Black Music Month was officially declared by President Jimmy Carter on June 7, 1979, but for decades before that, Black music had an influence on just about every genre of music. Actually, looking back deep in the music history, Black artists can be easily credited with the initiation of the blues, jazz, and even rock and roll.
And today, country music is embracing, albeit not always willingly, the swagger and heart, and soul of Black music artistry not witnessed since Charlie Pride 50 years ago. Kane Brown, whose parentage is both White and African-American, has been hitting the country charts for about five years now, and recently, rapper Lil Nas X has collaborated with longtime country artist Billy Ray Cyrus with the crossover hit “Old Towne Road.”
The embrace of soul music
It must be noted that June is no longer Black Music Month – former President Barack Obama changed the name to African-American Music Appreciation Month officially back in 2014.
The designation originally came about way back after President Richard Nixon declared October Country Music Month. The demand for a month recognizing Black music led to the designation for June by President Carter.
“I won’t make the other states feel inferior by naming all the Black musicians that have come out of Georgia,” the former president who is from Georgia said.
Decades later, when then President Barack Obama renamed the celebration, he added that Black musicians have helped all of America “dance, to express our faith in song, to march against injustice, and to defend out country’s enduring promise of freedom and opportunity for all.”
A more modern perspective comes from music super star Bruno Mars, who says, “All of American music is Black music. When you say ‘Black music’, understand that you are talking about rock, jazz, R&B, reggae, funk, doo-wop, hip hop and Motown. Even salsa music stems back to the Motherland,” he said, referring to Africa. “It’s what gives America its swag.”
Since Carter, June has become the official time to celebrate the many, many contributions Black music and Black musicians have had on American culture.
One thing has become obvious for several decades now – Black music sells. It started in the ‘50s with artists such as Chuck Berry, who is arguably one of the key creators of rock ‘n roll. Even though some of his music was recorded by White artists as well, it still hit the charts on a regular basis.
Chart positions are dictated by sales more than popularity.
The ‘Motown Sound’
In the ‘60s, Motown blew onto the scene from Detroit, Mich. and brought the world so many great and popular artists – Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas, the Jackson 5, and Marvin Gaye – the list is endless, and timeless.
The ‘70s heard the music of groups, which also topped the charts – Earth Wind & Fire, Tavares, Atlantic Star, Rufus (featuring Chaka Khan), the O’Jays, the Spinners and so many more. Public schools once provided “music appreciation” classes, allowing young people an early introduction to this art form. This would give rise to groups such as EWF, which featured full instrumentation in addition to top-notch vocalists. And what was R&B crooner Barry White without the Love Unlimited Orchestra.
By the ‘80s, hip hop was starting to show up on the charts, and it didn’t take long for the genre to take over with artists such as LL Cool J, Grandmaster Flash, Whodini, Run DMC, turning heads and inspiring feet. By the ‘90s, hip hop was everywhere. It was a cultural phenomenon that became, actually, a culture in itself. It wasn’t just the music – it was the way young people dressed, their swagger and need to express issues of society, the government, their neighborhoods and yes, even love.
Reimagining Black music
But Black music’s popularity had its down side, too. In the late ‘80s and ‘90s, there were Black music divisions at all the major labels, and there were also some labels dedicated to Black music that popped up and were making money, such as Island, LaFace, So So Def and Def Jam. All the majors like Arista, Universal and Warner had Black music divisions, led by Black executives.
But then, the bean counters at the top of the majors noticed the large profit Black artists were generating, and soon the Black divisions were gone and their artists merged into the pop divisions. Very few Black executives survived. The exception is Sylvia Rhone. L.A. Reid remains a music impresario with his own Hitco.
A look at today’s pop charts shows Black artists continuing their reign over the music world. Mustard (at No. 1), Khalid, Lil Nas X, A Boogie wit da Hoodie, 2 Chainz, Scott Travis, City Girls, Lil Baby and Meek Mill are all in the top 10 the week of June 7, according to Media Base, a national music/radio airplay measuring service.
