Cultural Connections

Intricately braided hair, a crowning halo upon the person’s head. Vibrantly colored jewelry adorns the body, matching vibrantly colored clothing. The way people dress undeniably correlates with self-expression, and amidst the rapidly increasing desire of peoples of African descendants to connect to their cultural roots, Afrocentric dress has become a virtuoso expression of African diaspora culture.

Fashion, of course, provides a physical platform for the link between mask, identity, and image. Unique to the bearer, style connects them to significant social, cultural, and economic realities. An example can be seen in the rise and popularity of the zoot suit. First associated with African American communities in Chicago, Harlem and Detroit, these high-waisted, wide-legged, tight cuffed suits became an integral role in the development of the Afrocentric subculture in the US. Jazz musicians, specifically band leader Cab Calloway, popularized the long and wide look associated with zoot suits. Initially worn by young African American men, the outlandish attire quickly became popular within the Mexican – American and white working-class communities. The suits became synonymous with the lack of patriotism, because of the amount of used to make them, deemed wasteful by the American government during World War II. In the words of Kathy Peiss, an American Historian and the Roy F. and Jeanette P. Nichols Professor of American History at the University of Pennsylvania, “On the one hand it may seem like a trivial style, but…we have a tendency to read style for its political and social and economic and cultural meaning.” During the midst of the war, the suit became analogous to criminality or gang affiliation.

Such an example may be deemed extreme, as the whole ordeal ended in the infamous Zoot Suit Riots. This being said, fundamentally the suit was representative of political resistance. The wearer was a part of a community simply by donning a piece of clothing.  

For photographer Joana Choumali,  introducing traditional African attire into her work helped create a connection between her subjects and their heritage. Her series “Resilients” features women who grew up outside their origin countries, women who are not considered to be “real Africans”. The women represented a variety of ethnic backgrounds, including Baoule, Fon, Yoruba, Fulani and Malinke.

Choumali, who is half Ivorian and half Spanish-Equatorial-Guinean, personally felt a disconnect from her heritage because of a language barrier. Choumali’s late grandmother, a woman of the Akan people, struggled to pass on her cultural experiences to her granddaughter. Once she passed away, Choumali made the realization that a vital, connecting piece of her heritage was gone. Thus, she was inspired to take on her project, for other women who had the same unanswered questions as she.

Choumali describes that the introduction of traditional clothing and jewelry into her portraits made the women feel “…stronger, elegant (and) royal. Many of them talked about their mother, or grandmother, remembering and sharing stories about their family…these unexpected deep conversations had a positive impact on each of us.”

Truly the feeling is like no other, of being connected to a community rich in culturally unique practices, traditions, and ways of being. As insignificant as clothing may appear, there couldn’t be a better way for members of the African diaspora to connect to their roots when the Motherland is a few thousand miles too far away. Behind the vivid colors and prints that seem to tell a story lie a history of political resistance and cultural practices that can’t be translated any way else.


Facebook. “The Zoot Suit: an All-American Fashion That Changed History.” Penn Today, 1 Jan. 1970,

Page, Thomas. “Through Clothes, Women Connect to Their Roots.” CNN, Cable News Network, 9 June 2016,

Person. “Afrocentric Fashion.” LoveToKnow, LoveToKnow Corp,

White, Constance C.R. “How African Americans Influence Fashion and Culture.” Time, Time, 6 Feb. 2018,

“Zoot Suit.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 8 Dec. 2019,

Music and Africa

When thinking of modern African music, syncopated beats and catchy melodies come to mind. Upon closer inspection, African music is highly rhythmic, consisting of complex rhythmic patterns. Polyrhythms are created by playing one rhythm against another, the most common one being three beats on top of two, such as a triplet played on top of straight notes. African music differs from western music as its various components do not necessarily combine in a harmonious fashion. The unique aspects of African music aim to express life in all its aspects through the medium of sound.

