American Music Would be Nothing Without Black Artists

By Nick Virnich

For the past year and a half, I’ve been collecting vinyl records, some of which have significantly expanded my taste and knowledge of music. Throughout this wonderful experience, one of my strongest revelations has been that while most of the albums I own were made by white artists — Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Eric Clapton, Pink Floyd and the Police — my collection would be nearly empty and non-existent without the influence of Black artists throughout the 20th century. Many of the renowned Black musicians who were responsible for creating the American genres we love so much today — Blues, Jazz, Rock n’ Roll, R&B, Funk, and Rap — don’t often get the credit and recognition they deserve. For a while, it was a money-making scheme for big record labels to sign white acts whose music would imitate that of Black musicians. This was a time where record labels were dividing the music industry, and music was usually marketed and listened to based on race. During Black History Month, I think it is important to recognize the fact that the music we love and listen to today would almost be non-existent without the hard work and creativity from previous Black artists. 

There are of course so many places we could start examining the roots and origins of Black music, but in the case of America, I think it’s appropriate to start off with the emergence of the Blues at the dawn of the 20th century. Little is known about the exact origins of Blues due to the lack of documentation, caused by immense racial tensions at the time. However, its lyrical, rhythmical and melodic origins can be traced as far back as the mid 1800s, when African-Americans were still enslaved, yet on the verge of freedom. Their songs from that time show very similar resemblances to what would come to be known as the Blues.

Following the Emancipation Proclamation, Blues music as well as gospel and spiritual music began to rise in popularity within the Black community, used as a way to express their newfound freedom and the continued acts of racism and discrimination they faced despite being recognized as free citizens. During the 1920s, the Blues genre developed a strong presence in the Mississippi Delta area, where the first blues recordings came out during this time. Notable Blues artists from this time include Robert Johnson, Lonnie Johnson, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. The genre would continue to expand across the U.S., and it would later come to inspire other genres like Jazz, which was championed and pioneered by Black artists.

Following the end of World War II, the blues entered a strong period of popularity and appreciation by others, especially with the development of the new Rock n’ Roll genre. The sounds of the Blues, Gospel, and Rhythm & Blues all converged to form the Rock n’ Roll genre. Once again, this movement was led primarily by notable Black artists such as B.B. King, Albert King, Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry, who were pioneers of playing the Blues and Rock n’ Roll on the electric guitar. Other notable Black artists during that time are Little Richard (who recently passed away at the beginning of 2020), Fats Domino and, of course, James Brown, all of whom shocked audiences with their stunning and energetic vocal performances that would soon be emulated by other white artists in the decades to come. Sadly, record companies began to realize that more profits and record sales could be generated if they had white artists perform songs by Black artists.

A good example of this trend is Elvis Presley; his musical sound was strongly similar to previous African-American artists, yet his version of “the blues” sang about love and other teenage related subjects at that time, which appealed to white audiences. It made sense for record labels to do that at the time, since white parents wouldn’t want their children to listen to music by Black musicians, especially on the topic of love, since interracial marriages were illegal in many states during the time.

The 1950s saw the arrival of the soul genre, which combined Blues, Gospel and Jazz into a softer, more romantic sound. Singers such as Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, the Temptations and the Isley Brothers, who were signed to the newly formed record label Motown in Detroit, helped establish an important precedent for the Soul genre, which would gain popularity in the 60s. Ray Charles, who was born blind at birth (similar to the young Stevie Wonder, who at that time was strongly influenced by Charles’ music), was not only an amazing singer, but an amazing musician as well. The young Stevie would soon follow his footsteps.

The 1960s saw the arrival of many new forms of music during a time of civil rights tensions, the Vietnam War and an overall sense of rebellion and protest amongst the young baby-boomer generation at the time. Motown continued to sign more appealing Soul and R&B artists such as Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Supremes and many more. The “Motown sound” would captivate many audiences, including the more hip white audiences.

On the other side of the music industry during this time, Rock n’ Roll music continued to explode in both the U.S. and in the U.K. Across the Atlantic, popular British groups such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones (who were named after the song “Rolling Stone” by Muddy Waters), the Who, the Animals, the Kinks, Cream, the Yardbirds and eventually Led Zeppelin would explode in the U.S. White audiences were in awe, as if these were new sounds not heard by popular audiences before. Little did they know that their music strongly resembled the music of African-American musicians from previous decades. On the same side of this Rock spectrum, there was one Black rock artist from America whose guitar playing would change the genre and sound completely, and took many by surprise. His name was Jimi Hendrix. 

Jimi Hendrix first kicked off his career after being discharged from the US Army, playing in backing bands for notable artists such as the Isley Brothers. Afterwards, he played in Little Richard’s touring band for about six months. Later, he signed to PPX with Curtis Knight and the Squires, but would leave due to a financial dispute with manager Ed Chaplin. Hendrix remained in Manhattan where he would continue to play at numerous R&B and Rock clubs. This was the point of his career where he would truly develop his own unique electric guitar style that people were not ready to experience, but people were starting to take notice.

When Jimi Hendrix and his band Jimmy James and the Blue Flames performed at the Cafe Wha? in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of Manhattan, he caught the attention of the original Animals bassist Chas Chandler, who had then been interested in managing and recording other artists. Hendrix was signed to a contract with him and ex-Animals manager Michael Jeffery. He then moved to London where he formed the Jimi Hendrix Experience and recorded and released his first album, Are You Experienced? The album exploded in both the U.K. and the U.S., and many white artists began to idolize Hendrix, bewildered by his guitar playing.

