African-American Years: Chronologies of American History and Experience
COPYRIGHT 2003 The Gale Group Inc.
ADAPTED FROM ESSAYS BY LORI BROOKS,
BEREA COLLEGE, AND CYNTHIA YOUNG
From the lyrical cries of black street vendors in eighteenth-century Philadelphia to the infectious dance rhythms of the Motown sound, African American music has been heard at all times and in every corner of America. African American involvement in the nation’s music making has influenced every genre of American music, helping to create a sound now recognized as distinctly American. Reflecting both the hardships and triumphs black Americans have experienced in the United States, their music has also served to shape the national identity, profoundly influencing the lives of all Americans.
A MUSIC ROOTED IN AFRICA
The first Africans transported to this country came from a variety of ethnic groups with a long history of distinct and cultivated musical traditions. Some were able to bring musical instruments with them or build new ones in this country. The “banja” or “banshaw,” now known as
the banjo, was one of the African instruments that continued to be built and played in America. Africans in America also fashioned numerous types of drums and percussion instruments from whatever materials they could gather. Slaveholders, however, eventually discovered that African slaves were using drums to communicate among themselves and by the 1700s, drums had been banned on many plantations.
African American slaves on southern plantations cultivated their own musical styles, which later evolved into gospel, blues, and what is now known as bluegrass and country music. Slave fiddlers often provided dance music for the southern white gentry, and the sound we recognize today as country fiddling is partially the product of the slave fiddler. Most slaves were not allowed to own instruments or could not afford to purchase them. However, using makeshift instruments and their own bodies, they created unique musical ensembles. One of the most pervasive holdovers from African music was an emphasis on rhythm and the use of complex polyrhythms still found in African music.
Over time, many distinct practices and traditions of African music were either forgotten or blended with other musical traditions. Nevertheless, African music continued to flow into the New World as a result of the slave trade, which continued illegally well into the nineteenth century despite its official abolition in 1808.
THE NEGRO SPIRITUAL
One of the most widespread of early musical forms among southern blacks was the spiritual. Neither black versions of white hymns nor transformations of songs from Africa, spirituals were a distinctly African American response to American conditions. They expressed the longing of slaves for spiritual and bodily freedom, for safety from harm and evil, and for relief from the hardships of slavery.
Many of the songs offered coded messages. Some, like “Follow the Drinking Gourd,””Steal Away,” and “Wade in the Water,” contained coded instructions for escape to the North. Others, like “(Sometimes I Feel like) A Motherless Child” and “I’m Troubled in Mind,” conveyed the feelings of despair that black slaves felt. The spirituals also served as critiques of slavery, using biblical metaphors to protest the enslavement of black people. Such protest can be found in the lyrics of “Go Down, Moses“:
Go down, Moses
Way down to Egypt land
Tell ol’ Pharaoh
Let my people go.
The spirituals also provided African Americans with a means of transcending their enslaved condition, of imagining a life of freedom, as in the lyric, “Ride on, King Jesus, ride on, / No man can hinder thee.”
With the rise of jubilee singers in the 1870s, the spirituals began to be seen as music that revealed the beauty and depth of African American culture. Beginning in 1871, the Fisk Jubilee Singers toured the United States and Europe performing Negro spirituals for white audiences. Until they brought these songs to national and international attention, Negro spirituals were widely considered crude and embarrassing holdovers from slavery. The success of the Fisk Jubilee Singers spawned a number of similar black jubilee singing groups and contributed a sense of pride to many newly emancipated blacks.
In the early part of the 1900s, as a result of the work of black composers, the performance of Negro spirituals became a tradition among black singers, particularly singers of classical music. Composers like Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949), Margaret Bonds (1913-1972), and Hall Johnson (1888-1970) set the spirituals to piano accompaniment as a means of preserving and perpetuating the beauty of this traditional black music. In the early 2000s, black concert singers such as Jessye Norman and Kathleen Battle continue to perform the composers’ arrangements.
THE RISE OF RAGTIME
Ragtime became the first nationally popular form of American music in 1899, when Scott Joplin‘s (1868-1917) “Maple Leaf Rag” enjoyed unprecedented success, selling over a million sheet-music copies. But ragtime was not new in 1899. Documents reveal that it was being played as early as the 1870s. Black musicians spoke of “ragging a tune” when describing the use of syncopated rhythms, whether in classical compositions, popular songs, or genteel dance tunes. While black musicians could rag tunes on any instrument, the music we call ragtime developed when the piano replaced the violin as the favorite instrument for dance accompaniment.
