As a central fact of the African diasporic experience, migration has asserted itself as a recurrent theme of some of the most compelling art of this century—painter Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration of the American Negro series; novelists Richard Wright’s Native Son and Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage; musicians Bessie Smith’s and Muddy Waters’s blues and Louis Armstrong’s jazz; chanteuse Josephine Baker’s “J’ai deux amours”; and choreographers Joanna Haigood’s Invisible Wings and Savion Glover’s Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk. Whether the passage they were chronicling was that first forced journey from Africa to the New World; the desperate antebellum flight from Southern enslavement to Canadian freedom; the expatriation to Europe in search of a color-blind society; or the abandonment of Delta sharecropping for Northern cities, these artists have understood that various migrations have shaped the African American psyche and culture, as well as the larger history of America.
With his new work, High Life, choreographer Ronald K. Brown joins this distinguished roster of artists in considering the profound effects of a successive series of wanderings on African Americans. While addressing the experience of slavery and the subsequent black flight northward, High Life also expands the conception of black journeying to encompass internal migrations in Africa, as well as transatlantic exchange between Africa and the Americas.
Even as the history of the African slave trade is coming to be understood as a central concept in defining the American character, the story of the twentieth-century African American odyssey is less popularly known. In The Promised Land, his masterful 1991 study of this movement, Nicholas Lemann has called the Great Migration “one of the largest and most rapid mass internal movements of people in history—perhaps the greatest not caused by the immediate threat of execution or starvation.” Beginning around World War I when jobs were suddenly available in Northern factories and stockyards, until around 1970 when populations finally stabilized, six-and-a-half million Southern blacks answered the call of economic and political opportunity. The movement was abetted in its early stages by Northern black leaders crusading to free their Southern brethren in the grip of the quasi-slavery of the sharecropper system and the apartheid of Jim Crow. Lemann points out that the Chicago Defender, then the leading black newspaper in America, spearheaded a crusade in 1917 that unmistakably painted migration in terms of the biblical Exodus. A parallel movement found blacks who stayed in the South relocating from farms to cities.
The largest wave of mass movement, however, came after 1940 when five million people moved North and West, spurred by changes in the sharecropping system brought about by the mechanization of cotton farming and by the national labor shortage created by World War II. While the trip to Chicago, a favored destination for Delta sharecroppers, was only a day’s train journey north, the move called on experience that Richard Wright—himself a refugee from a Mississippi plantation,—asserted did not exist for Southern blacks. “Perhaps never in history,” Wright wrote, “has a more utterly unprepared folk wanted to go to the city.” Certainly it is testament to the unutterably savage cruelty of their Southern condition that blacks were so willing to face the harsh privations they encountered in Northern cities. For African Americans, the Great Migration still reverberates as a mythic tale of travail and fortune.
As Brown so perceptively recognizes in High Life, there is a parallel African story to this mass American movement. Just as black Americans were exchanging a rural existence for an urban one, so Africans were engaged in much the same experience. Over the course of this century, Africa has experienced a dramatic urbanization, as millions of people have left traditional village life in search of the promise of economic, educational, and cultural opportunities offered by modern cities. For example, the population of the metropolitan area of Nigeria’s colonial capital Lagos has swollen to about ten million in recent years.
But there is yet another story of exodus traced by High Life, and that is the Atlantic cross-migrations that have continued steadily since slave times. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, an ever-increasing number of free Africans made the journey westward, following the trail of abolition from the Caribbean to the United States. But there also has been a concomitant reverse migration since the eighteenth century. Spurred by abolitionists, by the black nationalism of Marcus Garvey, or by their own convictions, thousands upon thousands of black American returnees from the diaspora—most notably, W.E.B. Du Bois who became a Ghanaian citizen at the end of his life—have settled along the West African coast from Monrovia to Lagos.
The opportunities for cultural exchange and transformation offered by the cross-fertilization of these migrations form the core of High Life. The name of the work has a double resonance, referring not only to the glamor that cities represent to rural folk, but also to the African popular music of the 1950s and ‘60s known as highlife. Based on Ghanaian rhythms, highlife also assimilated New World forms whose origins were African: Afro-Cuban styles, black North American vaudeville, and Trinidadian calypso. For Brown, highlife music represents a reversal of the slave voyages of the Middle Passage—a circular path that mirrors his own journeying as an integral member of the Black Atlantic dialogue. Considered one of the most important choreographers of his generation, Brown has traveled and studied extensively in West Africa, consciously blending African traditions with themes and approaches that represent up-to-the-minute American culture. Proving himself a true child of these migratory movements, Brown has forged a unique style that blends African dance, ballet, modern dance, hip hop, club dance, text, and story-telling in work that chronicles the African-American experience.
High Life traces the spiritual, psychological, and cultural effects of migrations by focusing on music as both a through-line of tradition, as well as a forum for responding to environmental change through improvisation. Twentieth-century American music finds its roots in the migration from South to North, where Africanisms were transported from rural to urban America, generating brilliant new musical styles, along with associated dances. While the Blues developed in the Mississippi Delta, it was disseminated by the Great Migration, most notably in Chicago where musicians such as Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters found a wide audience and where the music was eventually electrified. Jazz was a Southern urban style, emerging in New Orleans, but quickly spreading into the North and even to Europe, where it continued to integrate influences from African-American, Latin American, and European art music. Likewise, Southern Gospel music became soul in its Northern incarnation. Rhythm & blues, funk, disco, and hip hop are all variations on traditional music that have developed through the cultural influences encountered through successive migrations.
But there were further migrations as well. The next were technological, as recordings eventually led American music all the way back to West Africa, the place where the journeying had begun centuries before. Critic Wolfgang Bender has examined the way that styles imported from North and South America have “re-Africanized” West African music, its rhythmic elements increased under the tutelage of such diasporic forms as Afro-Cuban percussion, Jamaican reggae, and American soul, funk, and disco. In High Life, Brown traces this cross-pollination through the music of the late Nigerian musician, Fela Anikulapo Kuti (popularly known as Fela), who began his career in the ‘50s as a singer with a highlife band. By the ‘60s Fela had developed his own instantly identifiable sound, which he first called highlife-jazz, and eventually, Afro-Beat. Melding highlife, soul, jazz, and traditional Nigerian music, Fela’s music became internationally recognized for its rhythms, while it inspired Nigerians with its heroic stand against political corruption and injustice. (It is noteworthy that Fela, an ardent Pan-Africanist, delivered his lyrics in pidgin English in order to reach urban audiences throughout Anglophone Africa.) Again, Brown draws circular connections between Africa and the Americas with additional accompaniment by the instrumental ensemble of James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, whose heavily rhythmic, dance-oriented music had been crucial in the development of Fela’s Afro-Beat.
High Life illuminates all of these acculturations resulting from migration. The work is, Brown has noted, “a journey built for the collective with a basic message that while we move forward, we never move forward without carrying our history with us, almost literally on our backs.” This lesson is borne, of course, in hearts and bodies—that is to say, in music and dance. In embracing a notion of tradition that encompasses the experiences of exodus, Brown shows that the wisdom of a people is cumulative, its lessons learned through journeys both laden with sorrow and leavened by hope.
© Suzanne Carbonneau 2001
For further reading:
Nicholas Lemann, The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America. Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.
Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. Perseus Books Group, 1999.
For further viewing:
The Promised Land, Parts 1-3 (Take Me to Chicago; A Dream Deferred; and Strong Men Keep A-Comin’ On). [VHS] Discovery Productions and BBC TV, 1995.