Celebrating contributions of black artists through the decades

Category:  Music
Thursday, February 28th, 2019 at 9:40 AM

Music is the language of the soul. We as humans share the commonality that every day, we live our lives through our own pair of eyes. No matter your race, we all take in the world around us in some way, internalizing the experiences that make us who we are. Expression of oneself comes in many different forms, but I believe music is a form of art that comes from deep within. The music and culture that has come from black Americans has played a significant role in the formation of American popular culture. 

In the ‘50s and early ‘60s, before the end of segregation, black musicians had to face the authority of the police and officials, much like in the ‘40s, telling them they could not perform unless crowds were segregated. Artists such as James Brown and Eartha Kitt eventually stood up to this and would only play shows if the crowds were integrated. The music was for all the people, after all, so why should they not experience it side-by-side? On some occasions, the crowds would mix regardless of what officials had to say. The music brought the people together, dancing with one another, disregarding the state of America outside the venue walls. 

Rock and roll, along with the blues, dominated the popular culture in the 1950s. African-American blues artists such as B.B. King and Muddy Waters were on the forefront of the scene, tapping into their sorrows of love lost. Both of these artists played with remarkable precision and spoke more through their guitars than they did with their lyrics. 

B.B. King was lighthearted and always cracking jokes during his performances, while somehow playing some of the saddest music man has made. His booming, powerful voice, along with his words, often brought audience members to tears. In 1972, one year after Nixon incited “The War on Drugs” (the campaign that led to mass incarceration rates of African-Americans), King played for the prisoners at Sing Sing prison in New York, some of which were locked away for life on accounts of nonviolent crimes. 

Along with King, Muddy Waters was one of the most influential guitarists in the world of music. Waters was born in Mississippi in 1913; he played the blues on his acoustic guitar before moving to Chicago in the ‘40s to play the club scene. Bands such as The Rolling Stones and The Jimi Hendrix Experience drew inspiration from the music of Waters. Keith Richards, the guitarist of The Rolling Stones, has said that the very existence of the band can be credited to Muddy Waters.

When it comes to rock ‘n’ roll in the ‘50s, pianist and singer-songwriter Fats Domino led the way. He is one of the pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll, playing fast, up-tempo music which brought people to their feet. He sold more than 65 million records and had 35 records in the U.S. Billboard Top 40 during his day. 

From the late 1950s, into the early ‘60s

 elements of African-American gospel music, R&B and jazz came together for the creation of soul music. Forefathers Ray Charles and Sam Cooke paved the way for other artists such as James Brown in the 1960s. Brown was considered the godfather of soul — he was full of charisma, dancing, twirling and doing splits while singing and performing. He played with bands that consisted of piano, guitars, bass, multiple drums and dancers. He had 110 entries on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop charts, with hits like “Get Up Offa That Thing” and “Say It Loud — I’m Black and I’m Proud.” On April 5, 1968, the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., Brown was scheduled to perform in Boston, Massachusetts. Boston, like many cities at the time, was experiencing rioting and violence in the streets. The city decided to air his show live on local TV in an attempt to keep people inside. The following day, Brown walked the streets of Boston, speaking with people, personally asking them not to riot and telling them that there must be a better way.

In the mid- to late-‘60s, another African-American music pioneer by the name of Jimi Hendrix rose to stardom. Hendrix was born in Seattle in 1942 and sadly passed away at the young age of 27.  I think the world would be a different place if Hendrix was still around. He spoke from a place of love, and his tranquil demeanor made it seem as if he was not bound by the chains of society, or by the hate that seems to fuel so many people. He spread the word of love, not just for the hippies and the counterculture, but for everyone. At the time and even today, no one played a guitar the way Hendrix did. He drew upon the influence of blues, from other black musicians such as B.B. King and Buddy Guy, while putting his own spin on it with his fuzzy, explosive sound of psychedelic rock. In 1969, the year before his death, he played his iconic rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock. It was a symbol of American appreciation and identity performed for so many people who opposed what America was about. 

As the ‘70s rolled around, rock ‘n’ roll and psychedelic rock were prominent in the music scene. Disco was also born in the early ‘70s, gathering sounds from black soul artists, except most of the music was geared towards dancing and the dance-club culture. Disco played a major role in the fashion trends at the time, and although African-Americans were the pioneers of disco and the style, many other subcultures appropriated the trends.

The band Earth, Wind & Fire was one of the biggest disco/soul/funk bands of the ‘70s, with hits like “September” and “Let’s Groove.” They are a big band consisting of guitars, bass, multiple percussionists and keyboard players that are still touring today, although they have gone through several dozen members.  

When it comes to psychedelic music, the band Funkadelic put an experimental spin on soul and funk influences to create an electronically driven big-band sound. The band formed when George Clinton (of the group the Parliaments) joined forces with his live backing band to begin writing music for Funkadelic. The group consisted of all African-American musicians and vocalists. They have millions of hits on Spotify, have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and have received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Record Academy.