The standard ragtime piece consists of several different musical ideas, or strains, held together by a main opening theme. The strains, which are often sixteen bars in length, are highly syncopated and alternate with the main theme throughout the piece. The standard left-hand technique of piano rag evolved from the martial rhythms of marching bands, and later, during the early 1900s, it became the basis for the jazz piano style called “stride. “Although the rags we hear in the twenty-first century are played at very fast tempos, the traditional ragtime performances were more stately and unrushed.
Ragtime also evolved out of two other musical styles: the “coon song” and the “cakewalk. “Coon song was a racist term used to describe the music of white minstrels performing in blackface, in acts that were supposed to be humorous imitations of black slaves. Black-face minstrelsy, a popular entertainment throughout most of the nineteenth century, was at first performed only by whites, though blacks eventually formed their own minstrel troupes. The great blues singer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (1886-1939) began her career in a black minstrel troupe known as the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, where she was later joined by Bessie Smith (1898-1937). An early form of popular American music, coon songs were written by both black and white composers.
The cakewalk was a stately ring dance performed by blacks during and after slavery. It was accompanied by music that was similar to ragtime and composed by such African Americans as Ernest Hogan (d. 1990), Will Marion Cook (1869-1944), and the musical team of Bob Cole (1868-1911) and Billy Johnson. These artists popularized this style of music and brought it to the Broadway and off-Broadway stages in the late 1800s.
The blues is perhaps the simplest American musical form and yet also the most versatile. Along with jazz, blues takes its shape and style in the process of performance, and for this reason it possesses a high degree of flexibility. Although certain musical and lyrical elements of the blues can be traced back to West Africa, the blues, like the spiritual, is a product of slavery. When and where did the blues originate? No one can say for sure. We know only that it began in the South during slavery and, in the years following slavery, spread throughout the region as early
bluesmen wandered from place to place. One of them, Bunk Johnson (1879-1949), claimed to have played nothing but blues as a child during the 1880s.
As the nation moved into the twentieth century, the blues evolved, borrowing elements from such other musical genres as gospel and ragtime. A “country” style, in which a solo singer accompanied himself on an acoustic guitar, also developed. It was played on the farms of sharecroppers and in honky-tonk gin joints. People brought the music with them into the cities at the dawn of the industrial age. Early blues was an acoustic musical tradition and was invented and performed by literally a handful of itinerant musicians in search of day labor. Much has been made of the pared down qualities of the music. Early practitioners such as Robert Johnson (1911-1938), widely regarded as the father of what we know as “classical blues” today, relied on the immediacy of a powerful vocal performance with a striking rhythmic counterpoint created as much by the body as by the strings of the guitar, to captivate his audiences. The music has powerful alliances with African rhythmic and vocal traditions.
The blues chronicles the migration of African Americans northward; with the move, the music turned from acoustic to electric. Within the stylistic and cultural traditions of the blues the African American experience of alienation, peril, and outright tragedy within American society have come to light. It is an American art form in the end, one that borrows from various threads of artistic expression, be they African, European, immigrant, slave, rural or urban, country or industrial. The music deals with the great themes of western expression: loves that tend toward the unrequited, fates that lean toward the darkly predetermined, spiritual and sexual energies that drive individuals through the business of living, but, most often, without any obvious or particular personal redemption at hand.
The musical structure of the blues is very simple, built upon three main chords. In the standard blues, called the twelve-bar blues, a certain idea is expressed twice in a repeated lyric and then responded to or completed in a third line. As a way of putting his or her own “signature” on a song, a blues singer will at certain points use vocal scoops, swoops, and slurs, imitate sounds of the accompanying instrument (usually a guitar), or add percussive elements to the rendition.
The songwriter W. C. Handy (1873-1958) popularized the blues when he published his “Memphis Blues” in 1912 and the “St. Louis Blues” in 1914. These two songs created an unprecedented vogue for the blues, and their popularity, and the success of those who sang them, carried the blues all over the world. The 1920s are considered the era of classic blues, a style popularized by black women like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Alb
Hunter (1895-1984), and Ethel Waters (1900-1979). The soulful sophistication and haunting beauty of their blues performances were altogether new to American audiences. Bessie Smith, perhaps the most famous of the classic blues singers, epitomized the form’s emotional power, while Ma Rainey‘s singing captured its racy, theatrical side.
