Clapping On Two and Four

Clapping On Two and Four


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



 the place where the drum had the least continuity in terms of usage

and in terms of the direct retention of African poly-rhythms,  is the place

where the back-beat was emphasized and the drum kit was developed!



Books by Kalamu ya Salaam


The Magic of JuJu: An Appreciation of the Black Arts Movement  /   360: A Revolution of Black Poets

Everywhere Is Someplace Else: A Literary Anthology  /  From A Bend in the River: 100 New Orleans Poets

Our Music Is No Accident   /  What Is Life: Reclaiming the Black Blues Self

My Story My Song (CD)


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Clapping On Two and Four

By Kalamu ya Salaam


The African American approach to performance has many aspects, some of which, such as improvisation and emotional intensity, are frequently cited. This essay will address two seminal, albeit frequently overlooked, characteristics of public performance in the Black cultural context. The first aspect is the use of the music as a language and the second is the function of performance as a means of achieving social stability and cohesion. A Black (or more precisely, African-heritage) approach to public performance necessarily includes music. Even with the visual arts, masks and costumes dance, i.e., they are made to move rhythmically. Indeed, Black music is often characterized as rhythm-driven. I believe this rhythm emphasis is both contextual and inherent. Contextual in that Black music came of age contemporaneously with modern industrial developments in America. The recording industry; electricity (plus electronic amplification and alteration); radio; cars, trains and planes; all of these were born and developed during the same epoch. This industrializing and speeding up of daily life produced a major change in the psyche and emotional desires of Americans. The last of the pre-industrial (and simultaneously, the first of the industrial) music forms was “ragtime”-a piano music that through the use of “piano rolls” (a way to mechanically reproduce the literal “sound” of the music without the musician having to be present) ushered in the industrial era of music making. In many, many obvious ways ragtime bridges music performance as it was traditionally done for centuries with the literally new noise of twentieth century sounds. Although ragtime sounds stilted and “mechanical” to those of us weaned on modern music, at the time of its inception and development ragtime was a wild, boisterous, and seemingly explosive music. With its pronounced employment of syncopation, ragtime mirrored the new ways a-coming and suggested a completely new way to make music. Syncopation (and emphasis on the weak beats juxtaposed against a de-emphasis of the strong beats, particularly in the bass line) is ragtime’s most easily identifiable characteristic. Ragtime peaked in the decades of the 1880s and 1890s, and was quickly replaced by a music called jazz as the most popular expression of Black music specifically and American music in general. In fact, by the 1920s, jazz was so popular that that decade became known as the jazz age. Jazz as both a music form and an approach to playing pre-existing music forms, introduced not just rhythm innovations, but also harmonic innovations, chiefly through the use of what is often called “the blue-note.” 

Jazz is famously an amalgamation of many ingredients; however, jazz is chiefly a mixture of blues and ragtime devices commingled with a multitude of melodic sources (folk songs from diverse ethnic sources including English, German, Scottish on the Euro-side and field hollers, chants, reels, arhoolies, line songs, ring shouts and other Negro strains-I specifically identify these as “Negro” because these forms are not simply African retentions, but more precisely are African American extensions). Jazz, blues, and their sacred cousin, gospel music, all have a rhythm-device in common: the back-beat. Indeed, the back-beat, a heavy emphasis on two and four, is a hallmark of African American music and remains dominant as a rhythmic device into the 21st century. An interesting note about the back-beat with respect to gospel music is the flipping of rhythmic emphasis. In the then popular waltz form, the emphasis was usually ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three. But in gospel, when three-four time is used, as it frequently is, the practictioners usually clap on two and three, thus getting a one-TWO-THREE, one-TWO-THREE rhythm. The back-beat.  None of the other popular musics of the African diaspora (whether from the Caribbean, Central America or South America) employs a heavy back-beat unless the particular form in question, such as salsa, reggae or soca, is a form that was significantly influenced by Black music from America. This absence of the back-beat is distinctive especially given that most African diaspora music heavily uses drums, or quasi-drum instruments (steel pans for example). 

This is a curious development that is made even more curious by the fact that for the most part the drums of the diaspora remained hand-drums and it was in the United States that the mechanical drum, or the drum kit, commonly called the trap drum or traps, was developed. So the place where the drum had the least continuity in terms of usage and in terms of the direct retention of African poly-rhythms, is the place where the back-beat was emphasized and the drum kit was developed! So then the cultural context of industrialization and the specificities of Black musical development within the United States are the general cultural context that sits atop the inherent African aesthetics of music. One particular aspect of the African aesthetic in music is the use of music to achieve trance, or a state of altered consciousness usually induced with the aid of dance. 

This quality, which goes by numerous names including “getting the spirit,” “spacing out,” and “being possessed,” is a desired effect and not an accidental byproduct of Black musical production. In other words, the music is designed to alter the consciousness of the audience. Moreover, the audience is never seen as a voyeur, who silently looks on, but as a participant, whose physical interaction with the musicians is necessary in order for the music to achieve its purpose of elevating, or transforming, both audience and musician. From this perspective it is easy to understand Black music as a social force. I propose we take this understanding a step further. First, let us look at the music as language and second as a social stabilizer. The majority of African Americans are descended from peoples of West and Central Africa, from peoples whose spoken language was often tonal and for whom singing accompanied nearly every aspect of daily life-particularly work and ritual activity. 

