In honor of African-American Music Appreciation Month, Taylor’s Lindsay Love-Bivens and GRAMMY-winning artist Judith Hill visited the newly opened Nashville museum, which celebrates the pioneering influence of African-American artists on American music genres.
Nearly every genre of American music can be traced back to the creative ingenuity and artistic expression of African-American artists. With a tapestry of lived, shared experiences woven throughout different eras, African Americans originated and shaped musical styles from the blues to hip-hop, helping to spawn many other musical cross-pollinations in between. African-American Music Appreciation Month, observed in June each year, gives us an opportunity to illuminate those essential contributions and reacquaint ourselves with some of the people responsible for the music that forms the soundtrack to life in America and around the world today.
What is African-American Music Appreciation Month?
In the 1970s, prompted by the increasingly prolific influence of African-American artists during the 20th century, a movement led by key members of the African-American music community to recognize these artists gained traction. In 1978, producer Kenny Gamble, influential music activist and broadcaster Dyana Williams, and broadcast executive Ed Wright launched the Black Music Association (BMA) in part to push for the creation of a Black Music Month. After some petitioning, U.S. President Jimmy Carter hosted the first Black Music Month gathering in the summer of 1979. In 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a Presidential Proclamation giving African-American Music Appreciation Month national designation. These actions helped ensure that the story of African-American music would be preserved and honored for generations to come.
A Trip to Nashville
To celebrate African-American Music Appreciation Month, I traveled to Nashville with singer-songwriter and Taylor artist Judith Hill to tour the brand-new National Museum of African American Music. While there, we spoke with Dr. Steven Lewis, one of the curators of the museum. We also spent time visiting historical sites related to the history of African-American music. The video we put together shares some highlights of our experiences there.
Our trip also inspired us to create a timeline of the history of African-American music in an effort to shed more light on some of the African-American musical pioneers whose artistry forever changed the musical landscape in America and beyond. While our timeline barely scratches the surface of such a rich and deep musical heritage, we hope this historical journey invites a deeper exploration of the many ways in which African-American musicians shaped much of what we now know as American music.
The earliest form of Black musical expression in America, spirituals include African-American work songs that wielded a powerful influence on the blues and gospel music later. Spirituals were rooted in biblical stories but represented the severe hardships endured by African-Americans who were enslaved from the 17th century to the 1860s. The “call-and-response” exchange is a prominent feature of spirituals—that is, when a leader sings a phrase and the rest of the group responds with the same or different phrase. Originating from traditional African songs, call-and-response is a key component of African-American work songs and eventually found its way beyond spirituals and into blues, gospel, rock ‘n’ roll, soul and even hip-hop music. Spirituals were popularized by groups like the Fisk Jubilee Singers beginning in the late 1800s.
The blues originated in the deep south of the United States in the 1860s. Built on African-American spirituals and work songs, the blues prominently feature the call-and-response style shaped by spirituals, along with shouts and the distinct blues scale and chord progression that remain central to the blues sound today. It became popular as a musical form after the enslavement of African-Americans ended and aided in the establishment of the “juke joint,” an important facet of African-American culture that arose across the South to cater to formerly enslaved people seeking work. Almost every genre of American music has been influenced by the blues at one point or another.
Ragtime is instantly identified by its distinctively syncopated musical style. Before it was released as popular sheet music for piano, ragtime provided dance music in popular music settings. Minstrel show tunes, African-American banjo styles, the syncopated (off-beat) dance rhythms of the cakewalk, and elements of classical music all contributed to the genesis of this trailblazing genre. Scott Joplin, one of the best-known ragtime composers today, published “Maple Leaf Rag” in 1899, which became a standard in American music and served as the foundation for ragtime music by composers who followed. Ragtime helped shape jazz and the blues, and was arguably the first branch of African-American music to make an impact on mainstream popular culture.
On the heels of ragtime, a new genre was born in New Orleans, Louisiana: jazz. Complex chords, polyrhythms, syncopation and many more elements from blues and ragtime can be found in jazz. Though many would say the genre is impossible to define, improvisation is a central element across most jazz styles. From bebop and swing to modal and smooth, jazz embraces the personal interpretation and creativity of the performer. Jazz became increasingly popular in the 1920s, later known as the “Jazz Age,” a period when African-American music and culture began to reach the white middle class across America.
