History Of African American Music Music Essay
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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016
Music can free the human soul and every single person can listen to it. African American music became quickly part of American culture and even if its themes vary, from a pop singer to a rapper, discrimination will always be a theme in African American music; and among this, it had a big influence upon all peoples, including whites in the U.S.A., who started listening to it, loving it and even making it. Music gives you a certain perspective, a way of seeing and feeling things. That was contagious too. By music you can express whatever you want, whatever you feel. African Americans had indeed talent and no white could contest it. They sang about their sad past and many other things, but racism is a topic whereof many contemporary musicians put it in their songs.
When slavery was still legal in America, work songs sung by slaves were their only liberation. Later these songs were known as spirituals, religious songs, and we can find their essence in blues and gospel music. Wade in the Water is a very well-known spiritual referring both to the New and the Old Testament. Its verses talk about the escape of the Israelites from Egypt and the chorus renders healing. Many books, among we find Frederick Douglas My Bondage and My Freedom tell us that spirituals, like this one, implied coded messages to help the slaves escape. Teaching him how to escape and leading him to the Underground Railroad are two things they are suspected to transmit. Spirituals like The Gospel Train, The Song of the Free and Following the Drinking Gourd are more related to the Underground Railroad. These were the inspiration of the later development of African American music.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, blues and ragtime were very popular. Syncopation, which occurs when the regular flow of rhythm is changed (stressing a beat that normally it would not be stressed), is the hallmark of African American music styles like ragtime, jazz, blues, funk, reggae and other. Scott Joplin became the most famous composer in ragtime through Maple Leaf Rag, his 1899 publication, but also through other ragtime hits. The Blues had a bigger impact upon American culture. The name expresses a state of melancholy, sadness, a gloomy atmosphere and the most used instruments are the harmonica, the guitar, the piano, the saxophone, vocals and the trumpet. Rural blues was different where he developed. In Georgia and the Carolinas were more tuneful than Texas and Mississippi, Blind Boy Fuller being one of the representatives of this style. Texas blues are depicted by high singing and a flexible guitar line, Blind Lemon Jefferson was the most important bluesman in that area. Concerning Mississippi, the Mississippi Delta blues are the most powerful, gifted with a guitar accompaniment of great rhythm and percussion. Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson and Willie Brown are among the ones who define this style.
Hart Wand, with Dallas Blues, and W.C. Handy, with The Memphis Blues were the first to publish blues sheets of music in 1912 and the first recording was Crazy Blues performed by Mamie Smith in 1920. In the 1950s the name race records, which was used because of discrimination (music was not separated by its genre, but by the ethnicity of its performer) disappeared and it was replaced with Rhythm and Blues. In that period electric blues also developed in cities such as Chicago, Memphis, Detroit and St. Louis, and in 1948 Chicago was the home of electric blues due to Muddy Waters who released his first popular song I Can t Be Satisfied. The Chicago blues knew a strong influence from the Delta blues because most Mississippi singers came into that part. The Chicago blues scene was very important in that time and Willie Dixon together with B.B. King and Howlin Wolf played an important role on it.
Blues had an important influence on many other genres like jazz, rock and roll and even popular music. One of the early country bluesmen, Tom Dorsey became the father of Gospel (music with religious themes) which developed in the 1930s and the influence of which could later be found in the 1950s soul music. Ray Charles and James Brown are two soul singers that used gospel and blues in their work. Soul at its turn influenced funk music which emerged in the 1970s and this type of music could be called the ancestor of hip-hop and contemporary R&B. In fact jazz could also be considered an ancestor of hip-hop due to its rapping.
