Black people invented music. A statement backed by numerous research on Black people’s influence on most, if not all, music genres. Less ‘obvious’ influential genres that are today heavily whitewashed include Blues, Jazz, Rock n Roll, Country music, Funk and House (EDM). Whereas, Rap/Hip Hop, RnB, Gospel, and Soul music are perhaps the only genres where Black people have retained their influence.
During slavery, music was a survival mechanism that reduced levels of boredom, improved communication, and productivity. It was used as a form of escapism and an ”expression for hardship, fatigue, and frustration’’.
But how did black music, initially symbolizing freedom and survival, become appropriated by white people throughout history? Starting with a historic background of most genres we can identify how each resulted in present-day cultural appropriation.
Blues and Jazz
Both rooted in Southern African American music- the first blues recordings were made in the 1920s by black women: Ma Rainey, Ida Cox, Bessie Smith, and Mamie Smith who sold over 75,000 copies of “Crazy Blues” in its first month. British rock musicians Rolling Stones, Eric Claption, and John Mayall were strongly influenced by this genre, including American’s ‘King of Rock n Roll’ Elvis Presley.
One of the earliest jazz musicians was Buddy Bolden (1900). But, Nick LaRocca, a white composer, incorrectly claimed to have invented the genre with the release of ‘’Tiger Rag’’, one of the most recorded jazz classics of all time (1917).
Jazz historian Gary Giddins said: “LaRocca turned racist, and proceeded to make horrible statements about how whites invented jazz, and how they were there before the black guys, and so forth, scurrilous stuff — a cartoon cliché of the Southern bigot.”
Rock n Roll (RnR)
Elvis started recording in the 50s, but black rock musicians like Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Chuck Berry were already making ‘’rock’’ music.
Little Richard told the Time: “There wasn’t anybody playing it at the time but black people — myself, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry. White kids started paying more attention to this music… they needed somebody to come in there — like Elvis.”
The ‘original godmother’ that invented the classic RnR sound was Sister Rosetta Tharpe- forgotten by many, she was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018 for paving the way for other artists in the industry.
The website says: “Without [her] rock and roll would be a different music. She is the founding mother who gave rock’s founding fathers the idea.’’
James Brown’s band established the “funk beat” in the 1960s. The sound was a musical standard for bands such as Kool and Gang and soul singers e.g. Stevie Wonder (1970s). This was then popularised further with Rick James and Prince (1980s).
In the late 70s, Frankie Knuckles, a DJ at an African American gay club ‘The Warehouse’ in Chicago, along with other DJs, (Steve “Silk” Hurley, Ron Hardy, and Farley “Jackmaster” Funk), codified the basic formula of house music.
Black contribution to this genre is overlooked and overshadowed with now overwhelmingly white male singers and an association with cowboys, horses, and pick-up trucks.
Some white influential country singers were taught by black people: Hank Williams by Rufus ‘’Tee Tot’’ Payne and Arnold Shultz, son of a former slave, introduced blues to Bill Monroe.
Unfortunately, Country Music Awards and Billboard have once incorrectly refused to fully insert black singers into this genre.
In 2017, Kane Brown topped all five Billboards country charts, the first artist to do so, but was snubbed at the Country Music Awards. Most notably, is Lil Nas X’s country trap “Old Town Road” remix with Billy Ray Cyrus which became the longest US Number One single of all-time for 19 weeks after Billboard’s refusal to add the original song in the Hot Country Songs chart.
The song failed to ‘’embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.” said Billboard. In summary, the song was too black for certain white people. This only gave the song free press with many seeing the decision as racially motivated. Why are white decision-makers choosing whether a song should fit one genre or not? Would Billboard have done the same if Lil Nas X wasn’t Black?
RnB/ Soul music and Rap/Hip Hop
Early recordings by black singers were referred to as ‘race records’ by Billboard Magazine and were marketed solely to African Americans. Over time, white Americans began to purchase these records, leading in the 1990s for the name to be changed in ‘Hip Hop/R&B’ charts.
Some successful RnB/Soul singers include Rihanna, Beyoncé, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Aretha Franklin ‘Queen of Soul’; for Rap/Hip Hop: Americans Jay Z, Drake, Lil Wayne, Kanye West, and the most successful female rapper of all time in a male-dominated industry, Nicki Minaj; UK’s Skepta, Stormzy, Dave and Ms Banks.
Just recently, the term ‘’urban’’, which has been deemed controversial for many years, was banned by Republic Records, the first major label to do so. Followed by the Grammy Awards for some of its nominations e.g. Best Urban Contemporary Album has been renamed Best Progressive R&B Album.
Far too often, ‘urban’ was used as a replacement for ‘Black’ music, a safe ‘winning’ category for the white music industry establishment to place black artists. If Beyoncé didn’t win Best Album of the Year, be assured that she secured the Best Urban Album of the Year.
After winning the Grammy for Best Rap Album 2019, Tyler said: “It sucks that whenever we …do anything that’s genre-bending or anything, they always put it in a ‘rap’ or ‘urban’ category. I don’t like that ‘urban’ word. It’s just a politically correct way to say the N-word to me.’’
White appropriation of black music over the years has facilitated today’s white artists to tap into black culture and style. It is visible that black people are trendsetters when it comes to dances moves, memes, or anything ‘trendy’.
Artists such as Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, and Macklemore as clear examples of how white privilege allowed them to benefit from appropriating black culture. Macklemore in 2013 won Best Rap Album ‘The Heist’, Best Rap Song ‘Thrift Shop’, Best Rap Performance ‘Thrift Shop’ over Kendrick Lamar’s album ‘Good Kid, m.A.A.d. City’.
Taylor was called out for using black bodies as props in ‘Shake it Off’ and Miley’s ’hip hop phase’ with ‘We Can’t Stop’ and ‘23’ was filled with twerking, dreadlocks and appropriating, when convenient, black style.
The UK music scene is even more complex and less representative of Black people. With the many Adeles and Sam Smiths winning multiple awards every year, it was only in 2017 that Stormzy’s Gang Signs & Prayer became the first grime album to hit number one on the official UK chart and the first rap album to win the Brit Award for British Album of the Year (2018).
Kanya King, founder of MOBO (1996) to celebrate ‘Music Of Black Origin’, recently wrote an open letter to Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden to tackle racism in the industry.
She said: “What needs to be taken into account are the structural and racial inequalities that shape the daily experiences of people from black minority backgrounds, including the role they play in the music industry, as this can no longer be swept under a red carpet.”
‘’The music industry, it is fair to say, could and should have dealt better with black artists, black run companies and taken on more black executives.’’
Countless music labels participated in the #TheShowMustBePaused / #BlackOutTuesday, days after the horrific murder of George Floyd, but these performative social media enterprise amount to nothing if no direct action is taken within the industry to employ more black staff, not only at low levels but at senior levels too.
The Black Music Coalition’s letter states: “The music industry has long profited from the rich and varied culture of black people for many generations, but overall… it has failed to acknowledge the structural and systematic racism affecting the very same black community and so effectively, enjoying the rhythm and ignoring the blues.”
It is time to have an honest conversation about black contribution to music. Surely, without the numerous black artists mentioned above, music would not sound the same today.