Hendrix followed that up with Axis:Bold as Love, and Electric Ladyland. Not only was Hendrix known for his technical abilities and use of effects and distortion on the guitar, but he was also known for his wild stage performances, including when he burned his guitar onstage at the Monterey Pop Festival, not to mention the numerous times he played the guitar behind his back or with his own teeth. Most notable was when he played his electric, psychedelic rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner on the final day of the Woodstock festival in 1969.

Hendrix and the Experience eventually disbanded in 1969, but he would continue to work, record and perform live with other musicians. He released a live album “Band of Gypsys from his 1970 New Year’s performance at the Fillmore East in New York City. Hendrix continued to do a series of performances until his untimely death in 1970 due to asphyxia from an accidental overdose of barbiturates. He was only 27 years old, and he has been commonly associated with the “27 Club”, which is a made up group of rock stars who have all passed away at the age of 27, and has become ingrained into American pop culture.

I think it’s important to talk about Jimi Hendrix not just in the context of Black History Month but in the context of music as a whole. Hendrix essentially changed and reshaped the entire Rock n’ Roll genre. Although other Black musicians had begun to crossover and appeal to white audiences, Jimi Hendrix became a Black star and was idolized by other rock guitarists within a genre composed mainly of white people. Few could match his advanced, technical style of playing the electric guitar, and Hendrix became one of the first artists to popularize incorporating electric sounds and effects — both on the guitar and from the soundboard — into his music. Previously, artists thought that it was annoying and obnoxious to hear guitar feedback within a song, but Hendrix was a trailblazer and somehow one of the first people to control this feedback and distortion from his guitar, incorporating it creatively into his music. He was able to treat the instrument as an extension of his subconscious, and used it to express his feelings in a revolutionary way.

Jimi Hendrix’s sound was revolutionary not just for Rock and R&B music. His rhythmic guitar playing was delving into a new form of music that was being explored by other artists during the decade, most notably by James Brown and his various rounds of musicians in the mid-late sixties. This new style of music known as “funk” got its roots from Soul, R&B, as well as Rock music, with the funk beat and rhythm style being heavily syncopated and placing heavy emphasis on the first beat of each measure, as opposed to the traditional Rhythm and Blues style which emphasized the backbeat (the second and fourth beats of a mesure). Other Soul and R&B artists during this time began to be influenced by these new funky sounds and incorporated it into their music, as well as their overall image and aesthetic.

One seminal funk group that is worth noting was the San Francisco group Sly and the Family Stone, who became known for their funky, psychedelic rock sound, their flamboyant wild outfits, memorable live performances (including at Woodstock) and were known for their powerful music with lyrics on protest and social commentary during a time of racial and societal tensions in the U.S. What made their message of equality in their music even more meaningful was the fact that Sly and the Family stone was the first popular musical act that included African Americans, white people, men and women all making music collaboratively and performing onstage together. This very message can be heard on their song “Everyday People”, with frontman Sly Stone preaching “I am no better and neither are you,/We’re all the same whatever we do,” a strong message that should still resonate with us today.

The Funk genre would continue to explode into the 70s, becoming the dominant form of Black music for that period. Many new notable Funk artists began to emerge at the beginning of the decade such as Parliament/Funkadelic, Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, Kool and the Gang, the Ohio Players, the Meters, Graham Central Station and of course Earth Wind & Fire (which consisted of a few members who attended East High School). All of these new Funk groups, as well as older acts such as James Brown and Sly & the Family Stone, helped to put Funk at the top of the pop charts.

Towards the end of the 70s and into the 80s, Funk music was a common form of music found within the Pop and R&B genres. It would play everywhere whether you were driving in your car listening to the radio or in a late-night disco club dancing with your friends. Different Black solo artists under this category of music would receive a lot of recognition and airplay on MTV, including Michael Jackson, Prince and Rick James. These were Black artists that earned significant airplay and high record sales in a white-dominated music industry. African Americans were starting to gain more recognition and appreciation during this time.

Funk music became very influential for forming what we now call Rap and Hip Hop. By the time Funk had evolved into a disco, dance sound, and was fully submerged into the Pop world of the late 70s and early 80s, there had also been a recent trend of young aspiring Black artists in urban areas using drum machines, sampling machines and record scratchers to remix these Funk and R&B songs they grew up on. Over these remixed beats, they would recite poetry or lines relating to their everyday struggles of growing up in their inner-city neighborhoods in a rhythmic style and flow.
One of the first people to popularize this form of music was DJ Kool Herc, a Jamaican immigrant who resided in the Bronx and helped establish the popular breakbeat found in Hip-Hop today. He also helped establish the art of sampling, by creating cuts from some of his favorite artists, including James Brown. It should come as no surprise that sampling became a huge trend for young aspiring Black DJs, and that their favorite artists growing up, such as James Brown, would become some of the most sampled artists of all time. 

Rap music would continue to grow in popularity through the late 80s, with noteworthy rap artists including Run D.M.C., Grandmaster Flash, Eric B. and Rakim and most notably Public Enemy and N.W.A., whose politically charged lyrics were truly groundbreaking in publicly calling out police brutality and racial injustice. Rap would explode in the 90s with artists such as Tupac Shakur, Biggie Smalls, Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, A Tribe Called Quest, Snoop Dogg and many more, receiving significant airplay on the radios and on MTV, and selling many records during the golden age of CDs. Rap has since then grown and transformed in many different ways, even incorporating white artists into a genre created by African Americans.

As we continue to live on in the 21st century and listen to and appreciate the different types of American music, it’s important to remember that our music would be nearly non-existent without the influence of numerous Black artists throughout history, who channeled their creativity and emotions in many different expressive ways that have continued to grasp many new audiences of different races and identities.