‘Having rhythm’ is usually meant to signify a person’s ability to connect with the rhythms contained in music.
I believe that the tendency for black African people to have rhythm is a reflection of the ‘rhythmic’ nature of our African cultures. By this I mean that our cultures tend to place a great emphasis on rhythm, not just rhythms in music, but also the rhythms of our fellow community members and of the environment and universe around us.
The Universe is a Cosmos
Marimba Ani tells us that African and other non-European word-views share the understanding that the universe is a cosmos made up of interconnected subjects. ‘Human beings are part of the cosmos, and, as such, relate intimately with other cosmic beings. Knowledge of the universe comes through relationship with it and thorough perception of spirit in matter. The universe is one; spheres are joined because of a single unifying force that pervades all being.‘ [Yurugu: An Afrikan-Centred Critique of European Cultural Thought and Behaviour, 1994, p.28]
The latter part of Ani’s comment points to another key understanding within such cultures; that all matter is dynamic and in a state of motion. Chukwunyere Kamalu explains that ‘[a]s in relativity physics, matter and energy in the African system are one and the same. This energy takes the form of forces which are the very essence of matter. Says [Kwame] Nkrumah in speaking about the African idea of matter: ‘… matter is not just dead weight, but alive with forces in tension. Indeed for the African everything that exists, exists as a complex of forces in tension.’ ['Foundations of African Thought' 1999, p85]
Everything has Rhythm
So everything in existence is united by the same energy which gives movement to all. If everything in existence is in a state of movement, then everything has its flows of movement. To put it another way, everything has rhythm. We see this all around us, all the time. Right now, your heart is beating out a certain rhythm, as is the case with every single living person. All of the multiple bodily functions within you are right now flowing to certain rhythms. Every natural phenomenon occurs to a rhythm. The seasons come and go according to their rhythms which we call seasons. Life and death cycles are constantly playing out according to their rhythms. Sun rises, sun sets. A baby is born, an elder transitions. A fruit ripens and falls from the tree, in turn giving birth to a new tree. The Earth revolves on its axis, and circulates the Sun according to its rhythm. Rhythm is within all of us and is all around us. Rhythm is life.
From these observations of the universe, Africans have developed social systems which emphasise connection with the various rhythms of life. For example, music (song, dance and drumming) is ever-present during virtually all aspects of African social life – the birth of new children, various rites of passage, everyday work, spiritual rituals, funeral rites, and so on. I believe this is because song, dance and drumming enable us to transcend the barriers which separate us from each other, and thus allow us to connect with each other and with the unifying energy or force… or if you would prefer, with the divine.
African Nature & African Nurture
Over centuries and millennia, a powerful dialectical relationship between African physiology and African cultures has developed. African people’s physiology reinforces and perpetuates our cultures’ emphasis on rhythm, which in turn reinforces our propensity to rhythm. So, why do black people have rhythm? It’s because our ancient cultures have deeply embedded within our bodies a predilection to rhythm which remains evident even when we are no longer living within our own rhythmic cultures.