Jazz was a very popular genre of music and nowadays it has success only in certain groups of people. The term made reference to the music sung in Chicago in 1915 and it was slang. This kind of music has a vast history and in the same time one that changed the jazz music s style throughout time. Bebop, cool jazz, hard bop, modal jazz, soul jazz, swing and many other types delighted our ears. Louis Armstrong was the most popular jazz singer and the first African American who enjoyed great privileges. By the time racism was in power, Armstrong achieved levels of the American society that no black person could. Whites were fascinated by his talent and forgot all about their racist view, so we might say that we can find that highest power somewhere in music. It is something that one cannot understand, that thing that makes us act involuntarily. This was a great impact upon America s musicians of all sorts. Music changed many things because it was not about race or accusations, music was about introducing a state of heart that one, black or white, would feel it immediately. But in its background or even at the surface, songs underlined human identity, racism, poverty, discrimination, slavery and more issues like these which step-by-step, whites started to feel and passed over their stubborn belief that they were the superior race. Whites even adopted the African American music style and released songs that include racism, discrimination and other problems in America.
The Apollo Theatre is located in Harlem, New York City, which is a neighborhood with a significant Black history. This theatre was the only place in New York for a long period of time were talented African Americans could find a job. The Apollo gained the public s attention during the Harlem Renaissance and the pre-War World II. Something specific to Apollo was the executioner . Each time the audience did not like the performer, a person with a broom came and swept him off the stage. Its Amateur Night hosted by Ralph Cooper was very important for many artists who wanted to start a career. Due to their appearance at the Apollo, artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Diana Ross, James Brown, The Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Sarah Vaughan and many others became legends.
In the 70s Black musicians did not have such a great success, but artists like Stevie Wonder, The O Jays, Barry White and Donna Summer managed to capture the attention of the entire American public. In the late 70s tough, a new musical culture appeared that had a very important impact, not only upon American culture, but also upon American mentality, lifestyle, language and behaviour. It was the Hip Hop culture which was not all about music. It could build personality; it could change your mentality and your lifestyle. The four pylons of this culture were MCing, Djing, breaking and graffiti writing. The term is originated from the African American Vernacular English where hip means current or in the known and hop refers to the movement. Hip Hop developed in South Bronx and it was represented through its rebellious and progressive elements. Rapping stands at the base of hip-hop and it is the art of using words to transmit a message during a beat. Rapping was a way of relating urban problems, expressing powerful feelings of discontent and telling stories about anything in life. It was a way to liberate anger, but in the same time it was the voice of African Americans living in the ghetto, talking about street life, misery, money, family etc. To rap is a word used in British English since the sixteenth century and it means to strike , to hit . Many consider hip-hop a horrible genre of music because of the language that it is used and they cannot bear to hear it, so they do not want to listen to the message. Nonetheless, Hip Hop culture crossover and became one of the most popular, especially among young Americans who adopted the slang, the clothing, the inappropriate language and the mentality.
At the beginning, hip-hop managed to diminish the rate of violence among inner-city gangs by its street dance and artwork battles. After these became real popular, many teenagers searched for different ways of expressing themselves and in this manner we could say that hip-hop was the motif for which not so many people died, but it did not make violence disappear.
[Rap] emerged from the streets of inner-city neighborhoods as a genuine reflection of the hopes, concerns, and aspirations of urban Black youth in this, the last quarter of the 20th century. Rap is essentially a homemade, street-level musical genre . . . Rap lyrics concentrate primarily on the contemporary African American experience. . . Every issue within the Black community is subject to exposition in the rap arena. Hit rap tunes have broached touchy subjects such as sex, sexism, racism, and crime . . . Rap artists, they contend, don t talk that love stuff, but [rather] educate the listeners. (Powell 245)
The 80s was the period that defined hip-hop music and made it more complex. Ice-T and Schoolly D introduced one of the most popular subgenres of hip-hop: gangsta rap, which was criticizes for promoting themes such as sex, violence, racism, promiscuity, misogyny, rape, drug dealing and more. The main feature of hip hop is the rebel touch which had a great influence upon America s society. Racism and their wretched past were not forgotten, and rappers made songs that underlined this part. Even if hip-hop is considered to have insulting lyrics, they are much more than that, having an intense meaning which reflects the everyday cultural, social, political and economic status of African Americans.
