President Jimmy Carter declared Black Music Appreciation Month on June 7, 1979. In 2009, President Barack Obama gave June its current designation as African American Music Appreciation Month. In his 2016 proclamation, President Obama noted that “a vital part of our Nation's proud heritage, African American music exemplifies the creative spirit at the heart of American identity and is among the most innovative and powerful art the world has ever known.”
The creative spirit that exudes through the notes and choruses of Black music has served to mark the many moods of our Black community. From field songs that form the foundation of Negro Spirituals to the protest lyrics of Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, “We’re Moving on Up,” and including the still prescient commentary in Marvin Gaye’s seminal work, “What’s Going On,” Black music is definitely at the heart of American identity.
But when we consider Black music appreciation, we must appreciate the origins and contributions made by innovators who shaped not just Black music, but all music. Beyond the smooth grooves of Jill Scott is a history that is typically overlooked. The names Scott Joplin, WC Handy, and Jelly Roll Morton tell a story of innovation. One need not be an ethnomusicologist to know that Scott Joplin was dubbed the King of Ragtime and popularized this music based on jagged/ragged rhythms, including the habanera that was imported from Cuba.
This is the innovative nature of Black music that serves to connect us to ideas, emotions, and African culture. Remember "Mama Say Mama Sa Mama Coosa" from Michael Jackson’s "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'?" Coosa, or makoosa, is a Cameroonian word for dance in the Duala language. Manu Dibango’s 1972 release Soul Makoosa made us dance, and the enduring rhythms of Fela Kuti connect directly to jams from James Brown, D’Angelo, and Ice Cube. The lineage is long!
We know a lot about the ways in which white producers and performers took Black music and denied originators credit for their work. This Black Music Month, let’s shift the gaze by learning more about our music history and how our musical evolution served to evolve American music!
Much of what is currently written about Black music focuses on contemporary music, especially rap. For deeper grounding in the history of our music, check out this piece via The Conversation.
For an even deeper dive, these books, if still in circulation, or on your grandmother’s bookshelf, are highly recommended:
Black Music and Blues People by Leroi Jones (aka Amiri Baraka)
Urban Blues by Charles Keil
Bourbon Street Black by Jack V. Buerkle and Danny Barker
- Vivian Phillips - Founder // Editor-in-Chief