Friday, February 17, 2023

From slave spirituals to rhythm & blues, rock ‘n roll, and hip-hop, Black music has been an instrument of expression, community, and resistance — as well as a documentarian of history. In over 400 years, Black music has continued to evolve and expand into the styles and genres we’ve familiarized today such as R&B, neo-soul, and pop. However, we tend to disconnect genres such as EDM, country, and rock from their historically Black origins, disregarding the African American artists who pioneered these forms of music.

Almost all these genres can be traced to religious folk spirituals and secular “work songs.” Work songs were sung by enslaved people as a way to motivate one another and protest the system. As those under enslavement weren’t allowed to own property, these songs were exclusively shared verbally. Often, a “call-and-response” feature was laced throughout the songs—a part that has continued to be prevalent in Black music. Common themes throughout the genre included freedom, tradition, and love (Carnegie). 

The transition of folk spirituals into folk blues began post-Civil War. Due to the terrorizing threats of the Ku Klux Klan, statutes of Jim Crow laws, and unjust working environments, folk blues formed not just for communication, but entertainment as well. This style incorporated harmonica, bass, guitar, and hand percussion — elements still used today (Carnegie). The stylistic attributes of blues have also been used throughout the history of country music (Soundgirls).

From here, folk blues spanned to vaudeville, boogie-woogie, and recognizably, rhythm & blues. The genesis of rhythm & blues tied to the post-World War II migration of Black Southerners to the North, East, and West—this marked the creation of new, vibrant expression in previously unknown cities. Rhythm & blues combined elements of jazz, blues, swing, and even gospel. This eclectic mix let the genre be played at clubs, recognizably by artists such as Nat King Cole, Big Jay McNeely and Etta James (Carnegie). 

As rhythm & blues production moved toward mainstream audiences, pop elements such as group harmonies became infused to create the “Sound of Young America,” a term coined by Detroit-based, Black-owned record label Motown Records. Groups tied to rhythm & blues' new, youthful sound included The Shirelles, The Supremes, and The Temptations. Rhythm & blues laid the groundwork for multiple genres including soul, disco, and rock ‘n roll (Carnegie).

Rock ‘n roll had a quicker tempo than rhythm & blues, used novel guitar and saxophone techniques, and had catchy hook lines, which appealed to younger demographics. Lyrics were lighthearted and youthful, including messages about love, experiences, and fantasies — often interlaced with comedic elements. The genre became a voice for social change, promoting Black power and discouraging the Vietnam war (Carnegie).

While the birth of rock ‘n roll is oftentimes associated with white artists such as Elvis and Buddy Holly, Black artists were those at the forefront. The origin of its title can be traced back to 1920, when Trixie Smith released “My Baby Rocks Me with One Steady Roll,” a blues song that is largely ascribed to the naming of rock ‘n roll. In 1951, Ike Turner’s band The Kings of Rhythm released “Rocket 88” which has been credited by many as the first rock ‘n roll record. The genre was formally established after its place in Alan Freed’s 1953 radio show Moondog’s Rock and Roll Party.

Little Richard, known for singing about his queerness and religion, is regarded as the “Queen of Rock and Roll.” As Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys states, “If you love anything about the flamboyance of rock and roll, you have Little Richard to thank.”  He blew up with his hits “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally,” introducing a new sound and image into the industry. With influence from blues guitarist T-Bone Walker, Chuck Berry a.k.a. "The Father of Rock and Roll" created his notorious two-string guitar lick. These notes are known for their wonkiness and have been heavily used throughout the course of rock ‘n roll history, adding a different sound for bands like The Rolling Stones (Insider). 

Bo Diddley was another major rock ‘n roller, otherwise known as “The Originator,” for his creation of essential rock beats. While he was majorly influential, he was never officially credited or paid for his contributions to music, akin to many other Black artists who have changed music history (Insider). Other iconic performers of this era include Fats Domino, Tina Turner, and of course her husband Ike Turner. 

Through the 1960s, rock ‘n roll eventually transitioned into rock. Rock features powerful backbeats and basslines, as well as electric guitars, pianos, and expressive harmonies. In comparison to its predecessor, the genre includes darker and more complex motifs—including sex, religion, drug usage, philosophy, and more. 

Rock was and still is a form of activism—constantly subverting the mainstream through commentaries on sociopolitical issues such as class, race relations, and war. Despite its historically Black origin, rock became tied to white audiences and musicians, such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. To combat the barriers presented, Vernon Reid, Greg Tate, and Konda Mason created the Black Rock Coalition. The BRC’s main goal was to increase exposure for Black alternative artists. Tate once stated, “Rock and roll, like practically every form of popular music across the globe, is Black music, and we are its heirs" (Carnegie).

As this new wave of music quite literally rocked the world, it paved the way for plenty of sub-genres. After working with the likes of Little Richard, the Isley Brothers, and King Curtis throughout the ‘60s, Jimi Hendrix began producing his own tunes in the ‘70s. His unique chords helped form the bases of psychedelic rock, done by combining minor and major chords to create the one and only “Hendrix chord.” Hendrix’ music later influenced plenty of artists, including Slash, Lenny Kravitz, Steely Dan, The Pixies, and Prince (Carnegie, Insider). 

Minnesota’s very own Prince was a musical pioneer, blending elements of pop, funk, R&B and rock to create the unique “Minneapolis sound.” The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame coins this sound as “an electric and eclectic funk/R&B/synth-rock hybrid that became massively influential in the '80s and beyond” (Rock & Roll). The "Minneapolis sound" ended up becoming a staple of sound both in America and around the world. His music has inspired a variety of artists and bands, including St. Vincent, Dave Grohl, Cyndi Lauper, Phil Collins and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (Far Out).

The punk genre as we know it today developed greatly through the work of Black artists. Poly Styrene of X-Ray Strex was one of the first Black artists in the punk world and her music helped to feminize punk, opening future doors for the Riot Grrl movement. The band Bad Brains introduced breakdowns within punk music while merging funk, reggae, and metal (Teach Rock). Death, a band made up of three brothers, became notorious for their politically charged music, namely “Politicians in My Eyes” (Jacksonville Music).  Music critic Peter Margasak claims that their emphasis on harder rock was ahead of its time, although this wasn't as appreciated in the '70s (Dazed).

In the ‘80s, Bam Bam formed as one of the original grunge bands, blending hard rock, metal and punk. Lead singer Tina Bell, known as the Black Godmother of Grunge, faced severe scrutiny for being an African American woman in the grunge scene. Her son Tommy says, “The press compared her to Tina Turner, as if that made any sense.” Because of this prejudice, they are considered “the band that should have been” although their music was pivotal to this genre (Stranger). 

Since its earliest stages, African American music has brought a sense of community and urge for social change with its melodies. It continues to do so as artists continue exploring and creating, making way for new waves of music and oftentimes aligning with new social movements such as Black Lives Matter. To dive even deeper into the multitudes of Black music, check out this SCOPE-curated playlist featuring songs from all sorts of genres and eras of music. 

Information gathered from:

Carnegie Music Hall



Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Far Out


Teach Rock

Jacksonville Music Experience


Photo from Billboard