Rivers and other bodies of water evoke freedom. In Black music the theme of the river continuously returns: from Nile by Beyoncé and Kendrick, which connects the river to liberation, to Sam Cooke's proclamation “I was born by the river.” Gospel tunes such as “Jordan River” and “Down by the Riverside,” together with Negro spirituals such as “Deep River,” “Roll Jordan Roll,” “Wade in the Water,” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” all make clear that the journey of freedom is through the river. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes riffs on Negro spirituals in terms of subject matter and mood, enabling a sensuous way of knowing freedom and liberation. Repetition and variations on key phrases are used to transform the mood throughout the poem, bringing the past, present, and future into conversation. Drawing on the spirituals, Hughes constructs mood, scene, and feeling that recognize the historical importance of the river while transcending the catastrophe of that history of enslavement, redefining the river and rendering a foretelling of liberation. Arguing for the relational and futuristic character of this poem, this article analyses how music allows Hughes to transgress and reexist beyond coloniality and to express a continuous reach for liberation.

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