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Playing Outside the Box – Black identity as expressed through the Arts in New York City


“Playing drums is a way to identify yourself – show me your rhythm and tell me where you’re from” – Jean Assamoa, Ivory Coast Immigrant

“I went to Africa and tried to learn how to play a particular African rhythm, but ultimately I just realized that I couldn’t.” – Vince Burwell, Black American from Brooklyn

Playing drums professionally is something Jean Assamoa and Vince Burwell have in common. Although they are aware that they come from different backgrounds, speak different native tongues, and grew up in very different cultures on two different continents, through their music and an understanding of these historical traditions, they inhabit some common ground. The artistic expression of their identity means they embody common roots beyond simply a mutual racial identification of blackness. However, due to the way political, academic, and sociological approaches deal with diversity in the United States, the differences between these two men are largely ignored. Instead they are placed into one racial category: The Black Box. 

Who’s in the Box? The Changing Face of Blackness

Walking along Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem, it does not take much to see that the black community in the United States is indeed changing and becoming more diverse. The increase in African influences is astonishing. West African music intermingles with hip-hop beats; green, yellow, and red flags are prominently displayed outside storefronts and apartment windows next to posters of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Marcus Garvey. This scene exemplifies the reasons why it has become necessary to achieve a more nuanced understanding of the differences within black identity.   

The 2000 Census data shows us that 13 percent of the U.S. population can be characterized as black. Also according to the same data, New York City has the largest black population nationwide with 2.3 million (27 percent) black inhabitants out of a population of approximately eight million total. This data, however, paints a flawed and uniform picture of life for blacks in the U.S. 

It has been reported that between 511,000 and 746,000 sub-Saharan Africans have immigrated to and are currently living in the United States. West Africans make up the largest percentage of those immigrants at 36 percent, closely followed by East Africans at 24 percent. Nationwide, 1.7 million people claim sub-Saharan ancestry and Africans now represent six percent of all immigrants to the United States. This is a recent phenomenon: about 57 percent of all African immigrants migrated to the U.S. between 1990 and 2000. People of sub-Saharan African ancestry now represent almost 5 percent of the black community in the United States. 1.6 percent of the black population in the U.S. was born in Africa; a number that has more than doubled in the last ten years. 

But official government documents and resources fail to recognize the differences as demonstrated by the lack of references to African immigrants or Afro-Caribbeans. Throughout the census, the only two terms used interchangeably in reference to this topic are black and African-American. 

Constructing the Black Box 

In the United States it is commonplace to sit down to take a test or to fill out a form and be confronted with a box to place one’s self in. This seems best exemplified through the experience of black people in the U.S. If someone’s mother is Congolese and their father is Nigerian, does that mean anything? According to the U.S. Census the most important factor is what shade their skin is. Each person who is placed in this box is forced to shed their ethnicity in order to fit into one racial category: Black. 

What does a French-speaking, Muslim male, born in Senegal who immigrated three years ago to the U.S., have in common with a Black American male growing up in the Bronx whose ancestors have lived on U.S. soil for several hundred years? Within the Black Box these nuances do not matter. The Black Box is a way to characterize a group of people into a single entity in order to reduce the complexity of these differences. 

Who is it that has created this Black Box? It is apparent that this sociological, political and statistical category of race has been externally constructed by academics and politicians most interested in black-white divisions. For individuals within the Black Box the issue is actually multi-dimensional. On a positive note, the Black Box promotes racial solidarity, primarily through a shared experience of systemic racism. However, it also negatively creates an artificial image that blacks feel they are supposed to emulate. Vince’s belief that he would naturally be able to play a particular African rhythm demonstrates this. Stereotypes become expectations that people within the Black Box are forced to live into. 

Living in the Black Box: The Problem of Self-Identity 

Could it be that the focus on racial categories oversimplifies the complex ethnic differences within this box? Comparisons between whites and blacks have been a common academic and political undertaking; however, the current influx of African immigrants demands that we delve into this matter more deeply. Christina Greer, a PhD candidate at Columbia University, agrees as to why this topic must be addressed: “It’s 2006 and it’s time to focus on intra-racial issues within the black community.” Based in New York City, she is conducting one of the most telling surveys on this subject. Her 6-paged questionnaire contains many questions about identity and self-identity inside this concept of the Black Box. The results contain information from more than 400 blacks in NYC and demonstrate the significance of ethnicity, immigrant backgrounds, and transnational identity. The survey also sheds light on the differences through which the participants identify themselves, as well as how they more formally place themselves within the classification of Black. 

