Say What? Topics, Signs, and Signification in African-American Music.

Horace Joseph Maxile Jr, Louisiana State University and Agricultural & Mechanical College


Expressivity lies at the heart of the African-American musical experience. The cultural history of African-Americans is reflected in oral and written musical traditions. Social, religious, and other aspects of the culture are readily recognized in expressive devices unique to African-American music. The purpose of this study is to illustrate how the distinctive elements and musical traditions of African-Americans provide essential insights for detailed analyses of expression in African-American music. The works of two Black scholars, Samuel A. Floyd and V. Kofi Agawu, are central to this study. Floyd's The Power of Black Music is important because it identifies the social and cultural climates within which African-American musical traditions evolved and locates the authentic tropes of the core culture. In Playing With Signs, Agawu expands the semiotic theory of topics (a theory used to read expressive and referential signs) and formulates a union of musical expression and formal design. By combining aspects of Floyd's and Agawu's aims and approaches, this study seeks richer interpretations of the expressive power of selected works by African-American composers. The aim of the present study is to adapt Agawu's theory of topics to the study of expression in music of African-American composers. In conjunction with conventional analytical methods, this study identifies and traces the following topics which reflect musical and cultural traditions of African-Americans: (1) Call and response, (2) Signifyin(g), (3) Spiritual/supernatural, (4) Blues, and (5) Jazz. The core of this study features analyses of works by William Grant Still, Charles Mingus, David Baker and Hale Smith. In each of the analyses, one or more of the aforementioned topics contributes notably to a distinctly African-American expressive profile. Therefore, this study investigates the strong correlation between cultural experience and expressivity in African-American music, and contributes to the limited number of analyses of concert music by African-American composers.