Each instrument or part in traditional African music may represent a particular aspect of life, or a different character. Harmonization of the melody is accomplished by singing in parallel thirds, fourths, and fifths. Coupled with the unique harmonization techniques are the call-and-response nature of the music. One voice or instrument will play a short melodic phrase, which is then echoed by another voice or instrument. This structure also extends to rhythm, where one drum will play a rhythmic pattern which is in turn echoed by another drum playing the same pattern.

African music is highly improvised in nature, as musicians will improvise new patterns over the static original patterns. In addition, performances may be long and often involve the participation of the audience. Songs are sung about work, accompanying childbirth, marriage, hunting, political activities, to ward off evil spirits, to pay respects to good spirits, the dead and the ancestors, and many more aspects of traditional cultural traditions and ways of being.

As African music doesn’t have a written tradition, it becomes almost impossible to notate the music using the Western Staff. The subtle differences in pitch and intonation make it so that the music does not easily translate to Western notation.

The continent of Africa is rich in a diversity of cultures, traditions, and practices, all reflected in the music styles by region. In the north African region, music has close ties with musical traditions from the Middle East, utilizing similar melodic mode. The region’s art music has followed the outline of Arabic and Andalusian classical music. From the music of ancient Egypt, to the Berber and Tuareg music of the desert nomads, it is evident that there is a deeper and considerable music range in the region.

With these music styles can be grouped the music of the Horn of Africa, including Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti, and Somalia. When looking at Somali music as an example, a pentatonic scale is commonly used as opposed to the heptatonic scale that is used as the major scale. The major scale is one of the most commonly used musical scales, especially in Western music.          When looking at Sub-Saharan Africa – including southern, central and west Africa – ancillary influences from the Muslim regions of Africa, and modern influences from the America’s and western Europe.

Traditional African music has been influenced by language, the environment, a variety of cultures, politics and population movement. Many African languages are tonal languages in nature, which leads to a class connection between language and music in some local cultures. Such communities use vocal sounds and movements with their music.

Just as there have been many outside influences on African music, the genre has had profound influences outside of its continental sphere. African music has been a major factor in the shaping of Dixieland, the blues, and jazz. The aforementioned styles borrowed from African rhythms and sounds brought over from Africa via the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Artists such as Babatunde Olatunji, Miriam Makeba, and Hugh Masakelawere were among the earliest African performing artists to develop sizable fanbases in the United States. During the 1960’s and 1970’s non-commercial African American radio stations promoted African music as part of their cultural and political missions. African music also found enthusiastic audiences at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s), appealing particularly to activists in the Civil rights and black power movements.

The music and dance of the African diaspora include American music and many Caribbean genres, including soca, Calypso, zouk, and many more. Music genres such as Rumba, Congo, bombo, cumbia, salsa, and samba, to name a few, were founded on the music of enslaved Africans. All have influenced African popular music.

One prominent African musician is Zenzile Miriam Makeba. Makena drew global attention to African music and its meaning in the 1960’s, and is said to have been one of the most influential and popular musicians of Africa, beginning in the 1950’s. Makena played a majority of her music in the from of “mbube”, a form of South African vocal music.

Similarly, Nigerian artist Fela Kuti revolutionized the course of African music through his vision that music has to serve a higher purpose than just enjoyment. Driving his music were the themes of public corruption, Nigerian dictatorships, urban life, postcolonial dependency/psychology, sexuality, and gender relations. Kuti created the genre of “afr’obeat”, introducing female vocals in African music in a male-dominated scene. In the article “’We Were on top of the World’: Fela Kuti’s Queen’s and the Politcs of Space”, author Dotun Ayobade articulates that Kuti’s addition of “African popular music in colonial and post-Independence political economies has been shaped by power contests…power enables performance and, conversely, how performance consolidates power relations”. Political activism was integral to Kuti’s music, as he was inspired by the black panther movement. His lyrics were infused with social and political critique, which he used to mock the military dictatorship in Nigeria at the time. His lyrics were also infused with Nigerian, right in line with the great sentiment of gaining independence from colonial rule that was sweeping across Africa.

