Black History and the Evolution of Music Genres

Image Credit: Bill Fairs on Unsplash

Jordan Feeley examines how the genres which define modern music owes itself largely to the practice and development of tradition and culture over centuries of Black history.

Music is quintessential to the creation and celebration of culture. It is responsible for igniting love in its purest form, sparking political change and reminding us of what it means to be human. In the midst of the Civil Rights Movement in August 1962, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described music as harnessing “a strong and vital role” in the struggle for Black equality as it gave “new courage and a sense of unity.” As King spoke, protesters and activists expressed resilience through song whilst facing vehement opposition. With this, the world was shown the strength of song and its powerful role in Black culture.

With this, the world was shown the strength of song and its powerful role in Black culture. 

In many African cultures, music was integral to daily activities and religious rites. According to Professor Samuel Floyd, the Founder of the Center for Black Music Research, daily routines were often “accompanied by and expressed in musical forms,” performed both vocally and instrumentally. The earliest evidence dates back to 10,000 years ago as spinning disks, bullroarers and bone tubes are theorised to have been used as early flutes, whistles and bells. From these came the balafon (xylophone), mbira (thumb piano) and akonting (banjo). When colonisation began, those enslaved found solitude in music. Amidst the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade, music allowed the maintenance of culture and was a source of resilience.

In Cuba, African and European musical tradition merged to produce the habanera, an early style of tango. In the United States, Professor of History Burton Peretti writes that by the late 18th century, those enslaved used music “to conceptualise freedom and to explore spiritual and secular self-expression.” Songs were sung during long work hours, such as the field holler which followed a traditional ‘call-and-response’ style to evoke feelings of unity. These songs provided the foundation for ‘spirituals’, sung in religious congregations as they told biblical stories whilst also describing the hardships of slavery.

Although the history of the genre remains largely undocumented, it is believed blues came out of the melancholic nature of the spirituals. The blues also included poignant, yearnful lyrics which were occasionally accompanied by moans and cries to enhance emotional impact. In 1912, W.C. Handy transcribed and published blues sheet music. Mamie Smith then became the first Black woman to record the blues and was joined by Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Their successes attracted record labels interested in the profit “race records” could create.

In 19th century New Orleans, public dances offered communal fellowship and were accompanied by instrumentation. Buddy Bolden would perform with his band who would inspire a plethora of musicians, each of whom became early jazz and ragtime performers. When Black residents fled the South during the Great Migration, music continued to provide strength and community. In Harlem, New York, Professor of English Cheryl Wall notes that the Harlem Renaissance was a measure “to achieve through art the equality that Black Americans had been denied in the social, political and economic realms.” This saw jazz reach wider audiences as the Duke Ellington Orchestra performed for commercial radio at Harlem’s Cotton Club. Cab Calloway and Fats Waller experimented with rhythmic complexion, forming swing and stride. Since the 1930’s, vocal jazz was also popularised as Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald performed with orchestras and bands.

By the 1940’s, musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker performed in quieter settings during after-hours sessions. As Professor of English, Critical Race and Ethnic Studies John Gennari notes, through their experimentation with form and time came bebop. After World War II, cool jazz diverted from bop’s high energy and emphasised subdued rhythm. It also diverted from white expectations which saw Black musicians as energetic performers, an association consolidated by 19th century minstrel performances. The likes of Miles Davis and John Coltrane thus established a new jazz aesthetic characterised by cool composure and later, improvisation.

As jazz emerged, Muddy Waters was introduced to the electric guitar in 1945, birthing the Chicago blues. Water’s sound would inspire Chuck Berry, Little Richard and later B.B. King and Jimi Hendrix, each of whom would become pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll and rhythm and blues (R&B). In the 1950’s, soul came as an amalgamation of blues and gospel spirituals. It emphasised vocal delivery and was emotionally confessional as it examined human emotion, similar to the blues. The foundation of Motown Records by Barry Gordy was a watershed moment for soul as upon representing artists such as Marvin Gaye and The Supremes, it became the most successful Black-owned record label in history. Soul was also fundamental to the Civil Rights Movement as musicians such as Sam Cooke, Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin used soul’s emotion to condemn racial oppression and unify millions.

Soul was also fundamental to the Civil Rights Movement as musicians such as Sam Cooke, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin and Odetta used soul’s emotion to condemn racial oppression and unify millions. 

In the 1970’s, funk evolved from soul and blues tradition. Unlike soul, funk emphasised beat and rhythm rather than melody and vocality. Whilst it was also used to illuminate and condemn discrimination, musicians including James Brown, Earth, Wind and Fire and Kool and the Gang consistently experimented with the genre. With the introduction of synthesisers in the 1980’s, the likes of Prince and Michael Jackson reshaped funk.

This reshaping of funk took the form of rap and hip-hop in the 1970’s, a product of African American, Afro-Caribbean and Latin cultures meeting in poverty-stricken communities. In block parties, MCs and DJs oftentimes spoke in rhyme during song breaks, forming early rap. Rap also had its roots in soul and jazz, as Gil-Scott Heron also used lyric and rhythm as political expression which he performed over jazz instrumentation. As the genre popularised, hardcore and gangster rap emerged with the likes of Run-D.M.C, Tupac Shakur and N.W.A. It was used to express vehemence at the inhospitality of the ghettos, police brutality and gang violence. By the 21st century, technology offered new modes of performance and artists including Drake, Jay-Z and Rihanna blended rap with pop and electronic dance. The use of rap to illuminate the horrors of racial discrimination was also continued by musicians such as Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino.  

It is part of a brave struggle; it is a source of strength and it is and forever will be at the core of what makes us human.

Music has been instrumental to the practice and development of Black culture for generations. Its many genres have brought communities together, fought oppression and changed how we perceive music and sound. It is part of a brave struggle; it is a source of strength and will persist at the core of what makes us human.