Written by Twumasi Duah-Mensah
2019 marked 400 years since Africans were ripped from their homeland and shipped to the Americas en masse, prompting that whole enslavement thing. 2020 marks 155 years since the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment, when the United States officially abolished slavery. If you, a former black slave, were freed but suddenly fell asleep from 1865 until now, you’d have a lot of catching up to do. Oh, where to start?
Let’s get you up to speed with black culture—okay, that’s still too broad. How about black music? That’s a narrow-enough focus. To recap, Africans brought over to the Americas adapted their culture to lament or rebel against their oppression. That became the 19th and 20th-century blues and jazz crazes, which morphed into late 20th-century hip-hop. Hip-hop was originally meant for DJs at the dance floor, but it morphed into its own huge genre, opening for more soulful, contemplative works such as the Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the Wu-Tang or Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides in the 1990s. The best rappers of that time were able to fuse grim, graphic stories about their hard-knock, gangster lifestyle with beautiful elegies about their vulnerabilities and desire for them and their people to escape the ghetto and break down the system of oppression that keeps them caged in poverty. Not much has changed, huh? The music sounds different, but the message remains the same. The poverty remains the same. The victims of said poverty remain the same.
Now, we’re well into the 21st century, and the black blues icons of your time have been supplanted by modern rap-cult heroes like Chief Keef and Lil Uzi Vert. Ostensibly, they’re far removed from the sorrowful ballads of the 19th century. I mean, the celebration of the pursuit of wealth or, more colloquially, “securing the bag” seems soulless and empty of any remote meaning. There’s nothing reflective, sorrowful, or revealing about “having all the ice on my wrists” or all your sexual conquests. It’s easy to roll your eyes at how vapid modern rap is until you listen to the late 19th-century blues artists that lamented the system of racism that left them impoverished—until you listen to the late 20th-century rappers who illustrated the dark world from which they hoped to escape. Today’s big rappers are taking the natural next step in rejoicing their come-up from the bottom, and some, like the late Juice WRLD, explore the challenges of managing newfound fame, wealth, and influence. But it all goes back to that fear of poverty that has trapped African-Americans for a very long time.
But let’s pause right here. This article isn’t about the evolution of black music; it’s about the importance of understanding just how connected African-Americans are to slavery. Music is just one example of black Americans’ adaptation of African culture over the 400 years they’ve been in the Americas. That culture, though, is still African in its foundation. They might be far removed from their homeland, but the story of being taken out of Africa and fighting to maintain and assert their culture outside of the homeland still remains with every black American. That’s why it’s so important to connect back to your roots.
And that’s why, in 2019, the 400th year since blacks were taken out of Africa as slaves, the West African country of Ghana invited African-Americans to return to their homeland, named the Year of Return. And for the reasons explained, it was a big success. Maybe the numbers were a bit embellished, and education on how slavery affected Ghana wasn’t very complete, but big celebrities documenting how the Year of Return served as a way to heal the wounds left by being siphoned off from their homeland shows just how crucial returning to your roots is.