Thinking in racial categories and dealing with racism is not something that many African immigrants are confronted with until they enter the United States. African immigrants who would normally identify themselves in national or ethnic terms, such as “Ghanaian,” “Nigerian,” or “Senegalese” tend to find that upon entering the country, these national identities are effaced; they become “Black,” an identity they share with millions of people with whom they have very little in common. Jean Assamoa who immigrated nine years ago from the Ivory Coast underlines: “Here in the U.S., blacks are treated as blacks, no matter where you’re from. Now I’m described as black. But I’m from Africa and have completely another background. But nobody cares about Africa.”   

Giving immigrants the space to create their own self-identity, as Assamoa so pointedly explains, is a difficult task. It is clear that rejected from the dominant racial group in society, both African and Afro-Caribbean immigrants attempt to distinguish themselves from their native-born black counterparts. When discussing the difficulties of integration, Assamoa continually returns to an “us” (African immigrants) versus “them” (Black Americans) tension. Being considered a foreigner seemingly, is often more desirable to many African and Afro-Caribbean immigrants than being seen simply as black. 

The negative associations with blackness are also difficult for Black Americans to deal with, as they struggle with creating their own identities within this box. Black Americans must figure out where they stand in relation to the new black immigrants who look like them but bring a new culture. Vince Burwell, a musician, dancer, and teacher with the National Dance Institute (NDI) comments, “The distance between Africans and African-Americans is just as far as the distance between whites and blacks.” The composite term “African-American” does not always build a bridge between these two social groups. Greer in fact rejects the term African-American, preferring the term Black American, because African-American denotes a connection that many Black Americans do not feel they have to Africa. Nicki Marshall a dance teacher at NDI, described a recent trip to Senegal and the disconnect she felt between herself and Africa, despite having a Nigerian father. “When I was in Senegal, I definitely did not feel like I had returned to my homeland or anything. Africa made me realize that I am American first.” 

Playing with the Box: Artistic Expression

The arts, in general, and music more specifically, is one mode to express collective and individual identity at the same time. On the one hand, musicians are able to communicate where they are coming from; on the other hand, they express the social and artistic identity in which they want to belong. Musicians from all over the world communicate both as individuals and as a part of a larger collective identity; simultaneously identifying as artists is the common theme between them. 

In separate interviews, both professional drummers, Burwell from Brooklyn and Assamoa from the Ivory Coast, expressed that they identify themselves first as musicians and secondly by their ethnicity. The African drum rhythm which challenged Burwell was certainly not something that came to him naturally simply because he is identified as black. Assamoa confirms these current differences between African and American rhythms due to the historical transformation during the last several hundred years. However, both drum teachers point to the common roots of their rhythms, as well as the diversity of musical rhythms in Africa. 

Assamoa maintains his cultural identity through his connection to the arts. The founder of the Nzassa Company, a non-profit organization dedicated to cultural exchange and educational programs, Assamoa teaches dance, music, poetry, and acting drawn from the wide diversity of West African cultural, spiritual and historical life. “For African people the rhythm is different in every country. Every ethnicity has its own rhythm. Playing drums is a way to express feelings,” he explained.  

In 1997, Assamoa immigrated to New York in order to teach African arts and culture. For the last nine years, he has been teaching African mask-dancing in several schools and education centers throughout NYC. He believes that it is most important to work with youth because they are an integral part of society and an “indispensable resource to the future of all nations.” Teachers play an active part in constructing identities and passing on cultural traditions to youth. 

Burwell and Marshall of the NDI spoke in a similar manner about the importance of the arts for children. Marshall stated, “Through music and dance, the kids are more curious about the culture behind the arts.” Every year the Institute hosts a summer program for 108 ethnically diverse youth who have shown promise in the arts. This year’s theme is ‘Life in an African Village.’ Several of the artistic directors travelled to Senegal a few months ago and tried to absorb as much as possible of the culture of Potou, a small village outside of Dakar. They found that they were able to connect to the spirit of Africa through the exploration of music, poetry, dancing, and the arts. 

