Critical World
Thinking Globalization Through Popular Culture
The Musical Heritage of Slavery
Categories: Critical World Book

This article was created to accompany a text that appeared in the edited volume entitled “Music and Globalization:  Critical Encounters” (Indiana University Press, 2012). For more information, visit:

The first forms of musical expression by slaves, of which all these contemporary forms to a greater or lesser degree bear the stamp, were harbingers of what is now called globalization. Understanding the processes of cross-fertilization and creation that led to the invention of original genres in the slave societies and their successor societies should help us better to analyse the mechanisms of current globalization.

This history of cross-fertilizations and innovation, of creolization in Édouard Glissant’s sense (Glissant 1990, 1997), indicates at the very least that the spread of certain phenomena, including musical phenomena, to the whole planet is linked to systems of domination and the inextricable strategies of resistance, accommodation and power they have brought into being and continue to produce.

The study of the modalities of the emergence of new musics in slave societies – or at least the attempt to reconstruct them from fragmentary data – should enable us better to understand the functions of musical creation in the face of domination, and hence to re-evaluate the meaning of “world music” in today’s world.

—Denis-Constant Martin

Thinking Cross-fertilization

In the beginning comes the encounter: people move of their own free will or are moved by force and come up against others: they are all human beings (even if some argue otherwise); they are therefore similar and yet different. What differentiates them at times frightens them; it also inevitably fascinates them. This ambivalence underlies the contact they establish and frames the exchanges that follow from it. Those exchanges may be – often have been – violent, by dint of the fear that seizes human beings, their will to dominate or their ambitions of conquest.

But brutality never prevents objects from circulating (Turgeon 2003), bodies from rubbing up against each other, words from mingling (Alleyne 1980; Valkhoff 1972), musical forms from becoming entangled with each other (Dubois 1997; Pacquier 1996). Meetings between human groups are, thus, almost always opportunities to establish a relationship: a relationship of domination, admittedly, but a relationship nonetheless.

For example, when the meeting occurs at the end of a voyage, on lands which some people wish to settle and control, and when people are brought from other continents to exploit those lands, the exchanges between natives, conquering settlers and slaves or indentured servants shape a new world. Though asymmetrical, those exchanges are based on a degree of reciprocity (Turgeon 1996, 16). All are transformed by them.

—Denis-Constant Martin

The cross-fertilization that is the launch pad for creolization must be understood then, first, as a creative activity whose goal is to master the environment and understand – and then often change – the respective positions occupied by its various inhabitants. In the Americas, languages and religions have provided many confirmations of this. It is no different for musics.

—Denis-Constant Martin

A great number of the musics that are widely listened to today are the product of the blending and innovation that has occurred in northern America. Two strands have been particularly fertile here: the first – secular – strand leads from blackface minstrels to an infinite range of light musical forms, but also to the Blues, Country and Western, Jazz, Rock and all their offshoots; the second – initially sacred – strand began with Spirituals and led, after many a twist and turn, to Soul, Reggae and Rap.

—Denis-Constant Martin

Despite the inequality and violence that characterized them, slave societies were also universes of contact, exchange and blending. Slavery was, in the cultural field too, a cause of cross-fertilizations in which all took part, masters and slaves alike. However, the habits of classificatory division and the penchant for a supposed purity or “authenticity” that have long characterized Western social sciences make it difficult to think in terms of cross-fertilization (Amselle 1990).

To achieve this, we must abandon the idea that blending and cross-fertilization necessarily produce mongrelization and impoverishment, and recognize that they are sources of “fundamental dynamics” (Gruzinski 1999, 54) that unfold in “strange zones” and bring into play previously unknown procedures (ibid., 241) capable of engendering creative activity.

—Denis-Constant Martin

From Blackface Minstrels to Musical Revue

Against a background of incomprehension, cruelty, collusion and solidarity, and through misunderstandings and approximations (Gruzinski 1996, 144), all the parties forge markers for themselves in which the Other necessarily plays a part, and these markers – on both sides – together delimit the mixed universe they now share.

—Denis-Constant Martin

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