Slavery was a cruel and terrible institution that tried to turn human beings into objects. But the people who were brought to America as slaves refused to give up their humanity. One way they clung to their identity and dignity was through music. While they worked in the fields, while they cooked and cleaned for rich white folks, they recognized the rhythms of their movements—and they sang to the beat of their bodies’ labor. They clapped their hands together, they beat their feet on the ground, and they shouted out the stories of their lives. They sang about freedom, about going home, about sorrows and trials, and their music helped them rise above the pain. While one person sang, those who were working nearby felt free to chime in with their two cents as well. This spontaneous music was an ever- changing, living thing, created by the entire community. As the years went by, the slaves adapted to their new lives, but in their hearts, they never completely lost touch with Africa, the home that had shaped them. Most slaves converted to Christianity, but they made this faith uniquely their own. Rhythm was a part of their worship, and preaching and singing blended together. Even after African Americans gained their freedom, they continued to listen to life’s beat. At black churches, ministers used a preaching form known as “call-and-response.” For example, a minister might shout out, “People, can I hear an amen?” and the congregation shouted back, “Amen!” Martin Luther King, Jr., the great African American minister who led the civil rights movement in the 1960s, spoke of “singing the Word.” Like many other black preachers, King used both melody and rhythm to move his audiences. The voices of black ministers rose and fell, the pitch of their voices creating a beat that could suddenly burst into song. At the same time, black gospel singers might break into a testimony in the middle of singing, or the preacher might weave his preaching through the singers’ music. Within African American churches, music, spoken


Chapter 1: The Roots of Hip-Hop

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