Another Piece of Black Culture Stolen: The Cultural Appropriation of the Banjo
The banjo. A simple instrument commonly associated with American country music which is code for an instrument related to the American South and Whiteness. Yet, the banjo was not an instrument created in America and a White person did not create it. Like countless other aspects of Black culture that are now affiliated with Whiteness, the banjo was an early casualty of cultural appropriation in America.
Crossing the Atlantic
As stated earlier, the banjo, which is an inherently Southern instrument, did not, in fact, come from the American South at all. Instead, the banjo can trace its roots back to the transatlantic slave trade- the brutal trip across the Atlantic that brought Africans to colonial America in the seventeenth century. Although these enslaved people from Africa were ripped away from their homes and their families, they didn’t leave their culture behind. Between bringing their languages, foreign to English ears, or the dances they routinely performed, unseen by English eyes, these enslaved Africans continued with their traditions even in the face of cruelty. And from these cultural traditions brought over to America, along came the simple string instrument that is the whole focus of this article. The banjo. Or, the banjar as it was called in its formative days. So, no, the banjo isn’t an American creation. Instead, it is an invention from the culture of a people who were brought to America, not of their own volition.
The Racist Reinvention of the Banjo
When the banjo was brought to America along with the people ripped away from their homes in Africa, the banjo was what helped connect them back to their roots. The banjo became a popular instrument in their music, which is now known as folk music, along with other instruments brought from Africa, uniting the Black community in the new racist world they faced. Although, it didn’t take too long for the beloved instrument to become appropriated by a White man. In the 1830s, a man named Joel Walker Sweeney became the first White man to perform with the banjo, taking the instrument to a minstrel show. While performing in blackface, he imitated the popular perception of a Black slave. From that first show, the banjo’s popularity increased tenfold. It became synonymous with minstrel shows and blackface becoming popular in not only America but also overseas in Europe. This rise of the minstrel show with White performers in blackface playing the banjo while acting out the popular stereotypes of African-Americans is at large responsible for the exclusion of Black people from an instrument and music style that they invented.
Challenging the Narrative
Today, the banjo and country music are both still primarily thought of as an instrument and music genre exclusive to White people. Yet, since the banjo was appropriated, many Black artists have challenged that narrative. Recently within the past two decades, one group of Black musicians has pushed against the racist ideology surrounding the banjo and the genre of music it is associated with, the Carolina Chocolate Drops. A string band from Durham, NC, the Carolina Chocolate Drops have won a Grammy Award and have had their 2010 album, Genuine Negro Jig, ranked as one of the best of the year. They are not the only group of Black artists to be reclaiming their space in the genre, though, as there has been an increase of Black artists creating folk music. Yet, there is still a long way to go in fixing Black people’s erasure from the creation of the banjo or folk music, which now comprise the country music genre.
Listen to the Carolina Chocolate Drops Here
Strucko, Jenna, and Whitney Neal . “So You Think You Know the Banjo?” THE BITTER SOUTHERNER, bittersoutherner.com/history-of-the-banjo.
Buchman, Mike, et al. “Folk Instrument’s Historical Connection to Racism in the U.S.” Solid Ground, 4 Nov. 2011, www.solid-ground.org/banjo-connection-to-racism/.
Burnim, Mellonee V., and Portia K. Maultsby. African American Music: an Introduction. Routledge, 2015.