Ep. 25: Role of Spirituals within African American Culture, with award-winning musician and educator Bruce Henry

(photo by Jennifer Bong)

January 14, 2020

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we take a look at the rich history and function of music and spirituals within African American culture, including its relationship to gospel music, ragtime, blues and jazz, soul, and hip hop/rap. Listeners will also hear about the incomparable Harry Belafonte, and the unique cultural preservation of the Gullah/Geechie region of the southern coastal US.


Joining us today from Chicago is Bruce Henry, an in-demand educator with a deep understanding of the connection between history, music and culture. Bruce developed a curriculum called The Evolution of African American Music to teach the rich connection from traditional African music to the contemporary music we hear today. Bruce is also an award-winning musician whose music has taken him to five continents; he has recorded for Disney, HBO and numerous national commercials. Fun fact: Bruce’s three-and-a-half octave range allows him to sing baritone, tenor, alto and falsetto. Bruce has performed with many notable performers including Natalie Cole, The Sounds of Blackness, Jimmy Jam, Chris Botti, Roberta Flack, and Bobby McFerrin.


  • “To understand African American music, its history and the context in which it exists within the African-American community is to gain a profound insight into the black experience. To participate and experience these truly American art forms is to understand the nature of what we African-Americans call soul.”  – Bruce A. Henry
  • Spirituals were primarily expressions of religious faith.
  • Since music was woven into every part of African American life, music was also used for teaching children, healing relationships, communicating identity, and passing on traditions and ethnic history.
  • African American spirituals may also have served as socio-political protests veiled as assimilation to the white American culture.
  • There are many stories (some documented) of spirituals containing explicit instructions to fugitive slaves on avoiding capture and making their way to freedom.
  • Library of Congress article: African American Spirituals
  • Singing in Slavery: Songs of Survival, Songs of Freedom


Visit the Gullah/Geechie region (coastal areas from North Carolina to Florida) and immerse yourself in the culture there. African Americans in this region proudly retain and celebrate African culture and traditions, and fight vigilantly to make connections with other African diaspora peoples. Specifically, one must experience Ring Shout performances. Rings shout performances are the essence of democracy and are vehicles that help build a sense of community. Even better would be to join and participate yourself!


Thank You

A special thank-you goes to Minneapolis’ own Minnesota Black History Museum. The folks there were the starting point of introducing me to Bruce. Special thanks also goes to T. Mychael Rambo. The Museum highlights the achievements, contributions and experiences of African Americans in Minnesota. Admission and parking are free, and made possible by tax deductible 501c(3) charitable donations. Learn more or support the Museum.


Bruce shares the impact Harry Belafonte has had on his life.  Mr. Belafonte is an eclectic vocalist, actor, musicologist and activist. Bruce has admired his courage, talent and dignity from afar.

[I plan to check out this documentary: Sing Your Song: Harry Belafonte.] Here is the YouTube song played in the episode:

Closing Words

Thank you so much for joining me today! I’ll be back in your ear next week with some fascinating info on music in video games. I’m going to do what I can to help you make the legitimate claim that some of that gaming time has educational value! If you’d like a few musical tidbits during the week, follow me on Instagram and Facebook (using the handle @EnhanceLifeMusic). I usually post a few times during the week with extra pictures from interviews, or my life, or topics related to enjoying music’s benefits. Until next week, may your life be enhanced with music.  

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5 responses to “Ep. 25: Role of Spirituals within African American Culture, with award-winning musician and educator Bruce Henry”

  1. Mindy,

    All I can say is “Wow!!!” – truly amazing! Thank you for being so gracious with your acknowledgement of the Museum and special thanks to me. You and Bruce make for a delightful pair: knowledgeable, witty and engaging! I feel really proud to be associated in some small way with this podcast.


    T. Mychael