The history of Black Americans has evolved alongside music, from the spirituals sung by enslaved people, to the growing acceptance of blues and jazz in the early 20th century, to the songs that many of our parents and grandparents grew up with. Music has not only been entertainment or art, but an expression of the complexity of the Black American experience, as well as a constant force in the fight for their political and social rights.
In honor of Black History Month, this article will tour the evolution of Black music in America, between 1930 and the turn of the century.
Even before Civil Rights broke into the forefront of American consciousness, the earlier 20th century saw songs of resistance and protest against lynchings and brutal murders of predominantly Black Americans in the South.
Billie Holiday, one of the most prominent Black female singers of the 1930s and 40s recorded and released her seminal protest song “Strange Fruit” in 1939. The pop music of the time being jazz and swing, Holiday’s song was originally a poem, written and subsequently set to music by school teacher Abel Meerpol. A deeply politically active Jewish man, Meerpol had been inspired by photographs of lynchings when he wrote his original poem, and had been the original performer of the work in song form before passing it off to Holiday, who was a rising star in the New York clubs. As a part of her live act, lit by a single spotlight, Holiday’s uniquely powerful voice gave life to one of the very few pop-culture statements against the treatment of Black Americans at the time. She sang alone, but music was soon to be carried by many voices in protest.
Freedom songs, also known as congregational songs, such as “Eyes on the Prize,” “This Little Light of Mine” and perhaps most famously “We Shall Overcome,” grew organically out of the Black churches that helped spread the message of Civil Rights.
White Southern churches overwhelmingly did not allow Black congregants, but religion remained a core value and important social practice in Black communities, so the unique practices of churches such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church shaped the early modern Black political movements. The traditional congregational song, born amidst slavery, became central to many Black Christian churches, with a songleader leading their group in call-and-response lyrics of personal pride, spirituality and strength.
Upon incarceration for participating in protests and marches, Civil Rights activists used these songs to voice their resistance, adapting lyrics to be warnings, or to communicate the strength of the protestors. In jail, as singers were threatened by guards to be quiet, they would weave the guards’ threats into their singing to show their refusal to give in.
The songs were also messages of unity. The common language of song allowed the trained activists to feel connected to the everyday people they marched alongside – meetings of Civil Rights activists included the same songs many Black Americans sang together in church every Sunday.
As White Americans began to notice the movement, many who joined found common ground in music as well. Folk music, which grew out of rural traditions of both Black and white communities, provided a bridge between distinct and in many ways divided cultural languages.
The music of young white artists, especially students from college towns and cities up north, like Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, spoke to the burgeoning political bent of the young Baby Boomers, their dissatisfaction with the lack of morality and their motivation for equality.
At the 1963 March on Washington, many of these singers performed alongside Black entertainers and gospel musicians, including covers of songs like “We Shall Overcome,” as well as their own political hits. While many of these songs were less explicitly focused on racial equality and more on general change, they translated a movement many younger White Americans had not been raised to understand.
As the 1960s went on, the rigid barriers between Black and white America were continually worn away.
Harry Belafonte, despite being an international star widely recognized in the Civil Rights movement and a confidant of Dr. King, was still hindered in his career. His televised duet with White British singer Petula Clark of “On the Path of Glory” included a single touch of her hand on his arm, which was enough for sponsors of Clark’s show to demand the segment be pulled, which Clark refused to do.
Similarly, Nancy Sinatra had kissed Sammy Davis Jr. on her show the year before, provoking racist outcry.
Culturally, the hands that reached across racial divides could not be fully withdrawn. Beyond minor advances on the small screen, musicians were pushing boundaries even further with groups like Sly and the Family Stone, a San Francisco psychedelic soul band that boasted a Black frontman (Sly Stone) and an integrated lineup, as well as men and women playing together. Their hits included the iconic “Everyday People,” an anthem of tolerance and acceptance at the close of the decade.
At the start of the 1970s, however, the idyllic unity espoused by the hippie movement was fracturing. By 1968, much of the hope of the earlier part of the decade had faded, quashed by the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, as well as the seemingly never-ending war in Vietnam prompting increased unrest among the nation’s youth continued to tarnish the optimism of the 1950s and early 1960s. The nation saw violence and death on increasingly large scales, beamed directly in their homes with the growing ubiquity of television.
