An exclusive essay written by Bronx artist,
Jeron “Ignis” Randolph.
Spirit is a feeling.
It’s a force beyond the physical and the status quo that tries to define what we’re experiencing.
It’s a reminder that we’re more than our present state of being or past conditions. It’s an intangible accessed for hope for the future, with a connection to our past that has blessed us with our existence.
With it we look deeper into ourselves and beyond the conditions of the outside world.
Black culture ruptures the paths defined for us by oppressors. Our writing, art, and music have retained these elements through the years, and has kept us alive to thrive in a way that no one has expected.
ALL true forms of black expression are beyond the confines of formalism. To stay only formal is to remain indoctrinated by the customs imposed on us since the 17th century.
Our spirit is what makes our writing,
“…working class negroes in the United States (but not exclusively American Negroes) are the most powerful and avant-garde of all black groups because they inhabit the most vital, rough-and-tumble, powerful capitalist and quasi-democratic nation in the world, while American-style racism helps bind them into a cohesive, racially conscious group.”
– George Hutchinson on Claude McKay’s Banjo (2010: 5)
Through our shackles, spirit was a source of freedom that allowed our ancestors to remain themselves while being treated as objects belonging to a master.
It’s a force, much like love or gravity, that can’t be seen, but is felt.
This energy is inherited throughout our works and expressions:
jumping the broom traditions,
and much more.
The population of Negroes that reside in America today are the result of a history where Africans were forcefully captured, sold, and brought to America in the 17th century. These transactions resulted in Africans being cut off from their own customs, to be integrated into a new land and life of absolute slavery. There were no written records of their history, and no preservation of their language. Even if written documents existed, they could no longer be understood.
The night-skinned people of America were no longer like their african ancestry from their homeland, and were neither fully accepted nor adopted into the new land as equals, or humans.
Their sense of identity and connections to their roots are maintained by their melanin and various forms of expression brimming with spirit; reminding them they are moral beings to their core, despite horrifying dehumanizing circumstances.
“...they would sing, as a chorus, to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves. I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do.” -Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, (2019: 32)
Spirit must be felt more than it must be understood.
It is made up of faith.
My black ancestors survived on faith, and faith is not for everyone to understand,
but for us to believe and pass down.
Black people have used spirit for generations in order to stay alive. It has allowed for culture to be created, developed, and sustained.
After emancipation, black bodies still maneuver this strange land where we are strangers, while being taught to read and write in a manner considered “acceptable” to this former oppressor’s standards. In order to remain ourselves, Black writing has had to retain an unapologetic spirit true to our experience.
Spirit is not limited to black people. Our historical position has forced us to adapt this trait in order to remain ourselves through trials. It is our heritage. Intellectual, educated, and gifted black writers may not always consider themselves spiritual, but none can deny that this is a part of our history.
To look, talk, and sound like what we are taught is superior to us, or adhering to the lessons they teach, will never make us them.
Leaders like Malcolm,
writers like Bell Hooks,
abolitionists like FRederick Douglas,
all have high academic-level articulation (and logic) evident in their influential work.
At the same time, they infuse their own spirit into views beyond formulaic standards of institutions that may deem their discourse unpopular.
These black writers don’t always directly tell us what is right and wrong,
but will use commonly accepted definitions alongside lived experiences in order to convey what is felt morally, socially, and mentally as human.
I believe this power is mirrored and present in modern forms of expression such as hip hop, and is further connected to the african ancestry we were separated from.
“Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.” Frederick Douglass, (2019: 33)
The spirit of Hip Hop has always been one of overcoming. Young Bronx artists had been forced to make the most they could out of the resources available to them in the early 1970s, after the end of the Civil Rights Movement.
The black youth had witnessed the death and destruction of many of their leaders, yet they still desired a voice and way to express themselves.
Without the local governments or school programs able to provide these outlets, the youth were forced to take matters into their own hands with the development of a new genre and lifestyle.
The records that spun on record players at home contained “proper” music that these kids were never instructed on how to properly create, on instruments they were never provided with.
As a result, these kids had the ingenious idea to turn the record player itself into an instrument, eventually becoming what we know as turntables. This new instrument would be used at community parties, with the DJ’s using their ears and intuition to find pockets of sounds that the crowds could dance to.
Soon MCees (Masters of Ceremonies) would rhyme over the sounds created.
Instead of adopting a formula,
they would create their own.
This movement would be amplified by ingenious comic graffiti art in the city’s abandoned subways, the floor sweeping breakdancing, as well as the continued emphasis on peace, love, unity, and having fun through the conditions they lived in.
This celebration resonates in tradition with other genres created by disenfranchised people of color.
The use of spirit to rise in the face of adversity echoes through time.
The soulful wales and haunted stringing of Blues music is an early example of this essence. Blues had been brought about by the hearts of Sharecroppers along the Mississippi delta.
