“Black people made rock and roll” is a line from the latest single by hip-hop artist Lizzo “Rumors” starring Cardi B. What exactly does Lizzo want in her lyrics?
Blacks were deliberately and systematically erased from rock and roll history. Rock and roll, although apparently “white-dominated”, was unquestionably the pioneer of black artists. Already heard Elvis Presley nicknamed the “king of rock ‘n’ roll”? What many people don’t know is that many of his early popular hits were first written and performed by black artists. One of Elvis’ most popular songs, “Hound Dog,” was originally performed by black blues singer Big Mama Thornton, and countless other hit songs have been written by the author- black composer Otis Blackwell.
Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” is one of the many examples in which the music industry has promoted white artists and sidelined black artists. In the following decades, other white rock artists like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin became the faces of early rock, despite growing their fame through the music and lyrics of black musicians.
The extent to which blacks advanced the rock genre is evident in the early days of the Rock Hall of Fame in 1986. 60% of inductees that year were African American, including artists such as Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Ray Charles, and Little Richard.
However, rock is not the only genre to have its origins in black music. All the lyrics and chords we hear today from popular American songs have influences and distinct origins of black musicians. This is because all American music has its foundations in jazz and blues – genres intrinsic to black culture because they were born out of slavery and racial segregation. As music is such an integral part of our society and culture, it is important to recognize the historical roots of our music, as it is often systematically displaced.
Afro-American hymns and gospels during the period of slavery paved the way for later genres of jazz and blues. With slave masters forcing African American slaves to convert to Christianity, hymns and gospels emerged as a combination of African and European-Christian culture. Music was not just a hobby for slaves, but a necessity for physical and spiritual survival. The gospels served as an outlet to express grief and feelings of oppression; music continued to play this role for blacks through segregation.
Throughout the mid-20th century, jazz and blues offered black people an escape from the horrors of racism and Jim Crow laws. Both genres were incredibly diverse and vibrant, with the blues being specifically recognized for its accessibility regardless of socioeconomic status. Jazz originated in New Orleans as a fusion of African and Creole cultures and also provided an outlet for the expression and recognition of black culture. However, even with well-received black jazz artists like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Ella Ftizgerald, white jazz musicians like Frank Sinatra and Bill Evans grew in popularity because they presented jazz in a more enjoyable way. to white audiences.
One cannot imagine American music without recognizing the influences of black musicians. Today, black artists from pop to hip-hop, ranging from Lizzo to Kendrick Lamar, are recognized and celebrated. Like many black musicians before them, music continues to serve as an outlet for the expression of black culture and struggle. With the history of black music often appropriated and capitalized, disagreements arise around the acceptability of white artists like Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande using “Black slang” or if white rap artists like Post Malone have the potential to “whitewash” rap.
While you don’t need to boycott your favorite white artists, it’s still important to honor the roots of the music you listen to. White and black musicians have influenced American music, but the difference is that many black musicians have been overlooked for their central contributions. You will find that music is far from the only example in which this is the case.
Erika Cao is an opinion intern for the fall term 2021. She can be contacted at [email protected].