Black History Month 2012 has been a doozy. Beginning with the tragic and shocking death of Don Cornelius to dealing with equally troubling news of Whitney Houston's passing as the month wore on. Most interesting about this time is the ways in which the music healed us. When Whitney died, DJs played haunting a capella tributes to the fallen star in clubs all over the city. On this, the last day of Black History Month, we salute all icons of black music with the final installment of Sounds of Blackness, a tribute to the influence of black music and culture.
The words and sounds of African-American culture have been highly influential across all racial groups and socio-economic classes. From the earliest days of "field hollering," the singing of negro spirituals to signify freedom, strength and rebellion, blacks have used music as the rawest portrayal of African-American life.
In 1901, the first known recording by black musicians featured Bert Williams and George Walker on a compilation of songs from Broadway musicals. Later blacks in opera would show up on Scott Joplin's "Treemonisha," a folk opera featuring black jazz musicians. As jazz and blues developed amongst the masses further, the sounds were first classified as "race music." Billboard even developed a separate list to chart hit records by blacks, which were first called "Harlem Hit Parade" and then "Race Records" and finally, in 1949, "Rhythm & Blue Records."
The development of several artists happened during the Harlem Renaissance, which helped to define the black word, art, and sound more than any other movement. The Apollo Theater became the black Carnegie Hall, hosting such acts as James Brown, Roberta Flack, Gladys Knight and others. The 1940s and 1950s were dominated by rock and roll by artists like Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, yet it would be the more rockabilly sounds of Elvis Preseley and Bill Haley that would enjoy the most mainstream success.
Soul music swept the nation and was powered by artists like Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson, but it flourished especially in 1959 when Barry Gordy founded Motown Records, the first real label for black musicians. Motown moved artists like The Supremes, Jackson 5 and Aretha Franklin directly into the spotlight.
Funk became the black music haven when British Blues/soul knocked many black bands off the charts. We have James Brown to thank specifically for directing, cultivating and ultimately giving birth to the funk. The disco era featured the sounds of the gorgeous Donna Summers and the uber sex driven Barry White.
In the late 1970s, "the dozens," a game of good-natured ridicule prominent in the urban black community was developed into more spoken word and beat driven music, popularizing a new genre of music -- hip-hop. Gil Scot-Heron, the Last Poets and other wordsmiths of the time honed in on this subculture of rebellion and encouraged it's growth.
Jamaican immigrant DJ Kool Herc began isolating percussive elements in songs and including MCs to rouse the audience with lyrics in the Bronx, creating the famous break beat and further pushing hip-hop as the hot new thing. Hip-hop diversified the masses, with groups like Run DMC, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, Notorious B.I.G and Wu-Tang Clan ushering in a new, rougher era of cool -- better known these days as swag.
But it's because of the efforts by the likes of Diana Ross, Gil Scot-Heron, Charlie Parker, James Brown, Gladys Knight and others that we are able to enjoy the greatness of Usher, Beyonce, OutKast, Jay-Z, Nas and Dr. Dre today. Black music reflects the soul of a people and resurrects spirits of old with each new invention. We are all better for it.
February has traditionally been the month when the contributions from, traditions of and historical facts about African-Americans are celebrated. In honor of Black History Month, Backbeat will be celebrating iconic figures in the world of black music.
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