The Evolution of African American Music in America

The cultural influences of the African American community have not only shaped American culture, but rather the entire world; with influences ranging from fashion, the arts, to even agriculture, African Americans rarely receive recognition for their contributions that are all stored in the National Museum of African American History and Culture. In what is known to be a ‘universal language’ that unites individuals of all demographics, music has historically been a symbol of hope and integrity for African Americans. From what began as a way to bond with fellow slaves while easing the drudgery of their lives, music has flourished into a pivotal component of America’s overall cultural heritage. Their dance tunes, religious music, and hip hop influences makes it nearly impossible to envision America without African American influence.

Where it All Began

The earliest forms of African American musical traditions derived from western and central Africa before arriving to the United States through the Middle Passage, where Africans were packed onto ships and transported across the Atlantic to the West Indies. During slavery, music was essential to teach lessons, pass African history and traditions, relay secret messages, and alleviate their agony. Although treated as animals, music allowed the chance for slaves to discover each other’s life stories. Slaves brought their knowledge of West African musical instruments, such as drums, zithers, xylophones, and the banjo; in fact, the banjo was the first African derived instrument to be built and played in the United States, exemplifying how Africans blended African and European musical traditions. Eventually, banjo makers gradually adapted their instruments to conform to European tuning systems, resulting in a truly American instrument that incorporated Western music theory even as its design recalled its African models.

After slave masters learned that these instruments were largely used as an obscure gateway of communication among several African communities, they banned the use of drums. However, this did not stop the cadence of the African community as they naturally resorted to another form of communication: rhythmic singing and dancing. Hand clapping and feet tapping instead of using drums, with dances like breakdowns, shuffles, jigs, and the strut became a significant constituent of the New World culture. West African tribal dances transformed into “step” dances, and tribal melodies became song styles like the “shout” and “echo”. 

Two of some of the most prominent musical influences from enslaved Africans during this time are spirituals and the blues. Africans in America combined traditional European hymns with African elements to create spirituals, later blooming into gospel music. These spirituals described the hardships of slavery while enabling slaves to envision a world with freedom. At first, christianity was forced upon slaves, but after the slave population became fascinated by Biblical stories, spirituals served as a way to express African American’s newly found faith, all containing sorrow, hopeful, and protest songs. Instead of singing America’s national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” many African Americans sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in lieu of it. As many African American children were taught this song at church, school, or with their families, this song was known to be a popular way for African Americans to express their faith, solidarity, and optimism, leading to it being adopted as the “Negro National Anthem” by the NAACP in 1919. 

After the end of the Civil War prompted the abolition of slavery, the struggles of African Americans did not end, but another musical genre from them swept the country: the blues. Although free, most of the South remained poor, and music was the solution to express their sheer disappointment. Artists like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith were not only one of the earliest professional blues singers, but the most popular among them all, storing their cultural heritage that progressively became mainstream. 

The Birth of Jazz: “America’s Classic Music”

Between the late 19th century and early 20th century, a new sound from African American musicians rose to fame after World War I: Jazz. Due to the technological innovations at the time, like radios and phonograph records, this contributed to the worldwide popularity of jazz and other genres, such as swing, blues, and ragtime. Originating straight from the African American communities of New Orleans, the smooth harmonies of jazz reflected the diversity of cultural influences from West Africa to the West Indies, blending various styles of traditional African music to become a unique, international genre. Jazz was played from coast-to-coast, and as its popularity continuously expanded, the 1920s became known as the Jazz Age while also being linked with the Roaring Twenties, a time of prosperous economic growth in America. 

Many jazz soloists soon made their first appearances in areas like Kansas City, Chicago, and New York, with notable figures being Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, and Louis Armstrong. Famous entertainment venues like the Apollo Theater and the Cotton Club came to epitomize the Jazz Age. Soon enough, jazz became tremendously popular and expanded to America’s white middle class. 