According to a report called “2019 State of Black Music” issued by the National Museum of African American Music, slated to actually open to the public next year, hip hop is the most played music today. In fact, eight of the 10 most streamed artists last year were rappers, with Drake ending up as the most streamed artist of 2018.
The influence of Hop Hop
Black artists have also become the leaders in collaborations and defying categories as well. Hot hip hop artist Cardi B, for example, collaborated with country artist Billy Ray Cyrus for “I Like It,” which topped the charts and was nominated for Record of the Year in 2018.
For Libby Anthony, a music industry veteran who has spent decades promoting Black music, particularly blues, Black music has a great deal of history and significance. “When newly freed Black folk gathered in the shanties and jook joints to relieve the pressures of their existence, they would stomp and shout and dance rhythmically. When the loud playing guitar was added, barrel house blues was born,” she explains.
“From this birth sprang gospel… through barrel house blues came Thomas Dorsey, the father of gospel music, and then rock was born when exploited by the Brits. Race music became R&B, doo-wop led to hip hop. Consistently, African American music has been a most profitable export and commodity in American society, culture and economics. We honor and listen to the music everyday, whether on the radio, television or other media. In June, we pay and demand special attention to the pioneers and personalities that made it all possible. Long live Black music!”
Indeed, Black music has been making history for a very long time. Back in 1927, Louis Armstrong, a Black trumpet player and vocalist, recorded “Hot Fives and Sevens,” which many historians point to as the possible beginning of jazz. Other notable Black musicians who influenced and inspired include the late great Robert Johnson, who first became known in 1935… his guitar playing has influenced every great guitarist since, from Muddy Waters to Eric Clapton.
Other Black artists that have broke ground include Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, Fats Domino and Ray Charles. In 1961, Motown was born and soon became the sound of young Americans, producing top-selling acts such as Smokey Robinson, the Supremes, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder.
Social injustice has often been a topic of song, particularly in Black music. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” still rings popular at times of unrest and political disharmony. Stevie Wonder’s “You Haven’t Done Nothing” was highly critical of then President Richard Nixon. The Jackson Five performed the chorus on the track, which skyrocketed to the top of music charts around the globe.
But perhaps the voice of the Civil Rights Movement would be the late great Curtis Mayfield with tracks such as “People Get Ready” and “Keep on Pushing.”
Other icons of Black music that also became mainstays on America’s music scene was Aretha Franklin, who brought Black gospel to the masses while maintaining a position on pop and R&B charts for decades. Jimi Hendrix became the symbol of rock with his electrifying guitar, and Sly & the Family Stone and George Clinton with his Parliament Funkadelic band drove funk to the top.
In the mix, who can forget disco, another genre born out of the rhythms of Black music. Its roots can be traced back to Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and their Philadelphia-based sound, which led to Gloria’s Gaynor’s smash hit “I Will Survive,” an anthem still sung today on television and in movies.
The ‘King of Pop’
Michael Jackson was not only one of the most popular Black artists of all time, he also broke down barriers. Recall that he was the first Black artist to have his video played on the once immensely popular MTV.
Black music and artists continue to push boundaries. It was just announced this week that rapper Jay Z, who has moved into entrepreneurship, business, and sports, has reached billionaire status, according to Forbes. His empire began decades ago when he emerged as a Black music – hip hop specifically – artist.
His wife, Beyoncé, has also emerged from her beginnings as a part of an all-girl trio (Destiny’s Child) to become a voice of social justice and of course, a very rich woman.
And consider this: one of the most prestigious honors in the world is the Pulitzer Prize. Last year, California-based rapper Kendrick Lamar was awarded the exclusive Pulitzer Prize for Music, and Time magazine also has named him of the most influential people in the world.
Black music is powerful and no doubt has given a voice to people of color during good times and bad, happy and sad, just about whenever the need arises for expression.
Harry Lyles, founder of Urbaninsite (a 25-year-old music and radio industry online trade) and a radio consultant, may have put it best, though, when he told Our Weekly, “I don’t celebrate it for a month. I celebrate it all year.”