top of page
  • Writer's picture The Vindicator

The Black History of Modern Music Genres

Black creativity is the bedrock of American culture.


Written by Olivia Schwab




Almost all American music can be tied back to Black musicians. Country? Tied to West African spirituals. Rock? Informed by gospel and perfected by Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Even techno, a genre typically associated with European club culture, is a form of wordless protest with origins in contemporary Black social movements. You cannot imagine modern music without African influence — it just doesn’t exist. The truth is, music labels and artists alike have built their empires on Black creators in more ways than we’re willing to acknowledge. The history of white artists receiving the kudos for Black art is as established in music as verses and choruses. No, I’m not talking about Macklemore winning Best Rap Album at the 2014 Grammys over Kendrick Lamar’s “Good Kid, m.A.A.d City” — it’s much deeper than that.


"The fingerprints of Black artists are all over what makes American music so unique."

While many Black innovations in music have been reframed as staples of whitewashed American culture, the few genres that are considered popularly Black such as rap, R&B, reggae and Afropop are dismissed in a one-size-fits-all term: “urban.” Tyler, the Creator described this categorization as “the politically correct way to say the N-word,” and he’s not wrong. Not only does this marginalize Black musicians’ contributions to music, but it also builds on the entirely false notion that other music could be non-Black.


As the music industry is finally taking steps to remove the problematic term from its verbiage, it’s important to note that “urban” never meant “Black.” How could it, when it ignored a whole world of music genres pioneered by Black people?


The fingerprints of Black artists are all over what makes American music so unique. From jazz to techno, here’s some of the music you didn’t know Black artists created.


Jazz

Jazz arose in the Black community of late 19th century New Orleans, as Black musicians played parade music with an upbeat and swinging sound. Having never been taught how to read sheet music, these Black musicians would rely heavily on improvisation, a main pillar of what makes jazz, jazz. However, in 1917, the first jazz recording was released by the Original Dixieland Jass Band — an all white band. On the song “Livery Stable Blues,” the band “borrowed” (plagiarized) from the Black musicians they’d heard in New Orleans. The song sold over a million records and by the 1920s, jazz had gone mainstream — an early instance of the recording industry commercializing Black music and giving white performers the acclaim.


Country

Country music can be traced back to the South’s racial climate, and it all starts with the banjo. A descendant of West African lutes brought to America by enslaved people, the banjo became a central part in spirituals and field songs. The bright, twangy sound was then appropriated and spread to white audiences during minstrel shows. Likewise, many country songs made popular by white artists were taken from Black artists — often without credit.


Let’s take it back to 2019, when Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” made music history. The country-trap banger not only topped Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart, but also its Hot Country Songs chart. Suddenly, a young, gay Black hip-hop artist was at the center of a debate on race and music genres.


Many country radio stations refused to play the song without explanation. Then, Billboard determined that the song was “not country enough.” As The New York Times described it, “A Black kid hadn’t really merged white music with Black, he’d just taken up the American birthright of cultural synthesis.”


Rock

Rock ’n’ roll is a beautiful ripening of the rhythm and blues of the 1940s, when it was categorized as “race music.” Rock was bred between church and nightclubs in the soul of a queer Black woman named Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Tharpe was among the first to use heavy distortion on her electric guitar, influencing many Rock artists like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Eric Clapton.


Rock soon became a mainstream cultural phenomenon known for its eccentric performance style through Black artists like Berry and Little Richard. Nevertheless, Presley earned the title of “King of Rock and Roll.” Even his career was largely founded on covers of songs first recorded by Black artists. Black artists built rock ’n’ roll — then it left them behind.



House

As Chicago house producer Derrick Carter put it in 2015, “Something that started as a gay Black/Latino club music is now sold, shuffled and packaged as having very little to do with either.” House music originated in a Chicago club called the Warehouse. The resident clubbers were primarily Black gay men who came to dance to music played by the club's resident DJ, Frankie Knuckles, who fans refer to as the "Godfather of House."


Years later, the music born to be played for the gay people of color on Chicago’s South Side was now being played during bottle service in Ibiza.


From jazz to house, this is the music of a people who have survived, and who not only won’t be silenced, but can’t be silenced. If this history lesson teaches you anything, it’s the invaluable impact Black people have had on the music we know today.

Comments


bottom of page