realize that this music was being used as a means of communication between slaves, or as simply a way of mocking the white slave owners.

One such use of music as a means of ridiculing whites was the “cakewalk dance.” This dance was developed as a mockery of the way African Americans saw white people dance. When the white slave owners saw this, however, they were intrigued by the fact that the slaves were learning a “civilized” dance. They didn’t realize that it was meant as a mockery of their own dance styles. The dance became popular with whites, and by the twentieth century it had become a dance craze within white culture. By this time most whites had forgotten its origins (Hilbruner, 2015).

Ragtime, Blues, and Jazz

Due to the racist attitudes of the white slave owners, and white people throughout the history of the United States even after slavery was abolished, the influence of African Americans on the cultural landscape of America was largely ignored for the better part of our history. It took a long time for musical innovations created by African Americans to really catch on and be regarded as a legitimate part of American culture due to the racist views of the white people in power.

In the early part of the 19th century, African American musicians began performing in degrading minstrel shows, which were originally developed as a way to mock African Americans for white entertainment, as that was the only chance they had of finding work as musicians. The songs they performed were “watered down, Europeanized imitations of African-American songs (Sullivan, 2001).” These shows were seen as validation for the negative stereotypes that white people held regarding African Americans, and only served to further degrade the African American community. The performers played to stereotypes that white people created to oppress African Americans, and African American performers had no choice but to participate in their own subjugation. “The musical style of minstrel songs was still largely entrenched in the European tradition; it was not until ragtime gained popular attention around the turn of the twentieth century […] that an African-American influence can be readily noted (Sullivan, 2001).” Ragtime was a rejection of European musical styles and served as an act of rebellion, which paved the way for new musical innovations by African Americans.

From ragtime came blues, which emerged after the Civil War and “vented African-American frustration and disillusionment (Sullivan, 2001)” with the way they had been treated. African American musicians continued to create what would be termed “popular music” in the early twentieth century, which borrowed stylistic elements from earlier African American musical styles. Early blues used a language of double entendre and hidden meanings, similar to the language employed in early slave spirituals. According to Sullivan, “Frank Kofsky proposed that the blues and early jazz hold sound patterns resembling Negro speech, a logical development from the segregated evolution of speech and music.” Despite the popularity of these musical styles, it was still considered unworthy of serious study and appreciation by the white community. White people during this time remained ignorant of the true complexity of the lyrical and musical techniques employed by African American musicians, and instead dismissed their art as something beneath their own. “The industry created a distinction between high and low art, and allotted room for African-American music only within the lower tiers (Sullivan, 2001).”

American blues singer-songwriter and musician Robert Johnson. Studio portrait Hooks Bros., Memphis, c. 1935.

American blues singer-songwriter and musician Robert Johnson. Studio portrait Hooks Bros., Memphis, c. 1935.

A Modern Era of Music: R&B, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Hip-Hop

By the 1940s, new musical styles emerged in the African American community and became a fixture in American popular culture. The Rhythm and Blues (R&B) style emerged from earlier forms of blues, which quickly gave rise to new styles of music such as rock 'n' roll, disco, and funk.

Hip-hop emerged in the 1970s and ‘80s in response to conservative government policies that created a poverty crisis in the inner city. Hip-Hop removed the melodic and harmonic elements of previous musical styles and focused instead on rhythm and vocals to create a completely new musical style. Though it was a unique new musical style, Hip-Hop still had a strong link to the African oral tradition with its rapid wordplay, complex rhyming, and storytelling techniques. Rappers used this new musical style to “call attention to the inner-city plight, criticize political figures, express ambitions, and promote themselves" (Sullivan, 2001). Like older musical styles, Hip-Hop served to give African Americans a voice in a culture of oppression, as well as to create cultural ties between people within the African American community.

African American music has a long tradition of fighting against oppression and creating strong cultural ties between African Americans. Though African American musical styles have long been looked down upon by white oppressors, they have had a lasting effect on the musical culture of the United States. Almost every current popular musical genre has roots in earlier musical styles created by African American musicians.


Hilbruner, M. (2015). "It Ain't No Cake Walk": The Influence of African American Music and Dance on the American Cultural Landscape. Virginia Social Science Journal, 50 73-80.

Sullivan, M. (2001). African-American Music as Rebellion: From Slavesong to Hip-Hop. Retrieved from

© 2017 Jennifer Wilber