Feel the Beat: African Influence in Modern Music

Anyone who listens to music on the radio or streams it on Spotify or Apple Music has experienced the influence and impact of African music. Music from around the globe, such as samba, salsa, rhumba, gospel, hip-hop, reggae and R&B music all have a common ancestor — African music.  

Where It All Began

Africa boasts a rich, varied landscape of musical styles that transcends borders. Some, like Nigerian fuji and Ghanaian highlife, which melded with other influences to create the  popular Afrobeat genre, boast complex intersecting rhythms and percussion that can be heard in funk and jazz as well. Meanwhile, lovers of Afropop should recognize the percussion elements of Nigerian jùjú and the grooves of Congolese ndombolo in electronic and pop music across Europe, North America, and parts of Asia. Even characteristics culled from African sacred music, like the expert beating of drums, call and response vocalization, and the meticulous layering of rhythms make people instantly recognize African musical elements in styles from all over the world, from gospel to techno.

African musical influence spans beyond borders and traditional African music. It's been shaping music around the world for centuries. It began with the dispersion of millions of Africans around the world during the slave trade. It continued through the 20th and 21st centuries as people traveled to and from Africa. Now today, as the world gets smaller with the internet and more listeners get exposed to new African artists, the evolution continues. Without Africa and the African diaspora, music across the globe wouldn't be what it is today.

Pushing Beyond African Borders

Take calypso, a genre of Caribbean music. When French planters arrived in Trinidad and Tobago, they brought enslaved people with them. Among them were West Africans whose tribal songs championed the griot, or storyteller singer, as well as a steady driving rhythm and elements of call and response. When the settlers banned slaves from participating in carnival, they created their own celebration and called it canboulay. It was during canboulay that calypso flourished into the genre people know and love today, largely due to the integration of those distinct African hallmarks. Years later, during World War Two, the unmistakable sound of the steel band developed on these same islands. By combining African percussion traditions with used oil drums, musicians found they could produce unique tones with bamboo sticks. Naturally, they played their captivating calypso music using these new sounds. 

 New Genres in a New World 

Musical traditions from Africa influenced music in the United States, too. Jazz music, blues music, and gospel music all grew from African roots. Spirituals, work calls, and chants coupled with makeshift instruments morphed into blues rhythms and ragtime. Ragtime paved the way for jazz, and elements from all these styles influenced rock and roll and hip hop music. 

 This far-reaching African influence wove its way into some strange places. For instance, "Dixie" was a song beloved in the American South and a favorite tune of many, including Abraham Lincoln. The Confederacy even adopted it as their national anthem during the American Civil War. Little did many of the people whistling its tune realize it originated in the minstrel shows of the 1850s, which imitated Black music. 

 The African Spirit in Latin America

Just as the United States' musical landscape wouldn't exist without African contributions, nor would Brazilian music. Fans of samba might not realize its infectious rhythms grew out of African religious traditions that originated in places like the Congo. Because samba is so catchy and uplifting, it became a huge part of Brazilian celebrations and serves as a symbol of the country today. 

 The African Legacy Endures

These examples are just a few that show the effect of the African diaspora on the world's music. From ska and reggae to country and rock, there are glimpses of Africa hiding in plain sight in tunes everywhere. The next time you  listen to your favorite song, imagine how drastically different music would be without it.