The circumstances of these descendants of enslaved Africans conjured a new impassioned stirring of sound in order to communicate the pure dread and cacophony of emotion that bled from their heart’s lineage. Mississippi was said to embody some of the worse horrors of slavery during Antebellum America, and was now enhabited by “freed” black bodies reluctantly working for a way out, and channeling their spirit to get them through.
Much like in hip hop, these stories and inhibitions were always embedded within them in the form of melodies. The songs didn’t have to be in tune or clean-cut, it was meant to be felt in all it’s rawness and pain. This unleashing was our true emancipation, our history and legacy as black creators before we were acknowledged as such.
Hip hop, like other genres of black music, inherently has spirit.
Spinning and scratching records had altered our realities and transformed our destinies.
The free flow of thoughts from the MCee was a reminder to be unapologetic.
The b-boys who took to the floors had become one with the earth again.
This was unlike any other genre of music, as it abandoned formalities placed before them and replaced it with a new version of how to do things.
As a young black artist born and raised in the Bronx, I can testify to the lifestyle that hip hop has become in the fabric of our culture. From the way that we dress, interact, create, speak, and walk, it has become ingrained into my fiber and those around me.
Hip hop has taught me lessons about being a man, a king, being original, and being more than what I am defined to be by the institutions I’ve been (mis)educated in.
The way to create and understand has even given me an edge when writing and creating in school, and even now as I write this piece for a magazine. I’m grateful for how it has been a safe haven for me to be me, to compete, and to be accepted.
It has granted me an attitude I will surely pass down. It is my timeless legacy to make what I can out of what I have.
“...the highest joy and the deepest sadness. They would compose and sing as they went along, consulting neither time nor tune. The thought that came up, came out --if not in the word, in the sound;-- and as frequently in the one as in the other. They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone.” -Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, (2019: 32)
Cubism is also Black. It’s an expression of what already existed in Africa that was taken, and renamed. It’s a form of art based on incorporating multiple perspectives upon a single subject.
While this form of abstractionism was pioneered by Pablo Picasso and George Braque in the early 1900s,
this style was undoubtedly influenced by African art from long before their time.
Picasso and George would study the masks from the French Museum and use the inspiration in their pieces such as the strung guitars and more.
In a 1972 interview with Francoise Gilot, Picasso confesses his interest in “negro art” while he was “against what was called beauty in the museum.”
Most people saw the african masks as “ethnographic objects”, but he saw in its creation that “those masks and other objects [were] for a sacred purpose, a magic purpose, as a kind of mediation between themselves and the unknown hostile forces that surround them, in order to overcome their fear and horror by giving it a form and image.”
“I have felt my strongest artistic emotions when suddenly confronted with the sublime beauty of sculptures executed by the anonymous artists of Africa. These works of a religious, passionate, and rigorously logical art are the most powerful and most beautiful things the human imagination has ever produced. I hasten to add that, nevertheless, I detest exoticism.” -Picasso (2018)
It’s ability to tap into multiple planes of existence made it revolutionary. It was a clear counter to the popularized romantic style of art that had been appraised since the Italian Renaissance.
The romantic pieces had an emphasis on portraying an image accurately and naturally in the moment, but cubism abandoned that ideal of beauty to embrace layers beyond what was conventionally perceived as reality.
The skills of accurately recreating an image were contested by the creativity and sight to see beyond what was being given and shown in a current set of circumstances, or vision.
This was the reintroduction of spirit into the culture’s influence, inspired by African art, that ignited the development of the naked eye.
It’s been said that cultures would use masks to unleash one’s true self beyond the confines of their mortal bodies. The mask covers the face, and allows a deeper entity to take over as they interact with reality. One’s actions are no longer restricted to what we are expected to do, but instead embodies the new energy inhabiting us that is being channeled.
Masks were an instrument used to connect to the other worlds we exist in. Instead of attempting to be perfect or formal, this idea embraces and emphasizes the beauty in the imperfections that outline the soul.
The african masks were extraordinary. This wave of artistic influence broke boundaries by breaking away from set conditions and rules defined by the western art world, and drew from an African blueprint of creation.
Negroes of America embraced this style heavily in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920’s, gravitating to this nuanced alternative that allowed them to create more of their truth. American Negroes can relate to this alternative to romanticism because there wasn’t much romance involved in what the west has put us through. Adapting the artistic philosophies of cubism would let them clearly display the multiple views they see from, including the stories that most wouldn’t want to hear, see, or acknowledge.
They emphasize the abstractions of their reality to communicate complex truths. More contemporary artists, such as Basquiat, pushed this forward during the hip hop era, becoming an icon for it in the streets. What the west had defined as cubism, is a way of life and sight that had always existed, and required intuition to seek deeper in order to be exhibited.
This manifests a connection of spirit for generations of black Americans’ feelings through a style of their African forefathers, leaving a legacy for their future seed to carry.
