©St. Louis African Chorus, July
- Definitively American!
By Rachel DeBerry and Janice KingBlack music flourished in its golden years
from 1920 to 1975. During this era, African-American recording artists
contributed more than just music to entertainment. They uniquely composed
regimens that cultivated the world. Their sense of creative style paved
the ways and opened many doors for other performers. Black music has
always impacted an incredible influence of the entire American culture.
This piece, largely, is a commentary on the Showtime special titled:
"Itís Black Entertainment." Itís a concise sketch of the
achievements of some of the artists who left significant parody on the
music industry. It will focus on seven genres which have made the most
significant impact on American culture and society - namely, dance, male
singers, divas, jazz, swing, soul, and hip-hop. The artists mentioned not
only represented themselves, but scores of other super talents who
prepared new grounds on the paths they paved or who have carried their
particular musical genre to new heights.
Edited by Fred Onovwerosuoke
The commentary will be incomplete without some mention
of the untold travails these artists surmounted -hurdles that persist even
today - and how their victories have shaped the course of modern day
American music. For instance, Josephine Baker had to travel to Europe to
gain worldwide notice; for her talent to flourish - a sojourn that enabled
her to achieve full potential, receiving full recognition as a top
entertainer, and diva.
Bill "Bojangles" Robinson was a premier
pioneer of tap dance. He paved the way for later legends like Sammy Davis,
Jr., and Gregory Hines. Bojangles was known for his signature smile, but
privately, wrestled with tremendous emotions. He was forced to perform in
"blackface" and was never given speaking roles in movies. The
Nicholas Brothers (Harold and Favard) also endured untold racial
injustices as Bojangles. They also were not given speaking roles. But what
they were denied, their feet complemented with poetic footwork that spoke
volumes. Perhaps, no other pair in history will ever match their legendary
performance in the 1943 movie, Stormy Weather. One still gets
goosed up watching the scene when, while in tuxedo, they danced on the top
of a pair of grand ballroom staircases, then began a series of leaps over
one anotherís heads, landing in graceful splits down each step: ouch!
Please donít try this at home!!
Enter Sammy Davis Jr.., the Ďbrotherí who could
dance, sing, handle a pistol: you name it, he did it all! (See for
yourself in the movie classic, Robin and the Seven Hoods.) Sammy,
indeed, became the first black male dancer to also have speaking roles in
a movie. In the era of the Great Depression, Americans tremendously
appreciated signs and symbols of optimism. Sammy was one of many artists
who gave people a sense of hopefulness through his entertainment. He also
mentored and paved the way for Gregory Hines, of legendary fame, and
Michael Jackson, whose signature routines have become industry standards
that are mimicked or copied by generations of pop artists.
Paul Robeson is remembered as one of the most
influential black male singers. He suffered untold injustices and
discrimination, but he also broke many barriers. It was unheard of to have
a black man in a film in 1936, let alone given speaking roles. Thanks to
Robesonís stamina as a leader for social change, his remarkable baritone
voice, and excellent acting skills, movies like Showboat (of Old
Man River fame) and Emperor Jones, African American men were
given a chance to be seen on the big screen. Some of the artists who later
fed off Robesonís greatness were Fats Waller, Louis Jordan, Carl
Anderson, and Nat King Cole - one of the finest pianists of his time, and
the first black man to have his own television show.
Bessie Smith, a.k.a., "the original Black
Diva," was the first African-American female blues singer recorded on
film. Like her male counterparts, she too experienced the evils of
discrimination. For a woman, toasted in her day, and who enriched many a
white producers, Bessie died from a car accident, after a nearby hospital
refused treatment because of her skin color. Bessie Smith paved the way
for every black woman singer after her time. Mahalia Jackson transcended
the realm of sacred music. She procured Gospel music from the choir lofts
to concert halls and stages throughout America. Dorothy Dandridgeís
career as a movie star defined even more possibilities. She literally whet
Americaís pallet for the fair-complected Black Beauty. Dorothy became
the first black actress, singer, and dancer to be glamorized in Hollywood.
To this day her achievements are unmatched. Then there was Lena Horne, who
was not only glamorized but publicized as well. And then the ageless
Aretha Franklin - The Queen of Soul - easily Black Americaís greatest
gift to pop music. These are just a few of the influential women whose
footprints are still followed; of course, there are many, many more. They
were called Divas because they had a phenomenal impact, and set the
standards for the black female artist in America.
The Jazz era had many phases. Louis Armstrong was not
only a musical genius, he was a master of improvisation, and the defining
voice of the jazz trumpet style. He was Americaís most distinguished
ambassador of his art. His singing style and instrumental innovations
influenced the growth and development of Jazz, and spawned countless
innovations throughout the ages. Dizzy Gillespie was one of the jazz
innovators who pioneered the experimental form known as Bebop. His
remarkable trumpet flourishes and supreme technical facility helped to
shape the rhythmic and harmonic development of jazz in the 1950s and Ď60s.
Swing as it relates to jazz, was an aesthetic notion
alluding to the ideal manner of performing a classical jazz composition.
Swing reached its highest expression in the time of Duke Ellington. He was
one of Americaís greatest prolific composers, and the first jazz
musician to produce extended compositions. His works elevated jazz idiom
and remains among the most durable sounds of the 20th
Century. He understood how to orchestrate the feeling and meaning of Jazz.
Other great artists were Cab Callaway, Fats Waller, and Count Basie, who
was a mentor to Quincy Jones.
The essence of Soul music is largely found in its
unique gospel based vocals. Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, James
Brown and others paradigmatically styled the vocals. Many soul classics
are based on or show influences of the pentatonic scale. "My Girl"
by the Temptation, and "A Change Is Gonna Come" by Sam
Cooke are two examples of two beautiful, enduring soulful melodies from
the 1960s and 1970s. The movie, The Girl Canít Help It, released
1956, compelled whites in Europe to identify with rock and soul and its
progenitors. Little Richardís performance of the hit, Iím Ready,
was largely responsible for diverse social changes in American culture.
Little Richard opened doors - and heís quick to remind you of that! -
for other greats like James Brown, Tina Turner, Otis Redding, and Jimi
Of all the musical styles emanating from America, non
is more indisputably American as Hip-Hop. Hip-Hop is the newest cultural
and artistic development in Black America since 1980s. More than just
music, lyrics, and beats, Hip-Hop is reflective of a certain lifestyles -
graffiti and break dancing being indicative of some of its earliest
expressions. The genre became famous with movies like Beat Street
(1984), and Crush Groovin with LL Kool J. These films inspired
rappers, dancers, singers, actors, and producers to continue to follow and
realize their dreams of achieving fame and fortune. Hip-Hop received great
contributions from artists like, Kurtis Blow, Grand Master Flash,
Kid-N-Play, Run DMC, Melly Mel, and lots other more. It continues to be
one of the fastest growing genres of all time.
In his book, Roots of Black Music, Ethiopian
musicologist Ashenafi Kebede writes that "Öthe African or
African-derived influences that gave rise to musical forms like jazz,
gospel, rhythm & blues, etc., will remain the most popular and
appealing music of the United States." Although Dr. Kebede echoed
prevailing sentiments, his definitive comment has proven prophetic to many
music critics of Americaís popular music. Today, genres from west of the
Atlantic continue to stir cultural revolutions around the world,
redefining musical tastes in their wake. True, these genres have evolved
severally. But one undisputable fact is: each of them has a signature that
is indelibly African-American!
Rachel DeBerry and Janice King are students from
Fred Onovwerosuoke's African & African-American Music class at Webster
St. Louis, Missouri.
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