During the 1920s, interest shifted from classic blues sung by women to country blues performed most often by men. This “down-home” blues was sometimes performed with banjo, string, or jug band accompaniment, although the favored accompaniment was the guitar. In country blues, the vocal quality was gritty, strained, and nasal, and the voice was “played” in a variety of ways. Singers used falsetto, hummed, and achieved percussive effects using both voice and instrument. Among the best-known country blues singers were Charlie Jackson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson (?-1938), Blind Boy Fuller (1908-1941), Gus Cannon, and Huddie Led-better (“Leadbelly”) (1885-1949), who also performed a variety of nonblues folk music.
Migration not only changes social order, it also breeds new forms of culture. The history of the blues in the twentieth century provides one example of the link between black migration and cultural change.
Industrialization brought about technological advances in recording, the growth of radio, a black “race record” industry, and the development of large urban black communities with money to spend on music. In response to such changes, blues traditions spread and came into contact with one another. By the 1940s, a rich and thriving national blues culture embraced both rural and urban blacks.
The Second Great Migration from the Mississippi Delta to Chicago in the 1940s produced a new blues form, known as Chicago blues, native to the industrial city. Muddy Waters (1915-1983) became the leading innovator of the new style after he reached Chicago in 1943.
Muddy Waters and his contemporaries—among them Big Bill Broonzy (1893-1958), Howlin’ Wolf (1910-1975), Jimmy Rogers, B. B. King (b. 1925), Bobby Blue Bland (b. 1930), John Lee Hooker (1917-2001), J.B. Lenoir, and Willie Dixon (1915-1992)—had been trained in the country style of acoustic guitars and solo performance. Now they built a new urban style around electric instruments and amplification. Electric guitar, harmonica, drums, bass, guitar, and piano were featured in many performances. Chicago blues offered a tight, “industrial” sound, a hard-edged and hard-driving ensemble sound especially suited to telling musical stories of a country people’s adjustment to the industrial city. Chicago blues was part of the distinctive culture—country-rooted but flowering in the city—made possible by the black migration.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Chicago blues became part of the foundation on which contemporary American popular music was built. A generation of younger Chicago bluesmen, led by the guitar players Otis Rush (b. 1934), Buddy Guy (b. 1936), and Magic Sam (1937-1969), provided important musical inspiration for guitar-based rock ‘n’ roll.
In a curious migration of musical style, a parallel generation of British musicians absorbed Chicago blues from recordings, sometimes note for note. Members of the Yardbirds, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Fleet-wood Mac, and the Beatles all credited Chicago blues-men as their musical “fathers. “As leaders of the so-called British invasion of the 1960s, they had a profound effect on American popular music.
Chicago blues also contributed to the development of other musical forms. Bluesmen like Magic Sam, Eddie Floyd, and Ike Turner (later to be eclipsed in fame and musical influence by his ex-wife Tina Turner) helped to create styles that in the 1960s became Motown, rhythm and blues, soul, and funk. At the same time, a revival of folk music in the 1960s identified the Chicago blues of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, and the country blues tradition from which it developed, as important examples of American songwriting and musicianship.
The historical irony of this should be apparent: just as Chicago blues was gaining attention in the 1950s and 1960s, Americans were turning their attention away from the neighborhoods of the inner cities. As American culture made new and important investments in cultural traditions bred by black migration, American government and private enterprise cut back on the attention and resources devoted to the very places where so many black Americans lived.
The ghetto riots of the 1960s came as a surprise to many Americans who had grown up on blues-influenced rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues, and the blues itself. Their surprise tells us much: in a suburbanizing age, the cities had become invisible, even as the black presence in those cities was exerting a profound influence on every aspect of American life.
Jazz, which has been called “America’s classical music,” is perhaps the most creative and complex music the nation has produced. Although no one can say for sure where the origins of jazz lie, it combines the musical traditions
of black New Orleans with the creative flexibility of the blues. By 1918, the term “jazz” was already in wide use. Early jazz performers included the cornetist Sydney Bechet (1897-1959), the pianists “Jelly Roll” Morton (1885-1941) and Eubie Blake (1883-1893), and the bandleader James Reese Europe (1881-1919). Among the earliest ensembles were the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and King Oliver‘s Creole Jazz Band.
The trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong (1900-1971) became the first jazz musician to achieve national and international recognition with the success of his “West End Blues” in the 1920s. Armstrong achieved stardom as a cornetist in King Oliver‘s Creole Jazz Band and went on to form his own ensembles, the Hot Fives and the Hot Sevens, in the 1920s. Armstrong’s lyricism and his technical and improvisational finesse pointed the way for many future jazz artists.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the most popular form of jazz was the big-band sound. Ensembles such as Count Basie‘s Big Band set the standard for what was known as “swing,” a hard-driving, fast-paced sound in which instruments played in close harmony. The Duke Ellington Band, which spanned over half a century, was among the most innovative of the big bands. Its unique sound was characterized by collective improvisation, innovative harmonies, exceptional arrangements, and wide expressive timbres.
The most revolutionary of jazz styles, bebop, was performed by an ensemble significantly smaller than the big band: a rhythm section consisting of piano, string bass, drums, and sometimes guitar, which backed up soloists on trumpet or alto or tenor saxophone. Bebop evolved in the 1940s out of jam sessions held at Harlem clubs such as Minton’s Playhouse. Among those who jammed at Minton’s were the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (1917-1993), the tenor saxophonist Charlie Parker (1920-1955), the pianist Thelonious Monk (1917-1982), the guitarist Charlie Christian (1916-1942), and the drummer Kenny Clarke (1914-1985). Other bebop
musicians included the bass player Jimmy Blanton, the pianist Bud Powell (1924-1966), the tenor saxophonist Lester Young (1909-1959), and the drummer Max Roach (b. 1925). These performers and others contributed their own characteristic techniques and styles to the sound of bebop. While bebop took up many of the swing standards of the big-band era, its emphasis on improvisation, as well as its new harmonies, changed both the character and color of the old songs.
Bebop set the standard for every style that followed: cool jazz with its modal sound—developed by Lester Young and popularized by the trumpeter Miles Davis (1926-1991), also a bebop musician—as well as the experimental and introspective transformations of the alto saxophonist John Coltrane (1926-1967). In “hard bop,” certain bebop trademarks were combined with other musical styles, such as gospel, blues, and rhythm and blues, to produce a “funkier” and more danceable sound. Hardboppers included Max Roach, the pianist Horace Silver (b. 1928), the saxophonists Dexter Gordon (b. 1923), Julian “Cannonball” Adderly (1928-1975), Jackie McLean (b. 1932), Hank Mobley (b. 1930), and Sonny Rollins (b. 1939), and the trumpeters Fats Navarro (1923-1950), Nat Adderley (b. 1931), Clifford Brown (1930-1956), Donald Byrd (b. 1932), Lee Morgan (b. 1938), and Jimmy Smith (b. 1928).
During the 1960s and 1970s, jazz artists began to experiment with standard chord and scale structures and the rhythms of traditional jazz. The result, often called “free jazz,” was an attempt to expand upon the improvisational and experimental aspects of bebop. Among free-jazz artists were Sun-Ra (1914-1993) and his Arkestra, the saxophonists Ornette Coleman (b. 1930), Albert Ayler (1936-1970), and John Coltrane, the bassist Charlie Mingus (1922-1979), and the bass clarinetist and flutist Eric Dolphy (1928-1964).
THE BLUES AND JAZZ
The blues and jazz are unique forms of African American traditional expression that defy the popular belief that in the field of music there are no truly original ideas, only the rehashing of existing traditions. Both musical genres reveal that, within the African American artistic community, there is a drive to create a wonderful “new story.”
The unique histories of musical expression on the European and the African continents play a part in this distinction. While the European musical tradition emphasizes performing patterned music written by others, the African musical tradition incorporates improvisation, the nuanced and explosive language of immediate “call” and “response,” or “participation,” as a basis for great modes of human expression.
Another aspect of African American music that has been celebrated is “happenstance. “The novelist Ralph Ellison wrote about his admiration for Louis Armstrong, who had taken the trumpet, what was essentially a military instrument, and then played it in a different way. Armstrong bent the throat of the instrument upward, creating a new sound, then used that as a point of departure for an entirely new mode of expression.
