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African-American music

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African-American music

"The Banjo Lesson," by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1893. Oil on canvas, 49″ × 35½″. Hampton University Museum

African-American music is an umbrella term covering a diverse range of musics and musical genres largely developed by African Americans. Negro spirituals, ragtime, jazz, blues, house, doo-wop, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, funk, hip hop, soul, disco and techno constitute the principal modern genres of African-American music. Their origins are in musical forms that arose out of the historical condition of slavery that characterized the lives of black Americans prior to the American Civil War. The modern genres were developed during the late 19th century by fusing European musical styles (characterized by diatonic harmony within the framework of equal temperament) with those of African origin which employed the natural harmonic series. The exceptions are hip hop, house and techno, which were formed in the late 20th century from earlier forms of African-American music such as funk and soul.

Following the Civil War, black Americans, through employment as musicians playing European music in military bands, developed new style of music called ragtime which gradually evolved into jazz. In developing this latter musical form, African Americans contributed knowledge of the sophisticated polyrhythmic structure of the dance and folk music of peoples across western and sub-Saharan Africa. Together, these musical forms had a wide-ranging and profound influence over the development of music within the United States and around the world during the 20th century.

The earliest jazz and blues recordings were made in the 1920s. Later periods saw considerable innovation and change. African-American genres have been highly influential across socio-economic and racial groupings internationally, and have enjoyed immense popularity on a global level.

Historic traits

As well as bringing harmonic and rhythmic features from western and sub-Saharan Africa into European musical styles, it was the historical condition of chattel slavery experienced by black Americans within American society that contributed the conditions which would define their music. Many of the characteristic musical forms that define African-American music have historical precedents. These earlier forms include:


18th century

In the late 18th century folk spirituals originated among Southern slaves, following their conversion to Christianity. Conversion, however, did not result in slaves adopting the traditions associated with the practice of Christianity. Instead they reinterpreted them in was that had meaning to them as Africans in America. They often sang the spirituals in groups as they worked the plantation fields.

Folk spirituals, unlike much white gospel, were often spirited: slaves added dancing (later known as "the shout") and other forms of bodily movements tot he singing. They also changed the melodies and rhythms of psalms and hymns, such as speeding up the tempo, adding repeated retains and choruses, and replaced texts with new ones that often combined English and African words and phrases. Originally being passed down orally, folk spirituals have been central in lives of African Americans for over three centuries, serving religious, cultural, social, political, and historical functions.[2]

The creation of folk spirituals were spontaneous and performed in a repetitive, improvised style. The most common song structures are the call-and-response ("Blow, Gabriel") and repetitive choruses ("He Rose from the Dead). The call-and-response is an alternating exchange between the soloist and the other singers. The soloist usually improvises a line to which the other singers respond repeating the same phrase. Song interpretation incorporates the interjections of moans, cries, hollers etc... and changing vocal timbres. Singing is also accompanied by hand clapping and foot-stomping.

Suggested Listening: Spirituals [3]

19th century

The influence of African Americans on mainstream American music began in the 19th century, with the advent of blackface minstrelsy. The banjo, of African origin, became a popular instrument, and its African-derived rhythms were incorporated into popular songs by Stephen Foster and other songwriters. In the 1830s, the Second Great Awakening led to a rise in Christian revivals and pietism, especially among African Americans. Drawing on traditional work songs, enslaved African Americans originated and began performing a wide variety of Spirituals and other Christian music. Some of these songs were coded messages of subversion against slaveholders, or that signaled escape.

During the period after the Civil War, the spread of African-American music continued. The [4] In the last half of the 19th century, U.S. barbershops often served as community centers, where most men would gather. Barbershop quartets originated with African-American men socializing in barbershops; they would harmonize while waiting their turn, vocalizing in spirituals, folk songs and popular songs. This generated a new style, consisting of unaccompanied, four-part, close-harmony singing. Later, white minstrel singers adopted the style, and in the early days of the recording industry their performances were recorded and sold.

By the end of the 19th century, African-American music was an integral part of mainstream American culture.

Early 20th century (1900s–1930s)

The Slayton Jubilee Singers entertain employees of the Old Trusty Incubator Factory, Clay Center, about 1910

In early 20th-century American Scott Joplin's opera Treemonisha, which is unique as a black jazz-folk opera; it was first performed in 1911.[5]

The early part of the 20th century saw a constant rise in popularity of African-American blues and jazz. African-American music at this time was classed as "race music".[6] Billboard started making a separate list of hit records for African-American music in October 1942 with the "Harlem Hit Parade", which was changed in 1945 to "Race Records", and then in 1949 to "Rhythm and Blues Records".[7] Also, developments in the fields of visual arts and the Harlem Renaissance led to developments in music. Ragtime performers such as Scott Joplin became popular and some were associated with the Harlem Renaissance and early civil rights activists. In addition, white and Latino performers of African-American music were visible, rooted in the history of cross-cultural communication between the United States' races. African-American music was often adapted for white audiences, who would not have as readily accepted black performers, leading to genres like swing music, a pop-based outgrowth of jazz.

