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Music’s Black Heartbeat

BY TESS HOWAT

 

American music is black music.

This fact, of course, was lost on me for the majority of my childhood. The music on my clunky iPod, downloaded from my shared family iTunes account, was anything but well-rounded in its depiction of influential black artists, save for a bit of Beyoncé, Michael Jackson, my dad’s Barry White hits album and “Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman. It wasn’t until my twin brother and I leaned into our musicianship that we happened upon the truth that black artists have been propelling music’s innovation for over a century, their echoes audible in nearly all the music I love.

My twin brother picked up the guitar at a young age, just as I settled into my seat behind a drum set. Near the end of middle school, one John Lennon acoustic guitar and every Beatles record later, the spotlight of his obsession shifted away from British rock and towards the great blues guitarists. Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, B.B. King and Eric Clapton coaxed him into picking up the electric guitar, and ten years later, he’s as good as they get. When I picked up my first guitar at thirteen, I knew I was a songwriter; my ambitions as a guitarist were comfortably nestled somewhere between chord understanding and melody maker (nowhere near the tonal mastering and knowledge of scales it takes to wail on an electric guitar). Still, my brother used John Mayer’s discography—an artist central to both of our early musical lives—to demonstrate just who put the guitar in his hands, and the hands before him and so on. It became clear that Mayer’s musical influence reaches back to the great black blues guitarists: B.B. King, Hendrix, and ultimately the pioneers of Delta blues. The idea that a black artist from the 1930’s had a hand in my favorite artist’s creative process was thrilling, yet it shook me that I was unaware of the black origins of the music I loved.

I’d been listening to Cream’s “Crossroads” for years before I learned it was a take on Delta blues artist Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues” from 1936. A deep dive into Johnson’s discography and biography revealed him to be a founding father of blues and rock and roll, yet Clapton’s “Crossroads” made him a household name. Learning of Johnson’s founding contributions to rock and roll—a genre that emerged thirty years after his death—defied my prior understanding of the role black artists have played in creating the music I love and begged me to learn about the music of the artists that shaped my music library.

Many Americans hold the assumption that black artists are responsible for R&B and hip-hop alone—a generalization rooted in the racist history of the recording industry. In the early 20th century, the music made by black artists was boiled down to “race music”, a term that boxed both artists and listeners into black and white genres until its abandonment following WWII. At the time of its creation, the sentiment served as an echo of Jim Crow law, a way for the recording industry to segregate jazz, gospel and blues from the genres dominated by white artists. Record labels produced “race records” featuring black artists—usually on a record-by-record basis as to avoid signing them—that were marketed to black consumers only. Yet “race music”, which soon became “R&B”, is the musical tree of life. The recording industry has spent decades decorating its branches white and covering just how deep its roots are embedded in everything we listen to: Rock and roll, hip-hop, folk, EDM, house, jazz and more.

The first years of high school radically opened my musical world. With the purchase of my first record player came a copy of The Ray Charles Collection: 20 Golden Greats, which swept me away. Soon lost in the other-worldly voices of Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Etta James, in the raw genius of Otis Redding and Sam Cooke, I became acquainted with the gravity of voice. James and Cooke, who cast spells with love songs that earned them their fame, used their platforms to wake white listeners to the black experience in America, capturing the world with “Strange Fruit” and “A Change Is Gonna Come”. As a songwriter, the discovery of these artists challenged me to use my voice to stand for truth, humility and justice; they broadened my notions of the power of music, how a song or album can change the way a listener understands the world around them.

One day after school in my Sophomore year, a dear friend of mine who is intensely inspired by Kendrick Lamar insisted that we sit and listen to To Pimp A Butterfly in its entirety. He walked me through the layers of meaning in the lyrics, how references to “Lucy” symbolize Lucifer or sin and the storyteller’s intent behind the order of the track list. It was a form of poetry. It was a fine-tuned expression of the black experience in America, of poverty and oppression and the struggles of trying to escape them.

Kendrick Lamar’s art is complex and measured in a way I didn’t know music could be, which drew me towards further exploration and appreciation of black rappers. Listening to TPIB that day changed everything about the way I listen to music. I now observe an album in its entirety, as a work of art more than a collection of songs. It’s one of the albums that inspired me to write about music, to analyze the influences, symbolism and cultural relevance behind a musical work.  

Since the introduction of Spotify and its steady suggestion of new music for me, my exposure to and appreciation of black artists has grown in every direction. It’s opened me up to KAYTRANADA, the producer and DJ who launched my love of house music, as well as GoldLink, Masego, Saba, Noname, Childish Gambino and countless other rappers whose crossing of traditional genre boundaries and mix of inspired sounds reminds me that music is truly limitless.

My own discovery of black folk/alternative artists like Dijon and Leon Bridges have had an influential hand in my own songwriting process, as have Blood Orange and TV on the Radio. Lately, Spotify’s been suggesting me some incredible up-and-coming black artists, including my current favorites Black Pumas, Norman Sann and Vagabon.

Black artists have been influencing me all my life, even when I wasn’t aware of it. And black artists have been influencing music for as long as we’ve been listening to it, yet they’ve been plagued by predatory record contracts that strip them of fair royalties and ownership rights for over a century. Addressing the racial inequities of the recording industry will require the influence of top industry executives willing to do away with the unequal pay, nepotism and contractual loopholes that maintain the music industry’s standing as a predominantly white field and keeps black musicians from true ownership of their art. It also means justly recognizing the black artists currently revolutionizing the genres they created and re-evaluating the overwhelming recognition white artists receive at the Grammy Awards each year for their contributions to the genres black artists founded. The roots they planted continue to inform artists today, yet they don’t receive the recognition they earned. It’s time the music industry shows black artists the respect and praise they deserve for laying the groundwork for music as we know it.

 

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About the Writer

Tess is a folk singer-songwriter and freelance content creator with a lifelong passion of language and music. A student of writing and marketing, she uses her uniquely creative skills to discuss and amplify the work of folk/indie artists, start conversations about sustainability and write about everything from lifestyle to social media business strategy.

In her free time Tess works on her music, drives her ’81 Datsun with the windows down and listens to her favorite music by John Mayer, Gregory Alan Isakov and Tame Impala.

See Tess's previous articles:

Reflecting on 2020 Through Music

The COVID Effect: Isolation & the Music Industry’s Conscience

 

Profile picture sourced from iStock by kostenkodesign