In looking at the blues and its history, a similar pattern of using mistakes and artistic limitations to create something with a unique and new sound can be found. This stands in direct contrast to the western European classical training mode of “correcting” one’s mistakes through practice and artistic penance. A whole musical tradition has grown up around this art of happenstance: the slide guitar method came about from some individual who sat drinking and playing, and one night picked up the glass bottle and played the bottleneck on the strings of the guitar. B. B. King speaks of his early formative days, describing his love of the “bottleneck sound. “However, when he tried to play it, he found he was unable, and so he evolved his own “trilling” method of creating and sustaining vibrato, which in turn became a part of his signature sound and a part of the blues tradition. Albert King spoke of his inability to master the scales up and down
the neck of the guitar as the reason for developing his signature method of bending the strings.
Happenstance enriched the jazz tradition as well. In the first half of the twentieth century, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie experimented with a complete and exhaustive reworking of the scales—until they found new classical patterns with a new logic. The decades that followed saw hybrids of jazz and numerous other musical traditions, as well as further investigations into the nature of “classical jazz.”
CLASSICAL PERFORMERS AND COMPOSERS
While a number of black female concert singers have achieved great popularity during the last fifty years, their success is not altogether new. Their way was paved by earlier classical singers like Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield (1809-1876). The first of the widely known black vocalists, Greenfield made her debut in 1853 in Philadelphia in a recital that was well reviewed in the white press. Other early African American singers, all sopranos, were Nellie Mitchell Brown, Marie Selika Williams, Rachel Walker, and Flora Batson Bergen. Like Taylor, these women were praised for their wide vocal range and the brilliance of their singing.
Their careers were brief, however, and when the vogue for black sopranos ended in the 1890s, most retired from the concert stage. Black concert singers continued to perform before black audiences into the twentieth century, and a few gained wider popularity, among them the contralto Marian Anderson (1902-1993), the soprano Dorothy Maynor (1910-1996), the tenor Roland Hayes (1887-1977), and the baritones Jules Bledsoe (1848-1943) and Paul Robeson (1889-1976).
These performers broke racial barriers for African Americans, perhaps none so powerfully as Marian Anderson, who was described by the Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini as possessing “a voice which one hears once in a hundred years. “In 1955, although a white group tried to prevent her from performing, Anderson became the first African American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. After the 1950s, many other African American classical musicians came to the concert stage: the singers Robert McFerrin (b. 1921) and Leontyne Price (b. 1927), the pianist Andre Watts
(b. 1946), and the conductor Michael Morgan.
African Americans have also had a tradition as composers of classical music. The best known black composers from the early part of the twentieth century are Florence Price (1888-1953), R. Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943), Harry T. Burleigh (1866-1949), Margaret Bonds (1913-1972), and William Grant Still (1895-1978) (who has been called the dean of Afro-American composers). The number of African Americans writing classical music has continued to grow with composers like Ulysses Kay (1917-1995), George Walker (b. 1922), Hale Smith (b. 1925), and Olly Wilson (b. 1937). Many have incorporated jazz and black folk music, such as spirituals, in their compositions.
The sound of today’s gospel music also has a long history in African American music, having been influenced by everything from the ensemble performances of the jubilee singers during the late 1800s and early 1900s to the predominantly male gospel quartets and choirs of the 1930s and 1940s.
By the 1930s, Roberta Martin (1912-1969), Sallie Martin, and Thomas Dorsey (a former bluesman who
went by the name “Georgia Tom” Dorsey) (1899-1993) had established a religious music whose sound became known as gospel. In the late 1920s, Dorsey began writing religious songs that combined the sustained lyrical quality of the spirituals with the more modern sound of the blues. His signature song,”Precious Lord,” set the standard of early gospel music, known for its slow, expressive, almost unmeasured pace.”Precious Lord” was popularized by the singer Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972), the best known of the early gospel singers, famed for her expressiveness and musical interpretation.
Out of the early jubilee ensembles grew the gospel quartets and choirs of the 1930s and 1940s, groups such as the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Clara Ward Singers. Their close harmonies and a cappella singing gave black church music a unique, soulful sound.
Later gospel singers like Shirley Caesar (b. 1938) and James Cleveland (c. 1931-1991) won fame among gospel enthusiasts for their inspirational and creative solos before choirs. Both Caesar and Cleveland excelled in a technique attributed to Willie Mae Ford Smith (1904-1986) called “sermonizing. “Sermonizing involved the soloist’s spoken narration of a story (usually of spiritual redemption) either before or during the choir’s singing. The soloist joined the choir in singing a refrain either during or after the spoken narration, and the song ended climactically with the soloist and choir singing together.