The black church is a major source of soul music and contemporary black styles of celebration. While in bondage, slaves would sing and chant spirituals or gospels through their days; while working in the fields, worshipping in their own makeshift homemade services, or sending their brethren off to the next life.
They sang songs of deliverance, freedom, and forgiveness to retain humanity within inhumane conditions.
Their gratitude for God would feed and discover their spirit that gave them strength to go on, acknowledging God as the source of their true power, and an absolute authority beyond the insecure power-abusing slavemaster.
These celebrations were communal: channeling pain and focusing on positives beyond the evils of white America.
The energy experienced through the movement and music was a reminder of freedom, and that they were also undeniably Children of God, whose prayers would soon be answered. Their collective spirit could not be destroyed, diluted, or indoctrinated by anything as long as they retained their faith and expressed love in the face of adversity. Not only would they survive, but they would prosper.
My enslaved black ancestors would rely on hand-clapping and foot-stomping as a source of rhythm and natural “instrumentation” for their songs. Slaves were not allowed to have instruments so their bodies would become like drums and percussion, and their voices would carry the melodies.
When singing, there was no scrutinization for hitting notes, as the goal was to awaken the sound within them; to let their voices express and reverberate what they felt to the fullest capability. This is the basis for how a lot of styles of black music have grown and developed.
There was almost always community participation incorporated into the performance of these songs as well. This audience engagement resembles ceremonies back in Africa.
This worship united them with each other and connected them with God.
The lyrics of gospel music came from the bible: stories from the old testament as well as the prophecies and lessons of the new testament. The old testament contained the history of a liberation from bondage, as well as spiritual growth oversaught by the all-powerful God.
Such is the case in Exodus, where God’s prophet, Moses, is entrusted and successful in freeing his people from years of cruel enslavement. The people being treated as slaves were actually God’s chosen people, and were delivered to a Promise Land where they would prosper after inhumane suffering.
Many of the American slaves can relate to such stories and enjoy singing them with much passion, especially since these premonitions resided directly in the holy book that even the white slave master held so closely.
According to the bible, all men are servants of the Lord and we are beyond the price man pays for us.
Spirits merge and empathize with these sayings.
“Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants of men. Brethren, let every man, wherein he is called, therein abide with God.”
(1 Corinthians 7:23-24, King James Bible)
The songs based on the gospels of the New Testament revel in the glorious return of God’s son, Jesus Christ, who would bring grace and change to the world full of sin. Being in their position and having a full visual of the evils of the world, they indubitably attested for the need for spirit while going through such trials.
They sing very sentimentally about these woes. The current evils of the world would not remain, and hope would always be on the way. Jesus was sacrificed and crucified by the governing powers, yet even in death he would always be there for his people through the holy spirit.
The people would rise just as he had risen,
and would rise again.
This gave a lot of inspiration and belief in the words of a man who spoke words such as “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” (Matthew 5:5, King James Bible)
Slave owners drew “power” from the perception and ideas of physical influence on the surface-level world around them. The slave masters had no spirit, they only focused on empirical gratification and subordination. Slaves found their power within.
They felt the soul and message of God’s word being taken out of context to justify abuse exacted by evil institutions.
Reflecting on this truth allowed black people to understand their reality in relation to a world beyond themselves. By embracing the depths of their spirit, slaves were able to recognize true divinity as a source of creation within themselves.
When one is pushed to their limits, they discover who they truly are. This is when spirit is accessed. It is in these times that we are able to forge new paths exceeding what we believed to be capable of.
Treacherous conditions have forced us to use this to our strength and wield it as a power that will no longer allow anyone to tame us.
Creation is the opposition to the destruction of our people.
As long as we can recognize spirit, we will always find a way. Many of our stories and the way they are told are a product of this, and many will continue to come through this limitless source we continue to connect to: that keeps us intune with our ancestors and our predecessors.
You will hear our stories, you will feel our pain,
and you will receive this in our way.
Peace and love.
- Douglass, F. (2019). Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. G&D Media.
- Gospel Music History Archive. (2021). Retrieved April 29, from http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/timeline/collection/p15799coll9
- Hutchinson, G. (2010). American Transnationalism and the Romance of Race. Amerikastudien / American Studies, 55(4), 687-697. Retrieved April 29, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/41158722
- Lewis, R. L., & Lewis, S. I. (2018). The Power of Art, Revised(3rd ed.). Cengage Learning.
- Rewald, S. (2000). “Cubism.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/cube/hd_cube.htm (October 2004).
- Sanmiguel, C. (2020). African art: The first form of Cubism. Retrieved April 29, 2021, from https://www.thecollector.com/african-art-the-first-form-of-cubism/
- Tate. Cubism – Art Term. Retrieved April 29, 2021, from https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/c/cubism
- Wbur. (2018). A brief history of GOSPEL music. Retrieved April 29, 2021, from https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2018/03/28/history-gospel-music