Some of the hip-hop artists who sing about racism are Public Enemy (911 is a Joke, Anti-Nigger Machine, Fear of a Black Planet, Fight the Power), Run DMC (Proud to be Black), Kool G Rap & D.J. Polo (Erase Racism), Getto Boys (No Sell Out), 3rd Bass (No Master Plan, No Master Race), Nas (America, Black President, You Can t Stop Us Now), Common feat Will I Am (A Dream) and Tupac (Ghetto Gospel, Changes, White Man s World, Trapped).
Hip Hop is nowadays one of the most important labels of American music because it is in the same time a cultural aspect. African American music had a huge success in America and white people liked it so much that they started making jazz, blues, hip hop, gospel, soul and funk. African Americans could not have something against this movement because it would be contradicting their race beliefs, but in a short time they started appreciating the work of whites. Above all this, one thing is for sure: music genres will never die. People will always listen to the songs which they love, even if they are out-of-date and African American music is a part of American music which will never be forgotten. All the artists mentioned since the beginning gained a high respect in America and won awards for their pieces of art. Their contribution to America s culture was clearly seen and they also were a great inspiration for artists who followed them.
Songs about slavery, racism, discrimination, fighting and human identity are some of the most important for American culture. Billie Holiday was an African American who inspired and also had an influence upon jazz singers. She was a singer and songwriter with an outstanding voice and style. Strange Fruit was part of her discography, even if it is a song which was performed by many others. This was a poem written by Abel Meeropol in which he underlines his repugnance for American racism, especially the lynching of African Americans. Billie Holiday s song was introduced in 1978 into the Grammy Hall of Fame, even if it was first performed in 1939 and it had its place on the list Songs of the Century.
Sam Cooke released A Change is Gonna Come in 1964. He was an American gospel, soul and pop singer who won awards for his work and was voted in 2005 number 12 in Rolling Stone magazine s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. This song is one of the most famous about the Civil Rights Movement. In 1964, another jazz, soul, blues and gospel singer, Nina Simone contributed with three protest songs that emphasized social change: Mississippi Goddam, Four Women, To Be Young, Gifted and Black. These are among the most famous protest songs and self-written pieces. Another famous protest song is War which is very popular in America nowadays due to the fact that is became the soundtrack of the movie Rush Hour. The song is best-known performed by Edwin Starr and it also belongs to the soul genre. Its release in 1970s made War a runaway hit.
James Brown captured the public s attention with the funk hit Say It Loud (I m Black and I m Proud) in 1968. The song became one of the most popular Black anthems of the 1960s and emphasized the necessity for black conferring of rights. Stevie Wonder was exactly like his name and in 1973 released Living for the City in which we can observe his dissatisfaction and irritation in the tension and anger incorporated in his voice. The main themes of the song were poverty and racism. Both singers won many awards for their work and were very important figures on America s cultural scene.
Besides the entire list of successful African American singers, we have two artists that created a huge sensation: the King of Blues and the King of Pop. The first is B.B. King who recorded in 1983 a compilation which consists of his greatest work in that period and in the same time the themes of the compilation are racism, discrimination and humanity: Why I Sing the Blues. King won fifteen Grammy Awards and many others. He was initiated in 1987 into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Time magazine ranked him in 2009 the third from the ten best guitarists. He and his guitar Lucille are among America s prides. The second one, God rest his soul, was the contemporary African American s impact upon society. The legend, Michael Jackson, along with his songs and a publicized personal life showed the entire world what racism, discrimination and mistreatment meant. Songs like Black or White, They Don t Care about Us, Man in the Mirror and Heal the World were runaway hits since they were released. He won many awards and he was not only appreciated in America, but loved. Both legends bring fire in the hearts of their listeners.
Rock and roll bands with different influences, mostly formed of whites, sang also about racism and discrimination. Some songs that emphasized more or less these themes are: The Beauty of Gray by Live, Colored People by Dc Talk, Ebony and Ivory by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, Heartspark $ by Everclear and even Have a Nice Day by Bon Jovi.
In music African Americans had and still have a huge success, but also in many forms of culture. The National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. proves their touch upon American culture. However, music was the one who managed to make them feel free and equal by permitting them to express their true sorrows in a time when direct accusations were condemned. They just needed the talent and few metaphors.
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