Although gospel music in the early 2000s often sounds similar to other forms of popular music, it still retains its earlier emphasis on vocal embellishment, dramatic power, and a lengthening of the song for the purposes of creating musical tension. In fact, gospel has had a greater historical influence on popular black music than the reverse. Many soul and rhythm-and-blues singers, like Sam Cooke (1935-1964), Aretha Franklin
(b. 1942), and Whitney Houston (b. 1963), began singing in black churches and in gospel choirs.
Rap is the most complex and influential form of hip-hop culture, combining elements of the African American musical tradition (blues, jazz, and soul) with Caribbean calypso, dub, and dance-hall reggae. Two of its earliest innovators were West Indians, DJ Kool Herc and Grand-master Flash (b. 1958).
The Jamaican DJ Kool Herc was known for using massive speaker systems and multiple turntables to loop “break beats” into an endless groove of dance beats. Like all of the early hip-hop disc jockeys, Kool Herc used beats from all types of music from rock to soul, thus breaking down the artificial barriers between different musical categories. Sometimes he would recite or talk over the beats. This was one of the earliest forms of rapping. To sound-system technology and break beats, the Barbadian Grandmaster Flash added “scratching,” a technique of spinning records back and forth quickly to create new rhythms and unusual sounds.
The addition of “sampling” to Kool Herc’s and Grandmaster Flash‘s original innovations catapulted rap into musical prominence. Samplers are computers that can digitally duplicate sounds in any key, pitch, or sequence. With samplers, rap producers like Hank Schocklee can reproduce and rearrange anything from a television sitcom theme to a Beethoven symphony. The resulting “samples” can then be woven into rap music to create a multilayered background for rap lyrics.
Rapping is related to the African American tradition of “toasting,” a boastful form of storytelling that is usually political in content and aggressive in style. Early rappers worked with disc jockeys to heighten an audience’s excitement. They often competed against one another, using their verbal skill and poetic dexterity to “battle” each other.
Rap’s subject matter varies. Many rappers tell tragic tales of decaying neighborhoods, vicious murders, and police brutality. Others celebrate black history, black families, and black communities, or they brag of their successes in the bedroom, on the streets, and in the record studio. Women rappers like Queen Latifah (b. 1970) and Yo-Yo complicate these subjects by celebrating female empowerment. In telling their ghetto-centric tales, male and female rappers make use of both American and black popular culture, drawing on characters from blaxploitation films like Superfly, gangster films like Scarface, and television series like “The Cosby Show. “Above all, rap lyrics consistently attack economic and political inequalities, waging a full-scale assault on the institutions that keep most African Americans in poverty. The combination of gritty urban storytelling and beat-driven, technologically sophisticated music keeps hip-hop on the cutting edge of musical innovation.
Since rap exploded into the mainstream in the mid-1980s, it has generated many different schools and styles. Local crews have become regional posses: the West Coast rap style of Ice T, Ice Cube, and Snoop Doggy Dog has battled for ascendancy over the original East Coast style of Run D.M.C., KRS-One, and Gang Starr.
The political content of rap music took a leap forward when the rap group Public Enemy burst onto the music scene in the late 1980s, forging lyrics and performances that made staged high-art entertainment out of the alienation of African Americans and the history of militancy. With a wild, uncanny sense for theatrics and tight, powerful beats, the group produced albums with titles like “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” and “Fear of a Black Planet.”
The concerts and videos the group produced for the 24-hour music stations featured them working in syncopation with squads of dancers performing in various military-type uniforms. The imagery recalled the Nation of Islam‘s clean-cut black suits and ties of the Malcolm X period and gave voice to the latent rage of African Americans. At the same time, Public Enemy sold millions of records to the teenagers and angry middle-class white suburban youths that they were, in a sense, working against. In the early 2000s, Public Enemy, the original “prophets of rage,” has been upstaged by “gangsta rappers,” whose violent tales of gang murders and the gun trade are set against a backdrop of inner-city decay.
More than ever before, women rappers are challenging male rappers’ sexist lyrics and using rap lyrics to define an independent black female identity. For example, Queen Latifah, Salt ‘N’ Pepa, MC Lyte and Eve criticize men who abuse and manipulate women. At the same time, they redefine the terms on which black women establish relationships with black men. Music video stations like Music Television (MTV) and Black Entertainment
Television (BET) have also helped propel female rappers into the spotlight, bringing their less aggressive style to a mainstream audience interested in tales of love rather than terror.
