By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
“A lot of people don’t realize that just about all Negro spirituals are written on the Black notes of the piano. Probably the most famous on this slave scale was written by John Newton, who used to be the captain of a slave ship, and many believe he heard this melody that sounds very much like a West African sorrow chant. And it has a haunting, haunting plaintive quality to it that reaches past your arrogance, past your pride, and it speaks to that part of you that’s in bondage. And we feel it. We feel it. It’s just one of the most amazing melodies in all of human history.”
Quote from gospel singer, Wintley Phipps, during his performance at Carnegie Hall in 2002.
Wintley Augustus Phipps is an African-American gospel singer who was born in Trinidad & Tobago on January 7, 1955 and grew up in Montreal, Quebec where his family moved when he was about five-years-old.
Phipps is one in a long line of talented, inspirational African-American gospel singers and has performed for several U.S. Presidents, including Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Hussein Obama at National Prayer Breakfast events and other celebrations.
He also performed at the 1984 and 1988 National Democratic Conventions, Rosa Parks’ 77th birthday gala at the Kennedy Center and for the late South African President, Nelson Mandela.
Phipps’ quote in 2002 during his performance of “Amazing Grace” at Carnegie Hall not surprisingly has garnered both praise and condemnation.
Comments from some White people included that he was racist because he expressed too much pride in his Africanness. Phipps’ comment was pertinent because many people do not know the history of African contributions to popular contemporary music. That is why it is so important that we continue to celebrate/observe Black Music Month. June has been recognized as Black Music Month since 1979.
In June 1979, then U.S. President Jimmy Carter designated June as “Black Music Month”. Carter made that declaration at the urging of songwriter and producer, Kenneth Gamble of Gamble and Huff and broadcasters, Ed Wright and Dyana Williams, who lobbied for the official recognition of a Black Music Month. Huff, Wright and Williams were members of the “Black Music Association”.
In an interview with Hillary Crosley of The Griot published on May 30, 2013 entitled “The Economic Origins of Black Music Month”, Gamble explained the need for the recognition of Black Music Month: “The Black Music Association was a trade association at the time, and it was an educational forum for young producers and writers – African-Americans in particular – where they could discuss the benefits of the music industry. History says that most African-Americans in the industry were robbed of their songs and their property.
“The Black Music Association spoke to the marketing of Black music. The whole theme was ‘Black Music Is Green’ and it dealt with the economics of African-American music. It was very helpful not only to us but also the industry at large. Then the Black Music Association created Black Music Month, which was another original, because October was Country Music Month. What happens when you have a music month? You get additional marketing dollars, and it helps to market and promote the artists. It’s still working, because right now we’re talking about something that started 34 years ago.”
In an interview published in the July 2013 edition of Ebonymagazine under the title “Dyana Williams: Godmother of Black Music Month”, the woman who many consider the “Mother of Black Music Month” is quoted: “While it was declared by President Carter in 1979, as far as the U.S. government was concerned, it didn’t become official until 2000. People refer to me as the ‘Mother of Black Music Month’ because of my work in getting Black Music Month legislatively recognized by Congress. I also established an organization called the International Association of African American Music Foundation (IAAAMF). Through this foundation, we enacted this legislation. It was a very proud moment when they called me and said the bill was going up for a vote. Congressman Chaka Fattah from Philadelphia was the individual I worked with to get the legislation passed. He was the one who introduced it on the floor of the House of Representatives.”
In that interview Williams was asked about the relevance of celebrating/observing Black Music Month today and her reply was: “It is important to celebrate Black Music Month because it’s a recognition and ownership of our culture. It’s something that we need to be proud of. If you ask artists from different cultures, they’ll tell you how influential Black music has been to them. Ask Mick Jagger. Ask Paul McCartney. Ask Eric Clapton. Ask Kid Rock. Ask them how much Black music influenced their careers. The Rolling Stones got their group name from an old Muddy Waters record.
“In some cases, most White artists know our music better than we do. It’s important to know because it’s a source of inspiration and a motivating factor. It enhances our overall life experience and that’s why I’m so passionate about this music. It serves as a source of pride and a source of great history as well. How can you not be proud when you look at the timeline of our musical history? We’ve struggled and our music has paralleled those struggles in America. It tells our stories of enslavement, our desire for freedom, and our victories and defeats. It’s the soundtrack to our experience in this country.”
Making music was one of the few pleasures that enslaved Africans enjoyed, that helped them to retain some of the culture that was brutally torn from them by the White slave holders in their attempt to dehumanize the Africans. The spirituals that were used as a coded language by many enslaved Africans when planning their escape is a testament to the power of our music.
Music has sustained Africans dealing with myriad oppressions as expressed by the African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906) in his poem Sympathy (published 1899):
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore, –
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings –
I know why the caged bird sings!
At his soul-stirring rendition of “Amazing Grace”, which he delivered at Carnegie Hall in 2002 Wintley Phipps explained some of the history: “Just about all Negro Spirituals are written on Black notes of the piano. This is absolutely true, you can go home tonight and play almost any Negro Spiritual, just play the Black notes on the piano. There are five Black notes on the piano, and those same Black notes just keep occurring. And you can go home tonight and play almost any Negro Spiritual, just play the Black notes.
“That’s because the slaves didn’t come to America with: ‘Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do’. That’s somebody else’s scale. All they had in their musical scale were the five Black notes we know as the Pentatonic scale and they built the power and the pathos of the Negro spiritual on five notes. When you study music you also come across what are known as ‘White spirituals’. Did you know that? And there are White composers who work with that scale, in early America they used to call it ‘The Slave Scale’. And I’m gonna play for you what some musicologists think is the most famous White spiritual built on the slave scale with just the Black notes.”
“Amazing Grace” was published in 1779 with John Newton credited as the author but the melody is documented as composed by “Unknown”. There is no official recognition that the melody is a West African mourning chant. However we know that over the centuries the music of Africans has been appropriated by White people who made a fortune from that music and refused to acknowledge the source or compensate the composers/originators.
Newton reportedly had his spiritual conversion in 1748 when a violent storm battered his ship so severely that he called out to God for mercy and his ship and life were spared. However he continued his slave-trading even after this “Road to Damascus” epiphany.
In the introduction to the 1962 book The Journal of a Slave Trader (John Newton), 1750-1754, WithNewton’s Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade, authors Bernard Davis Martin and Mark Spurrell wrote: “When Newton began his journal in 1750, not only was slave trading seen as a respectable profession by the majority of Britons, its necessity to the overall prosperity of the kingdom was communally understood and approved.”
Today the descendants of enslaved Africans are demanding reparations for the unpaid labour of their ancestors that enriched White people for generations. During Black Music Month we can begin to consider who is reaping riches from the talents of African musicians and demand reparations there also!