Mathew Knowles, father of Beyoncé and Solange Knowles, discussing his new book 'The Emancipation of Slaves Through Music' at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business with Alan Gray. Picture: NABEEL ALLIE
Mathew Knowles, father of Beyoncé and Solange Knowles, discussing his new book 'The Emancipation of Slaves Through Music' at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business with Alan Gray. Picture: NABEEL ALLIE

Mathew Knowles, father of Beyoncé and Solange Knowles, recently launched his latest book, The Emancipation of Slaves Through Music, at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business (GSB). This is the third book for the record-label owner, professor, artist manager and author.

After slavery we became coloured, then we became negro, then we became black, then the new word African American
Mathew Knowles

In conversation with Alan Gray chair and GSB professor Kurt April, Knowles spoke candidly about the role of music in oppressive conditions and his experiences of entrepreneurship in Alabama in the 1950s.

“My dad would take all the copper and aluminium out of old houses and he would buy old cars and sell all the parts. My mother made $3 a day as a maid in Gaston, Alabama, and made beautiful quilts on the weekend and sold them,” he said.

“My parents taught me entrepreneurship. My mother went to high school with Coretta King, the wife of Dr Martin Luther King, so she wanted to carry that torch. If I could get that grace and that knowledge, each and every one of you can — and you can have the opportunities that I have today.

“That’s what inspired my first book, The DNA of Achievers. I write about the 10 traits of highly successful professionals. It always starts with passion — that’s the thing that excites; that’s why I’m here, because I’m passionate.” 

Knowles’s love of music drove him to write The Emancipation of Slaves Through Music. Tracking the history of slaves from North and West Africa to plantations in the US, he shows how imperative music was on the traumatic and deadly Atlantic crossing. Captives rhythmically beat the ship walls and hummed to console themselves.

“Most of the slaves could not communicate with each other because they were from different tribes. On the ships they had to learn how to communicate, whether it was through knocking on drums or stomping on the floor.

“When they got to America, slave masters would encourage them to sing throughout the working day, which was 14-16 hours, between them being beaten and raped.

“Music got them through the day but the slave master thought they were singing because they were happy. They used Christianity to make slaves feel that they had to honour slave masters.”

Knowles says when the slaves were converted to Christianity, they were taught that their low station in life was the will of God. Gospel music was known as Sorrow Songs during slavery — the tempo was very slow.

The slaves wrote their own hymns, which had hidden codes only they would understand. The song Wade in the Water, for example, tells escaping slaves to head for water so that dogs hunting them would lose their scent.

“The book walks you through the journey from before and after slavery to today,” Knowles said. “I’m glad to be launching The Emancipation of Slaves, but I’m always looking forward, because as entrepreneurs we can’t be stuck in today. We need to be thinking a year, two years, sometimes five years ahead.” 

Knowles has been in a constant conversation with himself as he attempts to decipher the distinction between the identifiers of black and African American in the US. What does each mean, given that the terminology changed so often?

“After slavery we became coloured, then we became negro, then we became black, then the new word African American. I’m curious about the research on this, am I black or am I African American?” he asked.

Knowles acknowledges that some black Americans look down on Africans. “In Houston, which is where I live, there is the largest Nigerian community in America. They might not be honest in saying it, but there is a perception that black Americans feel superior to Africans.

“Where we are today in 2018, there are people who want to be called coloured. They feel there’s a social norm and behaviour that go with that; they would even argue that it’s a culture. But there are also people, me included, who fight it. I come from a particular history where I don’t think it’s a real term. I’m black in my mind.”

Candid in his presentation and bright in his speech, Knowles dropped many not-so-subtle hints that he would like to guest-lecture at the GSB. But he also insisted that of all of his titles — including professor and doctor — he is happy to be called Beyoncé and Solange’s daddy, aka Daddy Knowles.