The American insistence that the Negro speak English and the American prohibition against the use of African languages would seem to mitigate the retention of tonality as a part of language, but again, similar to the emphasis of the back-beat in a culture where the drum was outlawed, tonality is asserted as a prominent feature of Black music. Specifically, instrumentalists developed techniques to make their horns sound like they were talking, singing, or laughing while simultaneously singers developed techniques to make their voices sound like instruments. In essence, that which was suppressed reappears as a dominant characteristic. Moreover, in terms of representing the attitudes and psychological state of its makers, Black music carries an emotional breadth and depth rarely found in written literature, whether that literature be text or composed music. Black music is a language of the lived experience, a way to communicate to the world and with each other, how it feels to be so Black (and blue). What is important to realize is that the very style and structure, the “how” the language sounds is an inseparable part of the content, or meaning, of the language. Or, to quote a folk saying: it ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it. This emphasis on process is not simply an emphasis on stylization, but is rather a clear prioritizing of the concrete lived experienced. In this context, the whole self is celebrated, not just ideas, but body and soul, ideas and emotions. But beyond, this emotional wealth, there is the greater truth, Black forms of making music are not an end in themselves, but a means toward the end of achieving social cohesion. Under the influence of the music, all the participants are first brought to a state of unity via the rhythm-or as they say in church, if you can’t sing, at least pat your foot and keep time. While some may minimize or ignore this attribute, every body literally moving (clapping, foot-patting, etc.) on the one is a sine qua non. To listen to music without moving is not to be involved in the music. Even the most avant garde of free jazz generally invoked a physical response if no more than swaying to the underlying pulse of the music. I suggest that this attribute of collective movement, the individual getting in tune with the group, is a significant characteristic; and, of course, the use of poly-rhythms and poly-phonics allows the individual to make a unique contribution to the collective, thereby achieving both unity and individuality. Indeed, Black music is the most democratic American artform in that it successfully stresses both the collective and the individual at the same time. From a psychological standpoint the music offers one the opportunity to identify oneself as a part of a larger social grouping and simultaneously to distinguish oneself as a particular individual within that group. Thus, Black music is the perfect embodiment of American social values most often thought of in political (democracy) or economic (free market) terms, but values which also have aesthetic corollaries. The embodiment of democratic ideals along with technological progressiveness—Black music has always been at the forefront of using and creating technological innovation in terms of “how” to make music, whether one wants to talk about instrumental techniques and innovative approaches to playing an instrument, or talk about the use of machines (from the levers and pulleys of the trap drum kit, to the computers and midi-based equipment of rap and popular music production)—is precisely what has made Black performance in music the most popular and most influential performance style worldwide. Why do so many people like Black music? Because it is hip! Why is Black music so hip? Because it simultaneously draws on the most ancient of traditions while utilizing the latest technological advances available, and all while emphasizing both social cohesion as well as individual development—which, not surprisingly, is basically a working definition of hipness.

Kalamu ya Salaam is a prolific performance poet, dramatist, fiction writer and music critic. He is founder of Nommo Literary Society, a Black writers workshop; leader of the WordBand, a poetry performance ensemble; poetry editor for QBR Black Book Review and moderator of e-Drum, a listserv for Black writers and their supporters. He also performs with the Afro-Asian Arts Dialogue  

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Audio: My Story, My Song (Featuring blues guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington)

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Guarding the Flame of Life

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Men We Love, Men We HateSAC writings from Douglass, McDonogh 35, and McMain high schools in New Orleans.

An anthology on the topic of men and relationships with men

Ways of LaughingAn Anthology of Young Black VoicesPhotographed & Edited by Kalamu ya Salaam

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New Orleans Jazz Funeral for tuba player Kerwin James / They danced atop his casket Jaran ‘Julio’ Green

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02_My_Story,_My_Song.mp3 (24503 KB)

(Kalamu reading “My Story, My Song”

Featuring blues guitarist Walter Wolfman Washington)

Track List 1.  Congo Square (9:01) 2.  My Story, My Song (20:50) 3.  Danny Banjo (4:32) 4.  Miles Davis (10:26) 5.  Hard News For Hip Harry (5:03) 6.  Unfinished Blues (4:13) 7.  Rainbows Come After The Rain (2:21)/Negroidal Noise (15:53) 8.  Intro (3:59) 9.  The Whole History (3:14) 10.  Negroidal Noise (5:39) 11.  Waving At Ra (1:40) 12.  Landing (1:21) 13.  Good Luck (:04)

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music website > writing website > daily blog > twitter > facebook >

*   *   *   *   *’s 25 Best Selling Books



#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 – Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 – Don’t Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 – Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 – Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King

#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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Salvage the Bones

A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—


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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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update  7 January 2012




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