The birth of African American music precedes its rise in popularity in the 20th century, and is dated all the way back to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. According to Soundfly, communication between slaves was severely limited during this period due to a purposeful separation of cultures by their captors, such that alternate methods of communication needed to be developed. Music thus became something of a language through which the multitude of African demographics could express their culture, passion and sorrow.
According to a PBS article, singing in itself became a form of communication in the midst of the slave trade. Slaves originating from different tribes and cultures utilized this not only to seek out fellow kinsmen, but also to convey emotion to those who may not understand their native tongue.
Despite the clear exhibition of cruelty and intolerance for the new arrivals in the United States, white plantation owners in the South encouraged the practice of Christianity and allowed Sunday to be a day of rest, which granted the slave population time to worship, play instruments and eventually develop the foundation of gospel music, per Soundfly.
Entirely new musical techniques began to solidify from this period of emotional inspiration and loss of culture. The blues scale and free-form soloing were inklings of new genres that expressed the adversity African Americans then faced, most notably in blues and jazz. Years later, in the 20th century, these expressions were consolidated into commercially successful approaches to music.
But this was not without a struggle: Black musicians continued to be overshadowed by their white counterparts, despite their creation and cultivation of these genres.
Professor in the NAU School of Music Blase Scarnati said, “We find that the most commercially successful recording artists were white bands and white jazz musicians covering and adopting the style of the great Black jazz swing orchestras: Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford and many others,” Scarnati said. “Given the racialized nature of the country and the music industry, white artists were most certainly privileged over Black artists.”
Especially in the era of rock ’n’ roll, which developed structurally out of traditional blues, white musicians like Elvis Presley maintained the spotlight, while Black musicians like Little Richard, though still popular, did not receive the same level of recognition for their accomplishments.
Still, many prominent white bands of the 1960s gave credit where it was due. Both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones credited Black music as a great influence, according to an article by Slate. Others artists like Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan sought to break the chains of racial conformity through the messages in their own music.
This tumultuous decade brought the years of racial incongruity to a head in the form of the Civil Rights Movement, and out of this fire came one of the most influential African American artists of all time: Jimi Hendrix, who was once an unsuspecting rhythm and blues guitarist backing the likes of Little Richard and the Isley Brothers.
Widely considered one of the greatest guitarists of all time, Hendrix was an electric pioneer who not only explored the potential of his instrument to its greatest limits, but utilized what were previously considered undesirable sounds like amp feedback to develop a blanket of effects in a realm entirely of its own.
As stated in an article by Rock Archive, a website dedicated to the history of the rock ‘n’ roll genre, Hendrix’s creativity and heavy guitar riffs spawned the early development of hard rock music and metal genres, which are still popular to this day. Through his creativity, Hendrix still maintained the importance of his influences, such as Albert and B.B. King, both of whom were African American blues musicians.
That is not to say African American artists have, at any point in history, had equal opportunity. Even today, Black musicians continue to struggle with the industry, and many feel they are exploited in the process.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, one Black manager spoke about the current condition of the music industry: “If I don’t want to be exploited by the music business, I know how not to be exploited by the music business — I don’t sign a contract.”
It is evident the realization of Black musicianship has been a long, dark road marred by generations of racism and bigotry. However, this long-sustained suffering is largely what has made Black music so emotionally powerful, like a perpetuated echo of a centuries-long struggle. Regardless of reasoning, the influence of Black music is undeniable.
“In America, you’d be hard-pressed to find a long-standing musical tradition that isn’t either largely created by, or greatly influenced by, the music of Black Americans,” Scarnati said.