The 1980s saw a wide variety of popular and mainstream genres such as pop, hard rock, metal, hip-hop and electronic music. Some of the most famous legends in music came out of this time period. Black artists such as Michael Jackson, Prince and the band Bad Brains stood out among many artists. 

Michael Jackson, also known as the “King of Pop,”  is the third best-selling artists of all time. He got his start working with his family’s band, The Jackson 5, when he was only 5 years old. He released some of the most popular songs of the ‘80s, such as “Beat It,” “Billie Jean” and “Thriller,” all with sales in the millions. Jackson seemed to take James Brown’s stage presence and add some of his own dance moves.

Bad Brains were an all-black punk-rock group from Washington, D.C. They are considered to be among the pioneers of hardcore music. They played fast, high energy punk beats and yelled in your face while kids ran around stage diving and moshing. Their lyrics spread the words of “positive mental attitude,” along with taking shots at the government, police and the societal system, and rightfully so. The band was blackballed from clubs and venues all over D.C. in 1979, with no official statement made from any of the venues. 

However, powerful black artists spreading the righteous anti-government word doesn’t seem like something the U.S. government would want the public to hear. They moved to New York and joined the punk and hardcore scene there. The band wrote and played hardcore punk and metal music throughout the ‘80s and then began writing rasta-infused rock music in the early ‘90s. 

With the ‘90s came the huge mainstream wave of rappers, DJs and hip-hop artists. The hardcore punk scene also really began to expand and make its presence known all across America. Rappers and rap groups began to speak up against things such as systematic police brutality, oppression and other unlawful acts that were taking place against their people at the time. Rap group Public Enemy was on the forefront of the scene, with their radical criticism of American politics and media.

Public Enemy has made music as recent as 2015, but their glory days were in the ‘90s. The group was formed in the mid- to late- ‘80s by Chuck D and Flavor Flav when they were students at Adelphi University. Their music was critically acclaimed and their first four albums went either gold or platinum. They were influenced by freeform jazz, funk and R&B, making hard hitting beats with lyrics that supported black communities and dissed American politics. 

One of the first all-female rap groups, Salt-N-Pepa, formed in the mid ‘80s and had a major impact on the rap and hip-hop scene. The group originally consisted of the members Cheryl James (Salt) and Sandra Denton (Pepa), while Latoya Hanson was replaced early on by Deidra Roper, who went by the name DJ Spinderella. In 1995, they won the Grammy for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group. They overcame misogyny in the scene and gave a new meaning to being a feminist through their sexualized content that challenged the double standard and trend of objectifying women in hip-hop.  

In the early 2000s through today, black musicians and artists are involved in all spectrums of the culture of music. Rap and hip-hop artists such as Kanye West and Lil Wayne paved the way as two of the biggest names in rap. Both artists hold spots on the Rolling Stones Top 500 Albums of All Time list. West has won 240 musical awards to date and Wayne has won 64. West is also an critically acclaimed producer, working with artists such as Britney Spears, Jay-Z, Maroon 5 and Kid Cudi, along with producing all of his own records. 

Rapper and producer Tyler the Creator has also made an important impact to the world of hip-hop and rap. He has worked on the production of all of his albums, maturing his sound more and more with each record. He has been making music since he was 17 and now runs his own clothing line. He preaches for people to do what you want and be whoever you want to be. In interviews, he often speaks about the importance of creativity and expressing yourself artistically, which I think is a very important trait to have in our world of diluted, run-of-the-mill art.

The world of progressive rock and metal plays a major role for the lovers of intricate instrumental arrangements and heavy guitar riffs. The band Animals As Leaders was created as a solo project by guitarist Tosin Abasi. Abasi is the son of two Nigerian immigrants, and he is a self-taught musician. He is one of the most talented guitarists in the world of prog-rock and has toured with legendary guitarists Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Zakk Wylde. He has his own signature guitar through Ibanez and now has his own brand of guitars and equipment.

Today, some of the best bands in hardcore music feature black artists, showing talented black artists tap into all forms of music. Aaron Heard, the vocalist for the band Jesus Piece, expresses his thoughts through blaring, rage-filled music. He uses his outlet to speak about the oppression of people of color, along with other themes of our world, such as greed and evil. Other names in hardcore with incredibly talented black artists are bands like Turnstile, Vein, Queensway and Regulate, who all keep the genre moving forward at full force. 

Throughout the decades, black musicians have learned from each other and the world we live in to push their skills and music to its fullest potential. The music that has come from these artists have some of, if not the most soul in all of music. It seems that the best musicians from the ‘50s-‘80s got most of their inspirations from black artists. Of course, there were white musicians that were being inspired by other white musicians, but in the genres of soul, blues, rock and pop, it all seems to come from African-American origin. African-Americans have had experiences that white Americans could not begin to imagine. Decades of oppression and systematic wrongs have allowed these people to see a harsh reality that many people will never see. These artists use their perspectives and knowledge of how their culture and people have lived to create influential and moving work for the rest of the world to hear. 

Ben McCullough | edinboro.spectator@gmail.com

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