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Black music in America – A historical perspective

18th June 2012   ·   0 Comments

By Dr Kwaku Person-Lynn
Contributing Writer

(Special to the NNPA from The Pasadena Journal) — Spirit has many ways of expressing itself. One of those channels of expression occurs through music; the melodic, harmonic, rhythmic voice of our soul, reflecting years of feelings and experiences. From early times it has been known as a healing force. We used it to record family histories and communicate between communities.

Work songs were used to lessen the harsh conditions of a prison chain gang. Chants were used to accompany all sorts of rituals. Slaves used it to pass on details of an escape. Retail stores use it as an incentive for buying. Without it, the world would not know the pleasure of dance. But music, like other aspects of life, comes in hundreds of different forms. Those forms are interpreted through various styles. Style shapes the structure of the song and how it is performed.

Over the years, Blacks in America have developed many musical styles, influencing all forms of American popular music. The greatest exposures of these styles are manifested in what we hear on the radio, music videos, movies and commercials. What is most interesting, we are quietly going through a Black popular musical revolution right before our ears and eyes, and not recognizing it. J.H. Kwabena Nketia, considered the father of Afrikan music, and a master musical researcher, consistently says, “We are always looking into the past while neglecting what is occurring in the present.” So as not to violate that bit of wisdom, we will start our Black popular musical journey with the 1940s, concluding with the present musical styles that are causing the present Black music revolution.

In the 1940s, swing music was the prevalent style of popular Black music of the period, popularized by and given credit to white musicians (Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey). If we had to identify any single American Afrikan individual for swing’s creation, we would have to turn to Fletcher Henderson, who composed the first swing song and wrote Benny Goodman’s charts. But what was to occur in the 1940s has influenced Black popular music from that time to eternity.

A Black music revolution oc­curred that would turn the music world on its heels. Progressive musicians of Afrikan descent were getting tired, bored and disgusted with the repetitious rhythmic structure of swing. The music just didn’t say anything to them. It was nice to play to make a living, but the creative and revolting urge was too strong for them to remain in that style of music.

Late at night, after their regular gigs, musicians such as: Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Parker, Thelon­ious Monk, Charles Christian, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, and so many more, developed what they described as “Be Bop.” This was a musician’s music. It set the stage for those who called themselves master musicians. If a musician stepped on the stage and couldn’t read or play, their feelings would be terribly crushed. This decade saw the great Black musical innovator, Thomas A. Dorsey, foster the beginning of a style of music that would later infiltrate Black popular music, gospel music.

The 1950s saw American Afrikan popular music reach another plateau. Blues musicians had already migrated from the South to the North, mainly to Chicago. Industrialization was the theme of American business, but also musical instrumentation. Electrical instruments began to reflect what was happening in the larger society. Instruments such as the electric guitar and amplified harmonicas formed the basis for the new bands that became established in the North. Rhythm sections were expanded to include the electric bass, drums, piano, and solo instruments like saxophones and trumpets. Rural blues changed to urban blues, which became rhythm & blues and planted the seeds for rock & roll. We saw this progression created by artists like Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Bobby Blue Bland, John Lee Hooker, Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Wells and several others. When rhythm & blues became the dominant musical force in the later 1950s, some of the major artists were: Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, The Platters, Johnny Ace, Jesse Belvin, Dinah Washington, among many others. Jazz was slipping in terms of being categorized as popular music, but the most dominant modern jazz album of that decade, and probably any others, was “Kind of Blue,” featuring Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers and James Cobb. The seeds that were planted earlier for rock & roll, a Black popular musical style, began to blossom with artists like Little Richard, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and others. Rock & roll would become the dominant style of music among whites, who also attempted to claim credit for its creation, as they tried to do with jazz and swing.

The 1960s was a decade that brought about huge cultural and social changes. Music did not escape the cultural revolution of this period. Popular Black music transformed into message music, popularly known as soul music. This was an era that evolved from a Civil Rights Movement to a Black Consciousness Movement. Many young people of Afrikan descent were changing their allegiances from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Minister Malcolm X. Being Black was elevated to being beautiful, rather than ugly and degrading. James Brown captured this theme with his song, ‘Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud.’ Wearing the natural hair style, Afrikan clothing and changing ones name from what was called a slave name, because the European names given to Afrikans started on the slave plantations, were common occurrences. Many felt that this was the decade of the best Black popular music ever made. The late Frankie Crocker, America’s leading disc jockey for many years confirms, “Well, I would say there was more [good Black music] in the late 60s then there was throughout all the 70s, with a few exceptions.” Every style of Black music was being transformed, which also carried over into the 1970s. People such as Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, The Impressions, The Temptations, Curtis Mayfield, Otis Redding, The Isley Brothers, Earth Wind & Fire, War, Sly & The Family Stone, Martha & The Vandellas, The Fifth Dimension, The Dells, The Chambers Brothers, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, The Spinners, Ike & Tina Turner, Jerry Butler, Isaac Hayes, Gladys Knight & the Pips, The Supremes, The Jackson 5, and of course later on, Stevie Wonder, and so many, many more produced such a high quality of Black popular music that it will likely never be repeated again. The man who elevated this new style of music to its highest level was none other than the true king of rock, Jimi Hendrix.

White producers developed a style of popular music with a very simplistic, monotonous beat. It became a musical standard in the disco clubs, thus, it became known throughout the country as ‘disco music.’ Donna Summer was crowned the disco queen.

After several revisions and name changes, it finally became known as ‘rap music.’ An entire sub-culture evolved out of the Bronx in New York City. Hip hop was the next musical evolution as bebop was of the 1940s. It was the musical, poetic personal expression news wire that went through every youth community in America, and ultimately the world. Young Black America had a music they could relate to and didn’t need adult approval.

This article was originally published in the June 18, 2012 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper

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