DJ, academic says slave trade, African diaspora major contributors to modern musical styles

DJ Lynnée Denise

NEW ORLEANS (March 31, 2022) – The Trans-Atlantic slave trade and African diaspora had a major impact on the development of modern musical styles, DJ Lynnée Denise said during the second lecture in Dillard University’s “Legacies of American Slavery” series.

“As a black college graduate, I find that we’re not having enough conversations about the ways in which black music evolved,” Denise said.

She said American music – blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, gospel, hip-hop, folk and so much more – has been shaped largely by the byproducts of black resistance to oppression.

Viewers convened virtually Feb. 22 to witness a conversation between speaker and Zella Palmer, director and chair of Dillard’s Ray Charles Program in African-American Material and Culture.

Dillard University was selected as a regional collaborator of the Council of Independent Colleges to further its multiyear project initiative through promoting “cultural creativity,” according to Palmer. The Ray Charles program’s “Legacies of American Slavery” series is a means of exploring cultural expression through tourism, food and music.      

Palmer said, “I want to lift up Ray Charles’ name – the visionary and legend behind this program. It is so fitting that we’re talking about music tonight. [It] is the soundtrack of American material culture, particularly African American material culture, and the legacies of slavery.”

Denise, who graduated from historically black Fisk University in 1997 and earned a master’s degree from San Francisco State and a master’s degree in creative writing from University of California Riverside , works as an adjunct professor in the Pan-African Studies Department at California State University, Los Angeles. She also is a touring disc jockey.

She curated a playlist of more than 100 songs to accompany the lecture. The list addressed the theme of “black music as social exploration” and was inspired by the work of Dr. Portia Maultsby, ethnomusicologist and professor, Denise said.

Maultsby created a chart that sonically and visually “maps” the journey of black musical traditions in America beginning in the 1600s with work/field songs and ending in the 2000s with more that 50 genres present. Viewers were encouraged to reference this chart during the lecture.

“Key things when thinking about black music in the black Atlantic context is mastery of syncopation, improvisation and polyrhythms, call and response, the ring-shout, and the use of body as an instrument,” Denise stated.

The DJ said disbursement of these musical components mirrored the movement of black people around the country. The continuity and “ancestral memory” African slaves demonstrated in the face of oppression was the catalyst for an unprecedented amount of innovation.

“There is a clear link between blues and the traditional string music of Gambia, for example. Listen to Ali Farka Toure,” Denise said.

The speaker explained that the banjo, a stringed instrument introduced to America in the 1800s, is likely a descendant of the akonting, a folk lute of similar shape and size that is native to Senegal, Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau in West Africa.

“I’m thinking about music and place[s]. I’m thinking about endurance and the articulation of our social experiences– black music as a form of social explanation besides its entertainment value,” Denise said.

Artists featured in this playlist include gospel artists such as The Fisk Jubilee Singers, The Caravans and Robert Glasper; blues singers such as Ma Rainey and Billie Holiday; jazz greats like Charlie Parker and Alice Coltrane; funk bands like Earth, Wind & Fire; R&B artists such as Jodeci and Mary J. Blige; hip-hop artists like N.W.A. and Public Enemy; glam rock artists like Prince; and even a spoken-word track by social rights activist Angela Davis.

“In that playlist, there is a story that can be mapped out. We can create a visual picture of our social experiences,” Denise said.