Is ‘black music’ a valid category of popular music
The first problem that arises in attempting to answer this question is actually defining ‘black music’. Is it music made by black people, for black people, both or neither? And thus what exactly is it that sets it apart from ‘white music’? On a wider scale legally classifying someone as black or white also causes some difficulties. Particularly in earlier decades, different states used different factors to define a black person, e. g.
, a ‘visible’ degree of ‘Negro blood’, one-eighth or one-sixteenth Negro blood etc, (Hatch and Millward, 1987:117).Simon Frith describes black music as ‘performance-orientated, based on rhythm and improvisation rather than harmony and composition, essentially emotional and physical in its impact, and spontaneous rather than technical’ (Frith. 1983:16-20). So an exact definition of ‘black music’ is not easily attainable.
However several internet dictionary websites define ‘black music’ as ‘music created by African-American musicians; early forms were songs that had a melodic line and a strong rhythmic beat with repeated choruses’. (http://www. hyperdictionary. com/dictionary/black+music).
This essay will explore the history of ‘black music’ in the light of that definition, and discuss whether it is indeed still a valid category of popular music today. Black music originated from masters expecting their slaves not only to work but also to sing, mainly on cotton and rice plantations in the southern states of America in the 1800’s; resulting in ‘work songs’. The first songs referred to the religion they had left behind, with drums accompanying. The lyrics were soon forcibly changed to describe their every day experiences and the drums were banned to rule out any conspiracy calls.The result was chants with only their voices, accompanying sticks, tambourines, clapping and dancing.
From around the same era came the ‘spiritual’ songs that had a huge impact on many white Americans at the time of the civil war. Slavery had been ‘justified’ by many white Americans in assuming that blacks had no soul, but these spiritual songs/gospel proved otherwise and illustrated arguments that they surely had a right to live as free Americans. At this early stage black music can be defined as made by blacks, influenced by African roots.However the Northerners had their own version of the South’s entertainment from the slaves, which was minstrelsy. White people put on blackface, and imitated the singing and dancing of blacks, with performers such as Georgie Hunter and songs like ‘The Bonja Song’ (c. 1820).
The slaves were starting to be set free and as their lives changed so their music evolved, to blues. Although many of them were free of the working slavery in the fields they still faced many problems; not being accepted as fellow, equally respected citizens of America, not being able to find work or accommodation.This reflected in their music making; the frustrated lyrics from their souls accompanied by instruments easy to travel around with, e. g. guitars and harmonicas. The performances were full of emotion with the instruments often simply being employed as an extension of the voices.
Some of the famous blues performers were Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker. At this early point black music was composed, performed by and for black people but more recently this blues style has been taken on by, arguably great, white artists, such as Eric Clapton.The First World War brought on the new era in black music. Many ex-slaves traveled up to northern cities and others formed their own troops. They became more and more part of the American culture and this acceptance was heavily illustrated through the music of the time, jazz. It is thought that there are several different backgrounds that influenced this new style of music.
The brass instruments came from the French military bands, brought to New Orleans and other French settlements by the Creoles and the rhythms came from Africa, via the blacks.As the blues music became more popular this too was combined together with the other influences, although in different ways by various different ethnic groups, to become jazz. During this period, in spite of the fact that their music was similar and sometimes the audiences were the same, the different groups remained out of contact, the whites, blacks, and Creoles. So at this stage it is difficult to agree that black music is a valid genre on its own, because of the wide-ranging origins of influence and performance of this type of black music, jazz.A website about the history of black music (http://www.
hino. com/blackhistory/timeline. lasso) claims that “Jazz made it possible for Afro-American music to be imitated for the first time by white musicians… the beginnings of what was to come” but in looking closer at history we have seen that black heritage and culture was not the only influence on this genre.
Some great black jazz performers of this time were Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong, whose rasping singing style is typical of jazz. Similarly there are many great and popular white jazz performers, such as Chet Baker whose trumpet really is an extension of his voice, and vice versa.Jazz became more and more mainstream and in the mid 1900’s many ‘true’ black music fans felt that it had lost its soul, which is where their form of it had come from. It would be going backwards to revert back to creating and performing blues but this soulful element was combined with the hard bop element of jazz, which had harder rhythms and sound. This new music that was created was ‘rhythm and blues’, one of the biggest influences of modern day rock and roll. Some of the great ‘R&B’ pioneers were Otis Reading, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye.
Their songs were very popular with teenagers because of the ‘love’ lyrics, including white teenagers, who were enthusiastically were buying the records. A white DJ Alan Freed saw the potential in this and was responsible for bringing ‘black music’ into mainstream white culture. The term ‘rhythm and bass’ had overtones of black culture and so to exploit the full potential Freed renamed this style of music ‘rock and roll’. This was successful and was important in the crossover of ‘black music’ from black to white cultures.The general rebellious, resistant theme running through a lot of these R;B songs followed on into the white rock and roll scene with consumers enjoying the black music of rock and roll legends such as Chuck Berry and Fats Domino.
However there was still something missing, as Sam Phillips famously said ‘If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars’ This white man who fulfilled this gap for both producers and consumers, was of course Elvis Presley.Although the pioneers of this music were invariably black, after the rise of Elvis (and other white rock and roll stars like Bill Haley and the Comets whose song ‘Rock Around the Clock’ hugely assisted the rise in popularity of rock and roll) blacks found it increasingly difficult to be taken seriously in this genre, finding themselves being steered towards pop, soul etc. As Lenny Kravitz accounts, his rock and roll influenced tapes, when sent to a record company, were always given to the black division. Although his talent was noted he was deemed incapable of making rock music.A modern display of typically black music is Hip/Hop and Rap, which almost goes back towards the original roots of black music, using the voice as an instrument.
The lyrics again, resisted against the discriminations that blacks faced in their now, own country, although no longer under traditional slavery, they were confined to their own areas of the cities etc. The first main record of this genre was ‘Rappers Delight’ by the SugarHill Gang and there have been a huge number of other black Rap, Hip/Hop artists such as Run DMC, Snoop Dog, and Jay Z.However one of the most popular and respected Rap artists is Eminem, a white man. In spite of his racial difference to his fellow artists he raps about his own problems and discriminations that he has faced living in the United States.
Looking back over the history of this category ‘black music’ it is evident that although rooted in black Africa in the form of work songs and gospel, the development through blues, jazz, and right up to Rap has come from many different cultures.Even as early on as 1920’s some recordings were impossible to distinguish their source, rural or urban, black or white. (Hatch and Millward, 1987:121) Coming back to the issue of defining black music we can see now that this is even more difficult. With so many different types of ‘black music’ how can we put them all together into one category? In looking for a common theme, rhythm could be explored. Still, the style of rhythm is not the same across these genres so maybe just the importance and dominance, but this could be said of other musical styles and would be a very complex process.
A website claiming to be ‘the home of black music’ which has news, reviews, forums and interviews with black music starts, includes Justin Timberlake and Eminem, both white alongside their black counterparts (www. darkerthanblue. com). This further illustrates the point made earlier that white artists are making ‘black music’ so this category cannot be defined by who is creating or performing it.
Forms of black music like R&B, garage and hip hop are hugely popular in ‘white’ Britain, across Europe and the United States, so similarly the ethnicity of the audience is not the determining factor.In coming to no conclusion about the definition of black music it can only be said that this indeed is not a valid category in popular music today. The influences of many forms of ‘black music’ are arguably rooted in black culture, coming from Africa via the slaves’ work song; but this huge variety of styles, artists and audiences of music associated with blacks proves that it is too restricting to put them all under the one heading ‘black music’.