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Music

Stealing the Spotlight: how black culture formed the backbone of modern music

Music excites, it comforts, but most importantly, it brings people together. Even if the idea of going to a club seems entirely alien right now, the memories of being piss-drunk and a crowded bunch of sweaty strangers all yelling out the lyrics to a song will remain truly magical, even if the mornings of the day after are not.

The power that music, and all art for that matter, has on us is unimaginably immense. And so when we look at the top of the charts, or try to trace a history of modern pop music, black culture follows it with every step. For as much as modern pop music can energise, it is impossible to understand it without acknowledging the inspiration it takes from black music culture, and while these conversations are always important, it seems even more appropriate now, with October being Black History Month, and after a summer of intense but needed conversations about race re-entered ‘mainstream’ discourse. So let’s track this history, show where music has taken from black artists, and hopefully gain a fuller appreciation of how black music culture was, and still largely is, the backbone for the majority of pop music.

When trying to parse through the complicated relationship between black culture and music, it’s perhaps much more beneficial to be blunt. The institution of slavery forcefully brought many slaves to far-flung countries, and they brought their culture with them. In the case of America, the enslaved blended the Christian values imparted in them by their African musical tradition, creating the spiritual. The usually monophonic, spoken word music laid the foundation for the development of blues music, jazz, and rock n’ roll from the late 19th
century to the 20th century. Call and response patterns became duelling improvisations, and the monophone beats became groovy walking basslines. The roaring guitar riffs of Chuck Berry and the ludicrous three-octave range of Ella Fitzgerald are still fondly remembered today. Then funk and disco rose to prominence in the ’70s, drawing from the rhythmic developments of jazz to create a colourful musical palette focusing on making people dance. It grew out of black musical influences, but was also a subculture that, at least at the start, cast minimal judgement on who you were, at a time where discrimination was still rabid. The rich history of black musical tradition had already influenced generations, and spawned countless subgenres, but it wasn’t done yet, and other people started noticing how lavish the sonic palette of the music was.

Elvis Presley was massive. His mix of soul, blues, and his infectious charm skyrocketed him to the top of popular culture at the time. Another thing was that he definitely took influence from the black music culture before him, and didn’t always give them that much credit. Getting into a debate on whether he ‘stole’ is an entirely different argument, but the idea of a white man profiting off of black music styles while giving minimal credit is understandably infuriating and indefensible. In any case, Elvis was a product of his time: he functioned in a time when record companies had only just stopped labelling and marketing certain music as ‘race records’ to black Americans. The popularisation of rock ‘n roll to a wider audience was a watershed moment when understanding music’s relationship to black
tradition. But even with a larger audience, only a handful of black rock artists like Jimi Hendrix or Prince have their place in rock history entirely secure. Subsequent, derivative subgenres would later dominate the music world, but again to a largely white audience. To many, the gradual transition and transformation of rock was just another example of the lingering effects segregation brought into the later decades.

With rock becoming increasingly taken out of their hands, a new genre emerged out of 1970s New York. Drawing from funk, disco, blues, and everything in between, hip hop broke out as a counter-culture anthem, and its characteristic mix of eclectic turntabling and energetic rap flow would grow into the most popular genre of modern American music. And with this top spot, it became a mixture of paying homage to the past as well as inspiring other genres into the future. Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar are still finding inspiration in the history of black music, frequently sampling soul and jazz in their
tracks. Trap beats and production eventually found their way into mainstream pop music. It is arguably impossible to find a track on the charts that does not trace its lineage back to a black musical
tradition.

So where does that leave music today? Tracing the genealogy of black music has shown an enormous influence over the music industry, with genres colliding with each other and cultures blending. But the point of this article was never to argue that greater cultural interchange would solve social tensions and ease race relations: the events of this
summer should prove that in spades. Rap is still primarily characterised by expressing the struggle of being black in a
primarily white world. Artists need to know where their influence
comes from, and we as a population need to stop borrowing from black culture if we aren’t going to give them the recognition that they should already have. Music brings people together: it brought those who were enslaved together and it still brings those living under discriminatory laws together. Understanding popular music is understanding black music history, and if we’re to make critical progress towards changing race relations, music is only a single step.

Image: Eve Miller