AN EVOLVING TRADITION OF POPULAR MUSIC
From the early slave fiddlers to the black minstrel troupes and beyond, African Americans have always been involved in America’s popular music. The first known American musical group to travel abroad was a Philadelphia band led by a black man, Francis “Frank” Johnson (1792-1844). From the early to the mid-1800s, the Frank Johnson band performed military and dance music for white and black Philadelphians and toured the United States and England as well. In the early twentieth century, blues and jazz musicians provided entertainment and dance music for much of America.
Each innovation in African American popular music has been influenced by what came before. The rise of rhythm and blues in the 1950s was directly influenced by early gospel music and urban blues, particularly a style of music popularized by Louis Jordan (1908-1979) called “jump blues. “The singers Chuck Berry (b. 1926) and Little Richard (b. 1932) transformed urban blues and into what became known as rock ‘n’ roll, perhaps the most popular musical style ever invented. In the 1950s and 1960s, record companies like Motown and Stax recorded numerous groups and soloists whose work left a lasting mark on American musical taste. Rooted in the Motown sound, artists such as Stevie Wonder (b. 1951) and Marvin Gaye (1940-1984) transformed it into a music called “soul.”
Even those black artists whose music has been experimental and innovative have their roots in traditional black music. The rock guitarist, singer, and song-writer Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970) began his career in a rhythm and blues band, transforming the blues with a “psychedelic,” highly amplified, and improvisational guitar sound. Despite its emphasis on improvisation and experimentation, however, Hendrix’s music retained a blues sound.
Tracy Chapman‘s (b. 1964) folk sound reminds its listeners of Nina Simone‘s (b. 1933) rich tones and smoky vocals. Bobby McFerrin‘s (b. 1950) unique instrumental use of his voice harkens back to the a cappella gospel quartets, to jazz instrumentalists and vocalists like Louis Armstrong (1900-1971) and Billie Holiday (1915-1959), and to scat vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald (1918-1996), and it draws as well upon West African and Caribbean rhythms.
Thus, while black musicians always seem to be creating something new, their work remains firmly rooted in the long tradition of African American music.
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Duke Ellington (1899-1974) and the Evolution of American Classical Music
Perhaps no jazz musician so eloquently makes the argument for jazz as American “classical” music as Duke Ellington. Ellington started out as a band-leader, making his name in the culture of the big band nightclubs that had come out of the Roaring Twenties and continued through the 1940s. Like Cab Calloway and Count Basie, he was a bandleader and an entertainer, and he bore not only the economic hardships of a life of musicianship, but also the troubling reality of the white culture that consumed the music he played and the stereotypes they imposed on that music However, as his career progressed it became clear that Ellington was becoming a living repository of both jazz and American popular culture.
Not only did he compose such jazz standards as “Take the A Train,” but, like George Gershwin and Irving Berlin, he composed countless show tunes, scores, and—in later years—orchestral numbers and symphonies. Perhaps no individual had a greater range of musical influences at his fingertips, from the roots of jazz in ragtime, swing, and blues, to the history of jazz and jazz-related popular music. Ellington composed startling, nuanced pieces woven out of American music, exhibiting complete command of a palette of sources from Europe, Africa, and the Americas.
The End of the Age of Exploitation
Perhaps no one is more indicative of the explosion of African American entertainers in the last quarter of the twentieth century than Michael Jackson (b. 1958). While, of course, Motown and other trends created a range of artists who were successful pop entertainers in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s (including, of course, the Jackson 5), the so-called “King of Pop” for many represented a new kind of African American pop music star. Like Elvis, the “King” before him, Michael Jackson’s music appealed to all segments of society, selling millions and millions of records worldwide. While earlier artists were notoriously undercompensated for their work, Jackson became one of the richest entertainers in the history of music entertainment. At the same time, Jackson’s career has been pursued by an endless stream of controversy. Given the undying curiosity and controversy that follows the star, like no other perhaps, the King of Pop personified both the opportunities and the fracturing psychological demands of being a superstar of color in the United States in the late twentieth century.
ABOVE: One of the most popular and most controversial musical artists of the twentieth century, Michael Jackson sold millions of records and led an occasionally bizarre personal life that was the subject of much speculation.AP/WIDE WORLD PHOTOS