One of my first memories of making music involved me sitting on my grandmother’s lap in front of her drawbar organ when I was about five years old. Whenever I’d visit her, I would stand in her living room, basking in the glow of the light reflected off the varnished and oiled wood panels of the majestic Hammond M3. When I was feeling bold, I would sit at the bench and play with the pearlescent switches, keys and knobs, unsure as to what I was controlling but engrossed in the fantasy that I was making music.      

Eventually, the day came that my grandmommy sat down with me at the bench. The first thing she showed me was how to make a C-major scale out of the white keys. That was simple enough, and once I could do that, she went on to show me how to “make it good and bluesy.” She pointed out which black keys I could “tickle” in order to change the aesthetic character of the music to something more soulful.

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this exchange represented the passing down of a diasporic cultural tradition from one generation to another. When Africans were first brought to the Americas as slaves, they brought with them a rich and nuanced musical tradition. This tradition included musical concepts and approaches to music making that hitherto had not been explored in Western music. Among these are the idea of call-and-response, the use of syncopated rhythms, an emphasis on lyrical and musical improvisation and the extensive employment of blue notes. In showing me which black keys to tickle whilst playing in C major, my grandmother was in fact teaching me how to incorporate blue notes into my music making, thereby passing down an important tradition that goes all the way back to Africa.

Throughout the history of American culture, black music has acted as the vessel in which certain facets of African culture and artistic expression have been retained. Rather than letting their cultural identity be erased by the institution of chattel slavery, the Africans who were forced to come to America preserved their cultural identity through song and dance. Eventually, these Africanisms found their way into the mainstream musical consciousness and became jazz, gospel, blues, rock and hip-hop. These Africanisms were central to the development of nearly every kind of American music genre.

For example, rock ‘n’ roll music (and all its derivative genres) is based heavily off of blues music. Blues music, in turn, is characterized by its emphasis on the use of blue notes. The blues scale (a minor pentatonic scale with the addition of a blue note in the form of a diminished fifth) is foundational to rock music, and without the blue note, it does not exist. 

Similarly, Africanisms can been found at the core of contemporary innovations in music. The presence of a hype man in the background of a hip-hop track (à la Waka Flocka Flame shouting “Brick Squad” or making gun noises in the background of all of his songs) is a fairly recent development. This is a great example of call-and-response, where the claim of the artist acts a call, and the affirmation and echoing of the sentiment by the hype man acts as the response. Moreover, the now-famous and much-lauded “Migos flow” is another contemporary innovation rooted in Africanisms. The group’s style is unique in that it is based around cross-rhythm (another Africanism)—lyrics are delivered in bursts of eighth-note triplets over beats that are generally in duple meter. 

My grandmother has been dead for about 10 years now, and that beautiful Hammond M3 that I had hoped to inherit was eventually repossessed by the bank. However, the impact my grandmother made on me at that keyboard was profound and has stayed with me ever since. She introduced me to a musical tradition that stretches back hundreds of years and thousands of miles.