Although the choice in theme was one that may seem closer to some of the kids than others, both Burwell and Marshall were quick to emphasize that an interest in African dance and music was not particular to the black kids in the classes. Burwell stated, “It’s not necessarily just the African-American kids who like the African dancing and they are not necessarily the best at it.” Marshall stated that the only connection between the music and the kids’ talent is perhaps the closeness in the music that they listen to at home and the rhythm found in African music. Burwell and Assamoa spoke of this shared history expressed in their music. Burwell stated, “the rhythms from Africa were used during slavery to pass messages and these rhythms have influenced almost every popular style of music in the U.S.: rock, jazz, the blues, and hip-hop.” The relationship between African and American music does reflect a deep-seated connection between Black Americans, Africans, and music. However the kids’ interest in African arts is also proof that the arts are accessible to all, regardless of the Box that one may be living in. Artistic expression is a powerful tool to understand the complexities and differences of culture, and in this context, intra-Black differences.

Breaking Out of the Box: The Arts as an Alternative 

Providing knowledge of the cultural backgrounds of so-called “black music” could be an opportunity to overcome racism and to assert a more nuanced self-identity through identification with ethnicity instead of simply skin color. The way that artists such as Marshall, Burwell, and Assamoa talk about the arts could be a useful way for academics and politicians to speak about racial identity issues. Both Assamoa and NDI’s approach to teaching African dance, music, and culture enables a common understanding of African roots and a number of elements of black identity. Music, dance, and rhythm are a way of communication, a way to build a bridge— not only between the African and American continent but also within the Black Box. The vision could be to incite a reflection over various types of African arts and to create an ongoing dialogue between African expressions of art and their American counterparts. 

A sense of black solidarity is a positive phenomenon— only if there is an attendant understanding and respect for the cultural and ethnic differences between blacks in the United States. For the first time in history all the components of the African Diaspora are gathered together in the United States. African-Americans, Africans, Afro-Caribbeans, Central Americans and South Americans of African descent, as well as Africans and Afro-Caribbeans born in Europe live side by side, each group bringing its specificities, culture, and sense of identity. The ethnic and cultural diversity of the black population has never been greater and richer. In an interview with the New York Times, Samuel K. Roberts of Columbia University states, “Immigration may also shift some of the nation's focus from racial distinctions to ethnic ones. That being said, increasingly distinguishing between black Americans and black Africans may produce conditions in which we will be less prone to think of a fictional construct of 'race' as the distinguishing factor among all of us in North America." 

Playing drums is a prominent way that African communities communicate with each other due to their multiple language barriers. This use of the arts to overcome barriers of all kinds can be just as useful here in the U.S. as it is in Africa. The way in which artists find a common language amongst great diversity can provide a check to the way academics and politicians often generalize about ethnic and racial differences. The arts may be one way (although certainly not the only way), for this complexity to be fleshed out and for identity to be expressed individually and collectively. The Black Box does not need to be limiting. Further studies coupled with concerted action will provide the next steps. New York City’s history of immigration provides the perfect backdrop to work with these issues and to change the way we deal with and discuss both inter- and intra-racial issues. This shift in focus will hopefully lead to the destruction of the Black Box and the opportunity for all people to identify and express themselves as they so desire. 




Assamoa, Jean. “The Nzassa Company, Non-profit Organization.” (August 3, 2006): http://www.nzassacompanylive.org.

Greer, Christina. “Black Ethnicity: Political Attitudes, Identity, and

Participation in New York City.” ISERP Newsletter, Vol. 2, Issue 3, Spring 2006. 

“National Dance Institute.” (2006): http://www.nationaldance.org. 

Roberts, Sam. “More Africans Enter U.S. Than in Days of Slavery.” The New York Times, February 21, 2005. 

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. In Motion: The African-American Migration Experience. (2006): http://www.inmotionaame.org/migrations/landing.cfm?migration=13.


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