Spiritual music had evolved into many new forms by the early 1900s, and in the 1930s, a blues musician named Thomas Dorsey revolutionized gospel music by incorporating the blues sound into church music. Dorsey is also credited with forming the first gospel choir. With up-tempo songs and high-spirited choir performances, Black gospel left a permanent impact on American music and other aspects of society. Much like spirituals, gospel music helped shape the culture of the Black church in America.
R&B served as the bridge between the blues, jazz and big band era of the 1920s and ’30s and the rising sounds of rock ‘n’ roll, soul and funk in the ’50s and ’60s. Following World War II and the great migration of African-Americans moving north, America’s youth were searching for livelier and rawer music. As a result, the swing and big band eras cherished by their parents began to give way to a more rhythmic version of the blues. R&B also showcased fresh sounds from instruments such as the electric guitar, piano and saxophone.
In the early 1950s, rhythm and blues developed its own subgenre: rock ‘n’ roll. With Chuck Berry and Little Richard leading the way, the style bore the hallmarks of rhythm and blues but featured a rawer, more sexualized aesthetic, often centrally featuring electric guitar. As those styles began to blend and a more electrified version of the blues gained traction, non-black musicians started performing and recording rock as well, many of whom made the transition from underground clubs and bars to mainstream radio and television. With its infectious hooks, anthemic choruses and memorable vocal lines, rock ‘n’ roll became the pulse of America’s youth and synonymous with American culture. The sound also came to dominate music among youth all over the world.
As the commercialization of rock ‘n’ roll grew, many Black artists and musicians found themselves stuck outside the limelight. Soul music was birthed out of a need to celebrate Black culture. Drawing on its roots in the gospel sound, soul music centered themes of Black America such as Black love and joy while also addressing the struggles of the fight for civil rights. Resources were often scarce for Black artists, and the success of soul music depended on bringing artists together. No one entity embodied this reality more than Motown Records, which was founded in 1959 by Berry Gordy to bring songwriters and musicians together to develop the “Motown sound” that came to dominate the charts throughout the 1960s. By the late ’60s, soul music had grown an array of offshoots, with artists like Sly and the Family Stone, George Clinton and Stevie Wonder experimenting with ideas that would lead to psychedelic soul. Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, artists like Gamble and Huff developed the distinctive “Philly soul” sound. Both of these styles were instrumental in the birth of disco.
What do you get when you combine the heart of soul music, the freedom of syncopated jazz rhythms, and a tight groove? Funk. In the late 1960s, James Brown started writing songs built on just one or two chords, an emphasis on “the one” and a grittier, more straightforward approach that gave America a perfect new type of dance music. As the genre grew in popularity, more experimental forms emerged, such as the style pioneered by George Clinton, which would become the foundation for hip-hop music.
In the summer of 1973, African-American DJs began hosting house parties and block parties in the Bronx. To keep people dancing at the parties, they would play breakbeats from older funk songs and extend the breaks by constantly dropping the needle over the breakbeat. During these parties, a person known as the master of ceremonies or the DJ would hop on the microphone and hype up the crowd with rhythmic chants and call-and-response vocals. As the MC’s role grew in popularity, it grew into an art form of its own, which led to the genesis of rapping. At the same time, music technology continued to advance, enabling DJs to sample breakbeats for longer periods of time and allowing rappers more space to rhyme over the beat. Hip-hop, much like soul music before, became the dominant musical expression of Black culture in America. So much more than just a musical genre, hip-hop’s influence is found everywhere in today’s culture, from fashion, art, breakdancing and modern choreography to sports, television and film.
Pioneers and Trailblazers
DJ Kool Herc
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
Fab 5 Freddie
Cold Crush Brothers
The Sugarhill Gang (“Rapper’s Delight,” first commercial rap recording)
As hip-hop gained popularity across the country, another movement was brewing in Chicago’s underground clubs. DJs and music producers began experimenting with electronic sounds and mechanical beats, remixing disco songs to give them more driving rhythms with pronounced basslines. Thus, house music was born. House music quickly gained national and international acclaim and has morphed into a wide variety of dance and electro styles. Its influence on today’s pop music cannot be overstated.
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