Throughout the 1920s, jazz boosted America’s cultural status as it impacted almost every aspect of life, from fashion trends and dancing to moral standards and race relations. It had a profound effect on the literary world, where poetry and music soon began to merge. Jazz even gave motivation for women to defeat the standards that society had placed on them, furthering the Women’s Liberation Movement. They felt encouraged to rebel against the traditional sex role designated for them and wanted to be seen as more than housewives. As jazz opened up copious job opportunities for women in the music industry, it addressed the gender issue of having music predominantly performed by males. For the first time in American history, the culture of the minority became a desire of the majority. 

Impact of R&B and Rock And Roll

Additionally, Rock And Roll, R&B, doo wop, and soul developed in the mid 20th century and swiftly rose to fame in white audiences, influencing other genres like surf

When many African Americans migrated to northern cities during the Great Migration, they symbolically carried their culture too, and were able to make transitions into urban environments and the marketplace. Beginning in Detroit, a new, fresh sound with a faster beat, more bass, and fewer instruments came into the music world as “Rhythm and Blues” (R&B). 

Rock and roll took inspiration from R&B, as well as gospel, jazz, and jump buggies. Though no one can claim inventing rock and roll, influential figures like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe often shed light on the Black influence in the genre. 

In an interview with Time in 2001, Little Richard noted how rock and roll started out as rhythm and blues. “There wasn’t nobody playing it at the time but black people—myself, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry. White kids started paying more attention to this music, white girls were going over to this music, they needed somebody to come in there—like Elvis.” 

Despite the lack of credit given to the Black community with rock and roll, this musical genre acted as an instance of “cultural collision” throughout history that united both Black and White people simply because they enjoyed the music, such as through the Civil Rights Movement.

The Role of Music in the Civil Rights Movement

As an era dedicated to fighting for the end of institutionalized racial discrimination, disenfranchisement, and racial segregation through civil resistance, music played a crucial role in lifting the spirits of African Americans. Not only did it encourage activists, but it was activism itself. It motivated people through long marches and supplied psychological strength to victims of harassment due to the color of their skin. Music cleansed the soul of Black people and allowed them to express their vulnerability to the world, as it was also essential to raise money for civil rights organizations.

via hecmedia.org

As a founding member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s Freedom Singers, Bernice Johnson Reagon described how music brought people of all backgrounds together when marching for the same cause. “For many people like me, the highest point of our lives was when we gathered in those mass meetings, and when we marched… we were bonded to each other, not because we went to school together, or were in the same social club. Not because we worked on the same job, but because we had decided that we would put everything on the line to fight racism in our community.” 

Meet The Bronx, The Birthplace of Hip Hop

Hip hop is more than just an art form, but a way of connecting people of different backgrounds while speaking out on social issues. It impacts the lives of old and new generations, all emerging from The Bronx during the early 1970s. At the time, the city’s deteriorating economy, due to the decline of the manufacturing industry and construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway, brought heavy social challenges that affected living conditions. As white middle class families moved to suburban communities to escape the economic burdens of The Bronx, poverty and violence escalated in neighborhoods populated by African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Carribean immigrants. 

As many economic opportunities and entertainment sources dwindled, the youth turned to the Bronx streets as their form of expression. Music soon became a creative outlet for people to deal with violence, hardship, and anger, all while confronting racial barriers.

Born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica up until the age of 10, Clive Campbell—commonly referred to as DJ Kool Herc—is credited for creating hip hop from a birthday party in a Bronx apartment building at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue. DJ Kool Herc span records at parties and talked over records he spun, but instead of being known for rapping, his observance over a crowd’s reaction to different parts of a song made him entirely unique, soon spurring a global hip hop movement with a rise in breakdancing and rapping.

Other notable figures from New York City, like Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash, were essential to making hip hop thrive. Around the mid 1980s and early 1990s, hip hop officially became a force to be reckoned with through its movement spanning across the country. Record labels were invested in this musical genre as it soon became mainstream. 

Through the passage of time, the lyricism in hip hop raps developed, reflecting a range of subjects in society where artists like Melle Mel, Rakim, and Warp 9 redefined the art of rapping to another level. Additional new school rappers helped center more attention around hip hop, like RUN DMC, L.L. Cool J, Public Enemy, and so much more. What propelled hip hop even further is its own fashion identity, with several clothes, shoes, and accessories becoming the genre’s form of expression. Even slang became mainstream, with words being added to the Oxford English Dictionary. Needless to say, the music industry and America overall would not be the same without hip hop. 