In addition, African Americans were making dramatic strides in the realm of concert music at the turn of the 20th century. While originally excluded from major symphony orchestras, black musicians could study in music conservatories that had been founded in the 1860s; some include the Oberlin School of Music, National Conservatory of Music, and the New England Conservatory.[8] Blacks also formed their own symphony orchestras at the turn of the 20th century in major cities such as Chicago, New Orleans, and Philadelphia; various black orchestras began to perform regularly in the late 1890s-early 20th century. In 1906, the first incorporated black orchestra in the nation was established in Philadelphia.[9] A few years later in the early 1910s, some all-black music schools, such as the Music School Settlement for Colored and the Martin-Smith School of Music, were founded in New York.[10]

The Music School Settlement for Colored became a strong sponsor of the famous Clef Club orchestra in New York. The Clef Club Symphony Orchestra attracted both black and white audiences to concerts at Carnegie Hall from 1912 to 1915. Conducted by James Reese Europe and William H. Tyers, the orchestra uniquely included banjos, mandolins, and baritone horns. Concerts featured music written by black composers, notably Harry T. Burleigh, Will Marion Cook, and Europe, the conductor. Other annual black concert series include the William Hackney “All-Colored Composers” concerts in Chicago and the Atlanta Colored Music Festivals.[11]

The return of the black musical to Broadway occurred in 1921 with Sissle and Blake's Shuffle Along. In 1927, a concert survey of black music was performed at Carnegie Hall including jazz, spirituals and the symphonic music of W. C. Handy's Orchestra and the Jubilee Singers. The first major film musical with a black cast was King Vidor's Hallelujah of 1929.

African-American performers were featured in the musical Virgil Thompson's Four Saints in Three Acts of 1934.

The first symphony by a black composer to be performed by a major orchestra was William Grant Still's Afro-American Symphony (1930) by the New York Philharmonic. Also in 1934 William Dawson's Negro Folk Symphony was the second work by an African-American composer to be performed by a major orchestra – the Philadelphia Orchestra.[12]

African Americans were the pioneers of jazz music, through masters such as Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, and Duke Ellington.

Mid-20th century (1940s–1960s)

By the 1940s, cover versions of African-American songs were commonplace, and frequently topped the charts, while the original musicians found success among their African-American audience, but not in mainstream. In 1955, Thurman Ruth persuaded a gospel group to sing in a secular setting, the Apollo Theater, with such success that he subsequently arranged gospel caravans that traveled around the country, playing the same venues that rhythm and blues singers had popularized. Meanwhile, jazz performers began to push jazz away from a danceable popular music towards more intricate arrangements, improvisation, and technically challenging forms, culminating in the bebop of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, the cool sounds and modal jazz of Miles Davis, and the free jazz of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane.

African Americans in the 1940s and 1950s were developing an outgrowth of rhythm and blues into a genre called rock and roll, which featured a very strong backbeat and whose prominent exponents included Louis Jordan and Wynonie Harris. However, it was with white musicians such as Bill Haley and Elvis Presley, playing a guitar-based fusion of black rock and roll with country music called rockabilly, that rock music became commercially appealing. Rock music thereafter became more associated with white people, though it did give some black performers such as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, a high level of commercial success.

The 1950s also saw vastly increased popularity of hard blues from the earliest part of the century, both in the United States and United Kingdom. The '50s also saw doo-wop become popular. Doo-wop had been developed through vocal group harmony with the musical qualities of different vocal parts, nonsense syllables, little or no instrumentation, and simple lyrics. It usually ensemble single artists appearing with a backing group. Solo billing usually implies an individual is more prominent in the musical arrangement. A secularized form of American gospel music called soul also developed in the mid 1950s, with pioneers like Ray Charles,[13] Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke leading the wave.[14] Soul and R&B became a major influence on surf, as well as the chart-topping girl groups including The Angels and The Shangri-Las, only some of whom were white. In 1959, Berry Gordy founded Motown Records, the first record label to primarily feature African-American artists aimed at achieving crossover success. The label developed an innovative—and commercially successful—style of soul music with distinctive pop elements. Its early roster included The Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, and The Temptations, The Supremes, and others.[15] Black divas such as Aretha Franklin became '60s crossover stars. In the UK, British blues became a gradually mainstream phenomenon, returning to the U.S. in the form of the British Invasion, a group of bands led by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones who performed blues and R&B inspired pop, with both traditional and modernized aspects. WGIV in Charlotte, North Carolina was amongst a few radio stations dedicated to African American Music that came up during this period.

