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Black Music Month: essential history of today’s top genres

Black Music Month: essential history of today’s top genres

Black Music Month: essential history of today’s top genres
June 30
14:00 2022

To close out Black Music Month, here’s a crash course on Black musicians’ role in the shaping of today’s most popular genres.

Origins of rock ‘n’ roll

Often associated with white artists like Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, rock ‘n’ roll evolved in the 50s and 60s from blues music. Born in the deep south, early blues music was pioneered by Black women, namely Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the “Godmother of rock ‘n’ roll.”

Tharpe, a self-taught guitarist, used distorted electric guitar sounds that shaped rock ‘n’ roll musicians including Cash, Presley, Little Richard and Chuck Berry.

The erasure of Black artists from rock ‘n’ roll history was summed up by Ruth Brown, who brought Atlantic Records to prominence in the 1950s with multiple hit singles. She said blues became rock ‘n’ roll “when white kids started to dance to it.” 

The racial strife occurring in America during the genre’s origin is a factor, too. Mainstream radio stations were dominated by white artists, resulting in the emergence of stations that highlighted Black voices and music. 

However, white artists would re-record songs by Black artists, which would play on the widely distributed white stations and garner more fame. This is why Big Mama Thornton’s 1952 original recording of “Hound Dog” is often misconstrued as Elvis Presley’s original work. 

The pattern of white artists “legitimizing” trends created by Black artists is consistent throughout music history.

Rock ‘n’ roll recommendations: Tracy Chapman, Meet Me @The Altar, Otis Redding, Nova Twins, Lenny Kravitz, SATE, Oxymorrons, Jimi Hendrix, Peggy Jones, Tina Turner and Big Joanie.

Origin and evolution of hip-hop

Hip-hop, as we know it today, emerged in New York. Inspired by funky 1960s Motown music, Jamaican American Clive Campbell (DJ Kool Herc) showcased early hip-hop sounds at a 1973 block party in the Bronx. Similar block parties were a movement where Black American, Latinx and Caribbean cultures fused and quickly spread the genre.

By the 1980s, hip-hop was in full force — the genre spread internationally and subgenres began to emerge. Old school hip-hop (N.W.A, Tupac) strayed from the funk sound of the 70s and relied heavily on social commentary. Meanwhile, Boom-bap rap (Nas, Wu-Tang Clan) is characterized by strong snare drumbeats and storytelling elements.

Hip-hop, often regarded as a boys club, wouldn’t be where it is today without the Black women who demanded respect in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s. Long before Megan Thee Stallion, Doja Cat and City Girls, Black female rappers paved the way for women to be well-received in the genre. Black women rappers relied heavily on storytelling to give a woman’s perspective on topics from natural hair to romance to racial tensions.

In 1995, the Grammy Awards introduced the Best Rap Album award category, further cementing the genre’s cultural relevance. 

Without the groundbreaking rappers from the 70s, 80s and 90s, there wouldn’t have been the emergence of today’s most prominent hip-hop subgenres — alternative rap, emo rap, mumble rap, jazz rap and trap rap.

Hip-hop and rap recommendations: Chika, Jay-Z, Ms. Lauryn Hill, Ja Rule, Queen Latifah, The Notorious B.I.G, Missy Elliot, Run-DMC, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, Nas, A Tribe Called Quest and Freddie Gibbs.

Black artists in modern pop music

Instead of focusing on familiar names like Rihanna, Pharrell and Beyoncé, this section will highlight songwriters who are responsible for some of the biggest modern pop hits.

Muni Long garnered mainstream stardom when 2021’s “Hrs & Hrs” achieved viral success, but she’s accumulated more than 100 songwriting credits over the last decade. 

From Disney alums Demi Lovato, Bridget Mendler, Nick Jonas, Sabrina Carpenter and Selena Gomez to pop pillars Little Mix, Madonna, Fifth Harmony, Kelly Clarkson and Charlie Puth — there’s a good chance Long is behind one of your favorite songs. Long also penned some of Ariana Grande’s fan-favorite hits — “Imagine,” “Just like Magic,” “Six Thirty” and “Fake Smile.” 

Grande also owes some of her biggest hits to Black songwriters Victoria Monet and Tayla Parx. Monet penned five of the six songs on Grande’s hit “Christmas & Chill” EP and has songwriting credits on at least 20 other songs by Grande, including “Thank U Next” and “7 Rings.” Monet has also written for Blackpink, Gomez and Fifth Harmony.

Meanwhile, Parx (a Dallas, Texas, native) has co-written at least 11 of Grande’s songs, along with songs for Troye Sivan, Kelsea Ballerini, BTS, Kesha, Panic! at the Disco, Meghan Trainor and JoJo, among other artists.

Long, Monet and Parx have their own solo discographies that deserve recognition too. Long and Monet foster a sultry modern R&B sound while Parx relies on upbeat pop elements.

Some more influential Black pop songwriters include Esther Dean (“Firework” by Katy Perry), Starrah (“Girls Like You” by Maroon 5), Diana Gordon (“Sorry” and various songs on Beyoncé’s “Lemonade”), Brian Kennedy (“Mr. Know It All” by Kelly Clarkson) and Claude Kelly (“Party In The U.S.A” by Miley Cyrus).

Pop, R&B recommendations: Sevyn Streeter, WizKid, Jorja Smith, Tems, Fantasia, Donna Summer, Janelle Monae, TLC, India Arie, Sade, UMI, Jazmine Sullivan, TianaMajor9, SiR and The Neptunes (Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo).

A whole separate article would be required to highlight all Black music pioneers. The moral of the story is there wouldn’t be pop, rock, R&B, hip-hop or really any music, without Black creatives.

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Rhema Joy Bell

Rhema Joy Bell

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