Impact of Black Culture in the Music Industry

The Black community has clearly impacted almost every music genre, with its historical contributions tracing back to their darkest moments in American history. 

Today—and even in the past—it is apparent that many non-Black artists take inspiration from African American culture, to which many of them recognize that their song/fashion is influenced from Black culture. K-Pop, for example, is indubitably one of the fastest-growing music genres, with artists like BTS making history at American award ceremonies and with their record-breaking albums. Many K-Pop artists adopt hip-hop beats and flows, street fashion, dance traditions and R&B vocal runs, and while some artists are open about these influences, many others, however, are not. But with the recent events over the death of George Floyd and the murder of Breonna Taylor, K-Pop artists are taking into accountability of how their music industry profits off of Black culture. K-Pop artist and drag princess Soju tagged Korean music companies in a meaningful note on Twitter: “It breaks my heart that the K-pop industry I love and cherish profits so much from the Black community, but still refuses to stand up for them. What do the agencies have to lose by voicing their support?”

What’s more is that many of the most iconic singers in modern day history are black artists: Tupac, Beyoncé, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Mary J Blige, Alicia Keys, Jay Z, and the list goes on. These artists have set the bar not just for music, but in society, with many non-Black artists like Adele, Billie Eilish, and Eminem openly stating the impact that Black music had on their life and career paths. 

Has it Reached a Point of Appropriating Black Culture? 

Black culture beyond its music influences has become so mainstream to the point where people are often unaware of the meaning behind their music and fashion choices. As white artists become the faces of almost every music genre, there is a lack of credit given to the historical influences of the Black community.

White rappers like Post Malone and Iggy Azalea are highly accused of appropriating African American music. The “White Iverson” and “Rockstar” artist Post Malone embraces his hop hop and rap music while not being aware of the culture behind it. Malone told an interviewer in Poland, “If you’re looking for lyrics, if you’re looking to cry, if you’re looking to think about life, don’t listen to hip-hop.” He continued to say, “Whenever I want to sit down and have a nice cry, I’ll listen to some Bob Dylan. But whenever I’m trying to have a good time and stay in a positive mood, I listen to hip-hop because it’s fun. I think hip-hop is important because it brings people together in a beautiful, happy way. Everybody’s happy.”

This furiated the Black community knowing that hip-hop discusses almost all themes of life, and if you can’t find hip-hop that makes you want to cry or think about life, you’re either not looking very hard or you’re listening in a way that precludes you from hearing any emotion you can relate to. 

Iggy Azalea has also dealt with controversy of being a white Australian rapper that escalated to hip-hop stardom. Many critics took offense to her blaccent with her sounds and syntax closely matching “African American English” by linguists in a July paper

Black Artists YOU Need to Support

At a time of a modern-day Civil Rights Movement where Black people are still fighting tirelessly for racial equity, amid a global pandemic and a deteriorating economy, now more than ever is the time to support Black artists. Their culture shapes America, so let’s continue to support Black artists and acknowledge their history before shamelessly mimicking it. There are several resources online for you to learn about undiscovered Black musicians who are greatly contributing to the music industry. A simple choice of changing who you listen to has larger effects for being an ally in the Black Lives Matter Movement. It takes small steps from our own music taste and lifestyle habits to fully become aware of the institutionalized racism in artists you once may have supported unknowingly. 


Layla Hussein

15-year-old Layla Hussein is an aspiring journalist, entrepreneur, and coder from The Bronx, NY. Growing up in The Bronx has allowed Layla to quickly understand the racial disparities across the globe and be an advocate for change. Her passions including writing about BIPOC issues, gender inequity, immigration, and general current events that are affecting loved ones around her. She is the Co Founder of GenZ Girls, an organization that spotlights influential females in marginalized communities since the media fails to do so. She is also the founder of Journals of Color, an upcoming literary magazine just for teens in The Bronx.

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