In modern times, afropop artists are channeling the political and societal frustrations of young Africans in their music. Ugandan musician Bobi Wine was able to use his musical popularity to catapult himself into political office as an elected lawmaker. Wine emphasized his beliefs against corruption, social media taxation, and the 73-year-old president’s power grip. Kenyan powerhouse Sauti Sol have recently edged themselves into the political world, releasing music that reflected their thoughts on the corruption and populism derailing the country’s progress.

African music has taken on many roles in the role towards cultural enrichment and societal progress. With the fast development of technology, only the future can tell what great impacts African music will have on the African diaspora, and vice versa.


Chutel, Lynsey. “A New Generation of African Musicians Are Taking on Politics, and Gaining Young Fans.” Quartz Africa, Quartz, 27 Aug. 2018,

“Music of Africa.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 3 Nov. 2019,

Pettas, Mary. “Fela Kuti And The Legacy Of Afrobeat.” Culture Trip, The Culture Trip, 22 May 2012,

Robotham, Donald Keith, and Gerhard Kubik. “African Music.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 8 Apr. 2016,

Racial Discrimination in Education

Dr. Patricia Rose, in the essay Public Tales Wag the Dog: Telling Stories about Structural Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era, references the phrase “tell the story” when expanding upon the observance that racial inequality does not exist in today’s society.  In a world where mass media has catapulted storytelling to new heights, it seems almost humorous that people deny the occurrences and effects of racial inequality today. Society can “tell the story” about legal apartheid in South Africa, and the decades-long struggle to end the wrongful practice. Countless communities can “tell the story” about police brutality on the basis of racial discrimination in the United States, and the adverse effects across the entire nation.  There is evidence of racial discrimination in black communities because of the disproportionate representation of black people in the working poor and the unemployed. In effect, “…concentrated and segregated Black neighborhoods are far more likely to be disproportionately poor with higher concentrations of unemployed people” (455). It is ridiculous that society has had the story told over and over, before the knowledge of racial discrimination can be attained.

The presence of racial discrimination cannot be denied in academic institutions. African American children in these segregated communities can be found living in disadvantaged backgrounds.  In the words of Gary Orfield, Distinguished Research Professor of Education, Law, Political Science and Urban Planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, “As a nation, we expect our schools to create equal outcomes for students who leave their homes severely disadvantaged by family and community poverty, who arrive at their schools to find sometimes unqualified or inexperienced teachers, and who leave those schools as soon as they can”. These communities are expected to create nonexistent opportunities for themselves, in order to dig themselves out of a hole that they did not dig in the first place. Despite the legislature constantly being tossed around in history classes or on political news outlets, supposedly in favor of a racially progressive society, racial discrimination is still an issue that needs to be rid from society.

When the Supreme Court unanimously declared that the doctrine of “separate but equal” was unconstitutional in the United States in Brown v. Board of Education (Brown I), a beacon of hope was lit in favor of better race relations in America.  Sixty-five years later, segregation is at an all time high, deepened by attempts to dissolve desegregation by the Supreme Court. Schools are still left with the urgent need for resources and opportunities easily accessible by their affluent counterparts.

It is evident that in order to prosper in today’s society, certain opportunities and resources are necessary towards the success of the individual. When those opportunities and resources are not present, the individual will lack the experiences that will facilitate the developmental processes that will lead to success. The lack of development translates into the perpetual racial disparities in socioeconomic status, education, family structure, and much more. Back to square one, where the story has to be told over and over again.


Orfield, Gary. “Race and Schools: The Need for Action.” NEA,

Perugini, Maria A. “Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell: Protection of Local Authority or Disregard for the Purpose of Brown v. Board of Education?” Catholic University Law Review,

Drew, Kevin. “Supreme Court’s Hair-Pin Turns on the Road to Desegregation.” CNN, Cable News Network, 2004,

Donald, Heather Mac, and Seth Barron. “Why Does Racial Inequality Persist?” Manhattan Institute, 7

May 2019,