©St. Louis African Chorus, July 2001. All rights reserved.

AFRICAN-AMERICAN MUSIC
- Definitively American!

By Rachel DeBerry and Janice King
Edited by Fred Onovwerosuoke

Black 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: "It’s Black Entertainment." It’s 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.

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 another’s heads, landing in graceful splits down each step: ouch! Please don’t try this at home!!

Enter Sammy Davis Jr.., the ‘brother’ 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 Robeson’s 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 Robeson’s 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 Dandridge’s career as a movie star defined even more possibilities. She literally whet America’s 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 America’s 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 America’s 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 ‘60s.

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 America’s 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 Can’t Help It, released 1956, compelled whites in Europe to identify with rock and soul and its progenitors. Little Richard’s performance of the hit, I’m Ready, was largely responsible for diverse social changes in American culture. Little Richard opened doors - and he’s quick to remind you of that! - for other greats like James Brown, Tina Turner, Otis Redding, and Jimi Hendrix.

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 "…the 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 America’s 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 University,
St. Louis, Missouri.

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