African American music is an umbrella term which covers every kind of music which originated from or were influenced by African American culture. It is also referred to as black music or in more primitive times as race music. African Americans have grown over the last century to become one of the major ethnic minorities in the United States of America.
African Americans were brought to North America from West and Sub-Saharan Africa primarily to be slaves. These slaves brought with them polyrhythmic songs from several hundred cultural groups. Different ethnic cultures were together influenced by different genres of music such as waltz, polka, and certain forms of European music. As years passed there were considerable change and innovation in music forms.
African American music and all other forms of African American culture are being celebrated yearly in the US during the Black History Month in February. In this article, we shall consider how African American music has evolved since it arrived American shores in the nineteenth century.
The Nineteenth Century
The nineteenth century saw the beginning of the influence of African Americans on the mainstream of American music. It began with the advent of blackface minstrelsy. The banjo became very popular during this period. The African American instrument’s rhythms were incorporated into so many songs by different songwriters, one of whom is Stephen Foster.
There was a rise in Christian Fundamentalism in the 1830s mostly among the African Americans as African slaves began performing spirituals and other forms of Christian music. Initially, these songs were messages in coded form to slaveholders or among slaves to signal escape.
The period after the Civil War saw a quick spread of African American music. The first group to tour with African American music was Fisk University Jubilee Singers in 1871. The music was revolutionized in the Central East of the United States by Jack Delaney and Morris Hill. Other groups like the Hampton Students music group toured the United States. In 1876, the first black musical-comedy group, Hyers Sisters Comic Opera Co. was organized.
By the end of the nineteenth century, African American music was already well integrated into American culture. Also, several performers like the Harlem Renaissance and Scott Joplin had become very famous.
Early Twentieth Century
The turn of the twentieth century saw a quick rise of black music especially the blues and jazz forms. There were so many White and Latino performers of their respective genres existed but there was always cross-cultural communication among the different races in the US. Often black music was simplified for white audiences who never really entertained black performers. This resulted in modified genres like swing music which is a pop-based offshoot of jazz.
In 1898 America experienced the first musicals written and produced by blacks on Broadway. Three years later we had the first recorded black musicians, George Walker, and Bert Williams. These songs featured songs from Broadway musicals. In 1911, Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha performed the first black opera and a year later the premier in the series of yearly black symphony orchestras was performed. Sissle and Blake’s Shuffle Along signified a return of African American music to Broadway in1921. Throughout the rest of the 1920s and 1930s, African American music grew and became performed in different parts of the United States.
In the 1940s, covers of different African American songs had become very common and they usually topped the charts. Original songs by black artists didn’t enjoy the same kind of fame. Artists like Little Richard and Jackie Brenston made a new genre of black music known as rock and roll very popular. Over the next decade, a new genre was developed, a mix of rock and country known as “rockabilly” performed by crossover artists like Elvis Presley and Bill Haley.
Quite a number of black artists were already getting lots of recognition and unprecedented success. By the late 1950s, hard blues, Soul, and Rhythm and Blues had hit the mainstream with groups like the Angels and the Shangrilas, Sam Cooke, and Ben E. King topping music charts. The 1960s had crossover divas Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross take over the music scene. In the United Kingdom, however, British blues was already gaining momentum and came back to the US as the British Invasion.
Soul music remained very popular among blacks even though the British Invasion had knocked most other genres off the charts. Funk, which is believed to have been invented by James Brown, was a fusion of early heavy metal and psychedelic music. This led to the rise of other stars like Marvin Gaye who had a unique form of music based on the revolution of Soul. By the 1970s a new genre was born, Afrobeat, which was majorly a mix of funk, jazz, and Yoruba music.
The 1970s and 1980s
The 1970s saw the world experience one of the most vibrant eras of black music with the advent of different genres and revolutionizing of so many others. It was during this period we had contemporary rap, hip hop, album-oriented soul which was made popular by Smokie Robinson, and funk. Despite all of these, black musicians made very little success. We can easily tie the invention of most of these music forms to black musicians.
Gradually hip hop hit the mainstream starting with Bronx block parties and rising to become one of the major facets of black culture with progressive and rebellious elements. The era also the rise of Disc Jockeys and MCs who overtime evolved in their presentation of music at parties. In the 1980s, greats like Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Lionel Richie among others became the most successful of the decade.
Several other forms of music developed from hip hop and they spread like wildfire all through the United States. Gradually, white audiences, especially those of European descent accepted these forms of music. By the mid-1980s rap had hit the mainstream with artists like Run D.M.C. leading the movement. As the 1990s approached, the golden age of music succumbed to g-funk and gangsta rap.
The 1990s till now
In this period R & B and Hip Hop have become the major forms of African American music. This is the first time African American music is being accepted worldwide by other races. Several artists and groups arose during this period, most prominent among them are Boyz II Men, TLC, Dru Hill, Destiny’s Child, Blackstreet, Mariah Carey, R. Kelly, D’Angelo, and Montel Jordan.
The 2000s came with a more solo focused style of music with artists like Usher Raymond and Alicia Keys topping charts back-to-back. Gradually, the line between hip hop and R & B was being blurred with the rise of producers and artists like Timbaland, Lauryn Hill, Big Boi, Andre 3000, and others.
These forms of African American music are still of relevance today with newer artists bringing revolution to existing forms. We are sure that as the years advance we will definitely see African American music transform into newer forms and gain more relevance in almost every society.