Despite the fact that we live in one of the world's few truly pluralistic societies, Americans are as prone to pigeonholing as any people. Just look at the way we deal with our popular music, sorting it not only on the basis of function (e.g., "dance music," "easy listening" and the like) but also through arcane notions of style and ethnicity.
Take, for example, the term "black music." Although the styles have changed over the years, moving from blues and R&B to soul and urban contemporary, the bottom line has remained essentially the same: "Black" music is any music played largely by black musicians. Conversely, most fans take it as equally obvious that any style not dominated by black performers -- country music, for example, or rock and roll -- is not black music.
To its credit, this color-coded approach does leave room for exceptions. Jessye Norman sings at the Metropolitan Opera and Charlie Pride at the Grand Ol' Opry, while Hall & Oates play the Apollo and Lisa Stansfield turns up on "Video Soul," all in the name of "crossover."
In order to cross over, however, there must first be a boundary to cross, something separating black pop from every other kind. And the truth is that there isn't. Because if we ignore pigmentation and instead use "having a strong African-American influence" as our musical definition, then virtually every kind of pop music on the market these days would count as "black music."
Think about it for a moment. Rock and roll's debt to African-American sources ought to be obvious, and the same goes for jazz. But if you don't think country music owes anything, you might want to ask yourself where the blues in Jimmie Rodgers' "Blue Yodels" came from -- or, for that matter, how it was that Hank Williams kept singing songs like "Lovesick Blues," "Moanin' the Blues" and "Long Gone Lonesome Blues." And though Latin music is widely considered to be a strictly Hispanic affair, any sound driven by congas, timbales or other "Latin" percussion instruments has its roots not in Spain but in West Africa.
Indeed, the basic building blocks of modern pop -- syncopation, backbeat, blue notes and soul singing -- are all products of African-American culture. Without them, there would be very little left to make our music seem uniquely American.
To understand how astonishingly pervasive this influence is, think for a moment about the way we keep time -- not clock time, of course, but musical time. Anyone who has ever clapped along with a rock song probably knows that it's the afterbeats that count; if the count is "one-two-three-four," our part goes "pause-clap!-pause-clap!" That's the backbeat, and as Chuck Berry noted in his hit "Rock and Roll Music," we listeners "just can't lose it."
But where did it come from? Most European music puts its emphasis on primary beats (the "one" and the "three" in that four-beat structure). But much African music prefers to imply those beats, placing its stress on the off-beats (the "two" and the "four"). So deeply ingrained is this sense of rhythm that musicologist John Miller Chernoff, in his book "African Rhythm and African Sensibility," tells of watching a group of small children in a Ghanaian village dancing to the sound of a record player. "The smallest of all was so young she could hardly keep from missing her hands while she clapped them and bounced," he writes, "but significantly, even she clapped on the second and fourth beats."
Our rock and roll beat -- boom-thwack!-boom boom-thwack! -- draws from both. We hear the bass drum (the "boom") stating the primary beats in classic Western fashion, but feel the snare (the "thwack!") as it focuses the rhythm, African-style, on the off-beats.
Another important debt we owe to the African influences in our music is syncopation. Ever since the late 19th century, American pop songs have enhanced their rhythmic appeal by letting the melody's accents fall not on the beat, but slightly ahead or behind it. It was this jauntiness that made ragtime seem ragged, that put the swing into the swing era, and gave the jump to jump blues, and it, too, is a reflection of African-derived rhythmic ideas.
Ragtime is widely considered the root of these rhythmic ideas, and though the earliest rags weren't written down until the 1890s, historians believe that the rhythmic ideas date back much further. Music historian Charles Hamm, in his book "Music in the New World," writes that the cakewalk -- the dance associated with most early rags -- is believed by dance historians to be "a descendant of the Ring Shout dance known to have been done by slaves, which in turn traces its ancestry to the African circle dance."
(African rhythmic ideas have turned up, relatively unchanged, in other parts of the American pop landscape, particularly in Latin music. In fact, many of the drum patterns used in salsa and Caribbean music today have easily-recognizable counterparts in African music).