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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Black music tells the American tale

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June is Black Music Appreciation Month. A time for celebration. A time for reminiscing. A time to cherish the music that has been the soundtrack for many of our lives.

During this Black Music Appreciation Month, we have an opportunity to celebrate the full history of the Black musicians whose contributions have shaped American music.

Black music is integral to the story of America. It tells the tale, in a way no other music could, of the deep emotion that undergirds each historical event and time period.

As James Baldwin states, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”

This rage brings forth a passion in the music that is felt, even when it is not understood. Black music tells the tale of the fierce longing for the promise of the American dream with an ever-present fear that it just may be out of reach.

The timeline of Black music in America began with the field songs sung by enslaved Africans that drew from the call and response traditions of Africa. This singing style influenced the negro spirituals that arose after the adaptation of Christianity.

Negro spirituals told of triumph, hope, and were sometimes embedded with secret messages about the path to freedom.

Today’s country music grew from banjo-playing, an instrument that was influenced by the hollowed-out gourds played by enslaved African people. Thankfully, artists like Chapel Hart, Mickey Guyton and Darius Rucker are reclaiming their rightful place in the genre.

Then comes ragtime, jazz, and blues which brings Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” a song that pierces the soul, and once again tells an untold tale of American lynchings that terrorized communities for generations.

Last year’s Elvis biopic featured a depiction of Big Mama Thornton, the original singer of Hound Dog, one of his biggest hits. America has a history of appropriating Black music without giving credit to the people and the lived experiences that created the music.

Big Mama Thornton was portrayed in the film by Shonka Dukureh, a graduate of Fisk University. Home of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, this renowned choir traveled the world in 1871 raising funds to save their beloved school while introducing Black music globally.

Continuing the legacy, the Fisk Jubilee Singers won a Grammy for Best Roots Gospel Album in 2021. The music lives on to tell the story.

“We Shall Overcome” has come to tell the sadness and hope of the civil rights movement while Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” captured the weariness of the people as they wept for a community ravaged by violence, police brutality, and economic inequity.

Once thought of as a fad, hip hop is celebrating its 50th anniversary. What started as a means of expressing the frustrations associated with living in underserved communities, has since transitioned into a worldwide phenomenon.

Hip hop culture, including the slang, fashion and swagger, has been adopted around the world birthing subcultures everywhere from Africa to Japan.

Last week we lost one of the greatest entertainers to ever hit the stage. Tina Turner, born Anna Mae Bullock, was not only a phenomenal singer, dancer and performer, she was also a trendsetter who influenced so many artists who came after her.

Unwilling to relent to the years of abuse she endured working alongside and married to Ike Turner, she reignited her music career as a solo artist with hits like “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and “Simply the Best.” She became a bigger star than possibly even she could have imagined. She achieved her American dream.

Bloodied and bruised, but unbroken, Turner’s life embodied the resilience, ambition, and spirit of Black music, the spirit of Black America.

Contact Editor-in-Chief Camike Jones at CamikeJ@indyrecorder.com or 317-762-7850

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