The British Invasion knocked many black artists off the US pop charts, although some, among them Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin and a number of Motown artists, continued to prosper. Soul music, however, remained popular among blacks through highly evolved forms such as Funk, developed out of the innovations of James Brown.[16]

By the end of the decade, Blacks were part of the psychedelia and early heavy metal trends, particularly Jimi Hendrix.[17] Hendrix was himself the primary innovator on the electric guitar, and was among the first guitarists to use effects pedals such as the wah wah pedal. Psychedelic soul began to flourish with the 1960s culture. Even more popular among blacks and with more crossover appeal, was album-oriented soul in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which revolutionized African-American music with intelligent and introspective -lyrics, often with a socially aware tone. Marvin Gaye's What's Going On is perhaps the best remembered of this field.

The 1970s

The 1970s saw one of the greatest decades of black bands concerning melodic music. Album-oriented soul continued its popularity, while musicians such as P-Funk ensemble. The sound of Disco evolved from black musicians creating Soul music with an up-tempo melody. Isaac Hayes, Barry White, Donna Summer and among others help popularized disco music. However, this music was integrated into popular music achieving mainstream success.

Black musicians achieved generally little mainstream success, though some African-American artists including The Jackson 5, Roberta Flack, Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, The O'Jays, Gladys Knight & the Pips found crossover audiences. White listeners preferred country rock, singer-songwriters, stadium rock, soft rock, glam rock, and, in some subcultures, heavy metal and punk rock. During the 1970s The dozens, an urban African-American tradition of using playful rhyming ridicule, developed into street jive in the early '70s, which in turn inspired a new form of music by the late 1970s: hip-hop. Spoken-word artists such as The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron and Melvin Van Peebles are also cited as the major innovators in early hip-hop. Beginning at block parties in The Bronx, hip-hop music arose as one facet of a large subculture with rebellious and progressive elements. DJs spun records, most typically funk, while MCs introduced tracks to the dancing audience. Over time, DJs, particularly Jamaican immigrant DJ Kool Herc for instance, began isolating and repeating the percussion breaks, producing a constant, eminently danceable beat, which they or MCs began rapping over, through rhymes and eventually sustained lyrics. In the South Bronx, the half-speaking, half-singing rhythmic street talk of 'rapping' grew into a cultural force known as Hip hop.[18] Hip Hop would become a multicultural movement in young black America, led by artists such as Kurtis Blow and Run-DMC.

The 1980s

In the 1980s, Michael Jackson had record-breaking success with his albums Off the Wall, Bad, and Thriller – the latter remaining the best-selling album of all time – transforming popular music and uniting all races, ages and genders, and would eventually lead a revolution helmed by successful crossover black solo artists, including Prince, Lionel Richie, Luther Vandross, Tina Turner, Whitney Houston, and Janet Jackson. Pop and dance-soul of this era inspired new jack swing by the end of the decade.

Hip hop spread across the country and diversified. Techno, Dance, Miami bass, Chicago house, Los Angeles hardcore and Washington, D.C. Go-go developed during this period, with only Miami bass achieving mainstream success. But, before long, Miami bass was relegated primarily to the Southeastern US, while Chicago house had made strong headways on college campuses and dance arenas (i.e. the warehouse sound, the rave). The DC go-go sound of Miami bass was essentially a regional sound that did not garner much mass appeal. Chicago house sound had expanded into the Detroit music environment and mutated into more electronic and industrial sounds creating Detroit techno, acid, jungle. Mating these experimental, usually DJ-oriented, sounds with the prevalence of the multi-ethnic New York City disco sound from the 1970s and 1980s created a brand of music that was most appreciated in the huge discothèques that are located in cities like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Boston, etc. Eventually, European audiences embraced this kind of electronic dance music with more enthusiasm than their North American counterparts. These variable sounds let the listeners prioritize their exposure to new music and rhythms while enjoying a gigantic dancing experience.