Music that had once served as a unifying force began to celebrate differences and call for Black empowerment. Stars like James Brown, who had wide appeal in White audiences, became more overtly political with songs like the gospel-referencing “Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud).”
Motown star Marvin Gaye’s career had been shaped to be something akin to the Black Frank Sinatra – a non-threatening crooner with love-song hits. However, in 1970, Gaye released his seminal album “What’s Going On,” a concept album exploring the inequality, injustice and the wrongs of 1960s America, focusing on the Vietnam War, poverty and the environment. “What’s Going On” was not simply focused on the struggles of Black Americans; Gaye leveraged his broad appeal and the increasing stature of Black Americans in popular culture to offer the same level of critique and protest white artists had been involved in for decades. His album has since been regarded as one of the greatest of all time by the NME, Rolling Stone, and the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame.
While many popular forms of music continued to play host to both Black and White musicians, the growth of the Black Power movement and The Black Panther Party, founded in 1966 to challenge racist police brutality, encouraged movement towards Black pride and empowerment separate from White audiences and the mainstream.
Embracing poetry and uniquely Black forms of music rather than tailoring messages to the popular styles of the day, political musicians of the 1970s advocated for Pan-Africanism or explicitly condemned the casual and overt racism they saw leveled against their communities. They could be more extreme than the stars of decades past, which helped many of these artists icons with lasting legacies, disproving the attitude of the 60s that said stars had to have broad, safe appeal.
One of the most enduring icons of the 1970s Black counterculture movement was Bob Marley, who, along with the Wailers, helped introduce reggae to the global community. Marley’s Rastafarian politics drove his music. With its spiritual roots in both Protestant Christianity and Pan-Africanism, Rastas believed that “downpression” (political oppression, slavery, economic inequality) is a test from “Jah” (God) after which they will be delivered from evil. Hits like “Exodus,” “Get Up, Stand Up” and “Redemption Song” became iconic as much for their messages of empowerment as their musical brilliance.
Political poetry also grew in popularity. The Last Poets began in the late ’60s and reached unexpected chart success with their self-titled debut album in 1970, espousing Black Nationalist ideals in the emerging genre. Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” was also hugely influential in the genre, with its pop-culture-referencing call to action denouncing the complacency of American culture with more directness than ever.
With the growing focus on Black artists and communities, the culture in the ’70s was primed for what some have described as the last great American art form: rap.
Drawing a unique vocal approach from West African tradition, Cockney rhyming slang, Caribbean deejay improvisation, and the American political poetry movement, rap developed as an accessible and catchy way to make underground music to samples and simple beats. With the earliest mainstream rap singles (“Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang, “The Breaks” by Kurtis Blow) coming at the end of the 1970s out of New York City, the genre quickly turned political. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released “The Message” in 1982 as a tale of inner-city poverty to glowing critical reception.
Progressive rap grew throughout the 1980s, with Public Enemy forming in 1985 and releasing the iconic “Fight the Power” via Motown in 1989 as a theme song for Spike Lee’s classic movie “Do The Right Thing.” The genre, which grew to include the Hardcore rap genre of the Wu-Tang Clan and Mobb Deep, made political messaging fundamental to New York/East Coast-style rap and hip-hop.
As rap continued to develop in New York, it began to appear in Los Angeles, Detroit and the South as well, who developed their own genres out of their own experiences. Los Angeles’s gangster rap (originally known as reality rap) was a direct counterpoint to New York’s political approaches with N.W.A, Ice Cube and Tupac Shakur’s rise in the 1990s. The South saw icons like OutKast in the 90s and early 2000s bring their unique sensibilities to the political statements that created the Southern hip-hop genre. The wide umbrella of rap has been both venerated and vilified for the artistic choices many groups made with their politics.
Music as a force for Black empowerment in the 20th century went from Black artists performing in White-controlled genres to have their message heard, to propelling one of the most important modern art forms of our time. The legacy of these artists– the pride in their art and themselves – endures in the 21st century and hopefully will for generations to come.