In the later half of the decade, from about 1986, rap took off into the mainstream with Run-D.M.C.'s Raising Hell, and the Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill, the latter becoming the first rap album to enter No.1 Spot on the Billboard 200. Both of these groups mixed rap and rock together, which appealed to rock and rap audiences. Hip-hop took off from its roots and the golden age hip hop flourished, with artists such as Eric B. & Rakim, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane, and Salt-N-Pepa. Hip Hop became popular in America until the late 1990s, when it went worldwide. The golden age scene would die out in the by the early 1990s as gangsta rap and g-funk took over, with west-coast artists Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Warren G and Ice Cube, east-coast artists Notorious B.I.G., Wu-Tang Clan, and Mobb Deep, and the sounds of urban black male bravado, compassion, and social awareness best represented by the rapper Tupac Shakur.

In 1988, all-black heavy metal band Living Colour achieved mainstream success with their début album Vivid, peaking at #6 on the Billboard 200, thanks to their Top 20 single "Cult of Personality". The band's music contained lyrics that attack the Eurocentrism and racism of America. A decade later, more black artists like Lenny Kravitz, Body Count, Ben Harper, and countless others would start playing rock again.

The 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s

African-American rapper 2Pac had huge success in 1995 with his album Me Against The World, which was released while he was imprisoned for sexual assault. He had further success after being released from prison, with his albums All Eyez on Me and The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory, and after his fatal shooting and death in Las Vegas in 1996, his politically charged lyrics influenced many hip-hop artists and a big part of the African-American community. His East Coast rival the Notorious B.I.G., was murdered the following year, mere weeks before the release of Life After Death. Life After Death would go on to become one of the best selling rap albums of all time, receiving Diamond RIAA certification for sales of over 10 million copies. His smooth, intricate lyricism helped influence and inspire many future emcees and many emcees today see 2Pac and the Notorious BIG as being the most talented and influential emcees in the history of hip-hop despite their being on opposite ends of the spectrum in the East Coast-West Coast hip hop rivalry. The killers of both rappers have still yet to be found.

Contemporary R&B, as the post-disco version of soul music came to be known as, remained popular throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Male vocal groups in the style of soul groups such as The Temptations and The O'Jays were particularly popular, including New Edition, Boyz II Men, Jodeci, Dru Hill, Blackstreet, and Jagged Edge. Girl groups, including TLC, Destiny's Child, and SWV, were also highly successful. TLC would go on to hold the title of the highest girl group with the highest selling female group album ever, with their 1994 album CrazySexyCool influencing creativity in many young women around the world.

Singer-songwriters such as R. Kelly, Mariah Carey, Montell Jordan, D'Angelo, and Raphael Saadiq of Tony! Toni! Toné! were also significantly popular during the 1990s, and artists including Mary J. Blige, Faith Evans, and BLACKstreet popularized a fusion blend known as hip-hop soul. The neo soul movement of the 1990s looked back on more classical soul influences and was popularized in the late 1990s/early 2000s by such artists as D'Angelo, Erykah Badu, Maxwell, Lauryn Hill, India.Arie, Alicia Keys, Jill Scott, Bilal and Musiq Soulchild. According to one music writer, D'Angelo's critically acclaimed album Voodoo (2000) "represents African American music at a crossroads [...] To simply call [it] neo-classical soul [...] would be [to] ignore the elements of vaudeville jazz, Memphis horns, ragtime blues, funk and bass grooves, not to mention hip-hop, that slip out of every pore of these haunted songs."[19]

By the first decade of the 21st century, R&B had shifted towards an emphasis on solo artists with pop appeal, with Usher and Beyoncé being the most prominent examples. The line between hip-hop and R&B and pop was significantly blurred by producers such as Timbaland and Lil Jon and artists such as Missy Elliott, Frank Ocean and OutKast.

"Urban music" and "urban radio" are largely race-neutral today, terms that are synonymous with hip hop and R&B and the associated hip-hop culture that originated in New York City. The term also reflects the fact that they are popular in urban areas, both within black population centers and among the general population (especially younger audiences).

Frank Ocean

The hip-hop movement has become increasingly mainstream as the music industry has taken control of it. Essentially, "from the moment 'Rapper's Delight' went platinum, hiphop the folk culture became hiphop the American entertainment-industry sideshow."[20]

In June 2009, Michael Jackson died unexpectedly from a cardiac arrest, triggering a global outpouring of grief. Within a year of his death, his estate had generated $1.4 billion in revenues. A documentary film consisting of rehearsal footage for Jackson's scheduled This Is It tour, entitled Michael Jackson's This Is It, was released on October 28, 2009, and became the highest-grossing concert film in history.[21]

In 2013, no African-American musician had a Billboard Hot 100 number one. This was the first time there was no number one in a year by an African American in the chart's 55-year history.[22]

Plans for a Smithsonian-affiliated Museum of African-American music to be built in Newark, New Jersey, and an R&B museum/hall of fame have been discussed within the last several years.

See also


  1. ^ Stewart 1998, pp. 5-15.
  2. ^ Maultsby, Portia. "A History of African American Music". Retrieved 12-8-14. 
  3. ^ "African American Gospel Music from Smithsonian Folkways". Smithsonian Folways. Retrieved 12-8-14. 
  4. ^ Southern 221.
  5. ^ Southern 221-2, 294.
  6. ^ "Race Music". St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture by Matthew A. Killmeier 01/29/02. 2002. 
  7. ^ Fred Bronson (Jun 12, 1993). "Billboard, Vol. 105, No. 24". Nielsen Business Media, Inc. p. 47. Retrieved 17 July 2011. 
  8. ^ Southern 266.
  9. ^ Southern 291.
  10. ^ Southern 288-9.
  11. ^ Southern 285, 292.
  12. ^ Southern 361.
  13. ^ Ray Charles interviewed on the Pop Chronicles (1969)
  14. ^  
  15. ^ Motown artists interviewed on the Pop Chronicles (1969)
  16. ^ "Soul Reformation" artists interviewed on the Pop Chronicles (1970)
  17. ^  
  18. ^ "THE ROOTS OF HIP HOP – RM HIP HOP MAGAZINE 1986". Retrieved 2012-06-23. 
  19. ^ "Review of Voodoo". NME: 42. February 14, 2000.
  20. ^ Tate, Greg. "Hip-hop Turns 30: Whatcha Celebratin’ For?" Village Voice, January 4, 2005.
  21. ^ "Michael Jackson's wealth soars after death". Retrieved February 7, 2014. 
  22. ^ "Color Blind: No African-American Artists Had a No. 1 Hit in 2013". Time. January 10, 2014. Retrieved January 21, 2014. 


  • The Music of Black Americans: A History. Eileen Southern. W. W. Norton & Company; 3rd edition (1997). ISBN 0-393-97141-4
  • Stewart, Earl L. (1998). African American Music: An Introduction. ISBN 0-02-860294-3.
  • Cobb, Charles E., Jr., "Traveling the Blues Highway", National Geographic Magazine, April 1999, v.195, n.4
  • Dixon, RMW & Godrich, J (1981), Blues and Gospel Records: 1902–1943, Storyville, London.
  • Hamilton, Marybeth: In Search of the Blues.
  • Leadbitter, M. & Slaven, N. (1968), Blues Records 1943–1966, Oak Publications, London.
  • William Ferris; Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues, University of North Carolina Press (2009). ISBN 0-8078-3325-8 ISBN 978-0807833254 (with CD and DVD)
  • William Ferris; Glenn Hinson, The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 14: Folklife, University of North Carolina Press (2009). ISBN 0-8078-3346-0 ISBN 978-0-8078-3346-9 (Cover :photo of James Son Thomas)
  • William Ferris; Blues From The Delta, Da Capo Press; revised edition (1988). ISBN 0-306-80327-5 ISBN 978-0306803277
  • Ted Gioia; Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music, W. W. Norton & Company (2009). ISBN 0-393-33750-2 ISBN 978-0393337501
  • Sheldon Harris; Blues Who's Who, Da Capo Press, 1979.
  • Robert Nicholson; Mississippi Blues Today! Da Capo Press (1999). ISBN 0-306-80883-8 ISBN 978-0-306-80883-8
  • Robert Palmer; Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta, Penguin reprint (1982) ISBN 0-14-006223-8; ISBN 978-0-14-006223-6
  • Frederic Ramsey Jr.; Been Here And Gone, 1st edition (1960), Rutgers University Press; London Cassell (UK) and New Brunswick, NJ. 2nd printing (1969), Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ. (2000) University Of Georgia Press, 2000.
  • Charles Reagan Wilson, William Ferris, Ann J. Adadie, Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (1656 pp.), University of North Carolina Press; 2nd Edition (1989). ISBN 0-8078-1823-2. ISBN 978-0-8078-1823-7

Further reading

  • Work, John W., compiler (1940), American Negro Songs and Spirituals: a Comprehensive Collection of 230 Folk Songs, Religious and Secular, with a Foreword. Bonanza Books, New York. N.B.: Consists most notably of an analytical study of this repertory, on p. 1-46, an anthology of such music (words with the notated music, harmonized), on p. 47-250, and a bibliog., on p. 252-256.

External links

  • Shall We Gather at the River, a collection of African-American sacred music,; made available for public use by the State Archives of Florida
  • Black Music Milestones 20 Historical Milestones in African-American Music
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