Spirit has many ways of expressing itself. One of those channels of expression occurs through music; the melodic, harmonic, rhythmic voice of our soul, reflecting years of feelings and experiences. From early times it has been known as a healing force. Afrikans used it to record family histories and communicate between communities.
The ancient Greeks used it as a method to teach mathematics. There is no doubt that the right kind of music, at that moment when it is most needed, can massage even the deepest feelings. Work songs were used to lessen the harsh conditions of a prison chain gang. Chants were used to accompany all sorts of rituals. Slaves used it to pass on details of an escape. Retail stores use it as an incentive for buying. Without it, the world would not know the pleasure of dance. But music, like other aspects of life, comes in hundreds of different forms. Those forms are interpreted through various styles. Style shapes the structure of the song and how it is performed.
Over the years, Afrikans in America have developed many musical styles, influencing all forms of American popular music. The greatest exposures of these styles are manifested in what we hear on the radio, music videos, movies and commercials. What is most interesting, we are quietly going through a black popular musical revolution right before our ears and eyes, and not recognizing it. J.H. Kwabena Nketia, considered the father of Afrikan music, and a master musical researcher, consistently says, "We are always looking into the past while neglecting what is occurring in the present." So as not to violate that bit of wisdom, we will start our black popular musical journey with the 1940s, concluding with the present musical styles that are causing the present black music revolution.
In the 1940s, swing music was the prevalent style of popular black music of the period. One might even call it a dance hall style of music, because that is where people went to dance and hear it. It was created by black musical artists, but popularized by and given credit to white musicians (Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey). If we had to identify any single American Afrikan individual for swing's creation, we would have to turn to Fletcher Henderson, who composed the first swing song and wrote Benny Goodman's charts. But what was to occur in the 1940s has influenced black popular music from that time to eternity.
A black music revolution occurred that would turn the music world on its heels. Progressive musicians of Afrikan descent were getting tired, bored and disgusted with the repetitious rhythmic structure of swing. The music just didn't say anything to them. It was nice to play to make a living, but the creative and revolting urge was too strong for them to remain in that style of music.
Late at night, after their regular gigs, musicians such as: Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Parker, Thelonious Monk, Charles Christian, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, Max Roach, and so many more, developed what they described as "Be Bop." This was a musician's music. It set the stage for those who called themselves master musicians. If a musician stepped on the stage and couldn't read or play, their feelings would be terribly crushed.
This was a skilled music that required the highest level of musicianship. American Afrikan musicians decided to take the music to a level that would transcend almost anything a musician of European descent could accomplish, except for a few rare instances. This was a decade that also had a major innovation that would have a profound effect on the dissemination of black music and its creativity, the start of the first radio station owned by people of Afrikan descent, WERD of Atlanta, Georgia. This decade saw the great black musical innovator, Thomas A. Dorsey, foster the beginning of a style of music that would later infiltrate black popular music, gospel music.
The 1950s saw American Afrikan popular music reach another plateau. Blues musicians had already migrated from the South to the North, mainly to Chicago. Industrialization was the theme of American business, but also musical instrumentation. Electrical instruments began to reflect what was happening in the larger society. Instruments such as the electric guitar and amplified harmonicas formed the basis for the new bands that became established in the North. Rhythm sections were expanded to include the electric bass, drums, piano, and solo instruments like saxophones and trumpets.
Rural blues changed to urban blues, which became rhythm & blues and planted the seeds for rock & roll. We saw this progression created by artists like Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Bobby Blue Bland, John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, Junior Wells and several others. When rhythm & blues became the dominat musical force in the later 1950s, some of the major artists were: Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, The Platters, Johnny Ace, Jesse Belvin, Dinah Washington, among many others. Jazz was slipping in terms of being categorized as popular music, but the most dominant modern jazz album of that decade, and probably any others, was "Kind of Blue," featuring Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Wynton Kelly, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers and James Cobb. The seeds that were planted earlier for rock & roll, a black popular musical style, began to blossom with artists like Little Richard, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and others. Rock & roll would become the dominant style of music among whites, who also attempted to claim credit for its creation, as they tried to do with jazz and swing. The 1960s was a decade that brought about huge cultural and social changes. Music did not escape the cultural revolution of this period. Popular black music transformed into message music, popularly known as soul music.
This was an era that evolved from a Civil Rights Movement to a Black Consciousness Movement. Many young people of Afrikan descent were changing their allegiances from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Minister Malcolm X. Being black was elevated to being beautiful, rather than ugly and degrading. James Brown captured this theme with his song, 'Say It Loud, I'm Black And I'm Proud.' Wearing the natural hair style, Afrikan clothing and changing ones name from what was called a slave name, because the European names given to Afrikans started on the slave plantations, were common occurrences. Many felt that this was the decade of the best black popular music ever made.
The late Frankie Crocker, America's leading disc jockey for many years confirms, "Well, I would say there was more [good black music] in the late 60s then there was throughout all the 70s, with a few exceptions." Every style of black music was being transformed, which also carried over into the 1970s. People such as Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Ray Charles, The Impressions, The Temptations, Curtis Mayfeild, Otis Redding, The Isley Brothers, Earth Wind & Fire, War, Sly & The Family Stone, Martha & The Vandellas, The Fifth Dimension, The Dells, The Chambers Brothers, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, The Spinners, Ike & Tina Turner, Jerry Butler, Isaac Hayes, Gladys Knight & the Pips, The Supremes, The Jackson 5, and of course later on, Stevie Wonder, and so many, many more produced such a high quality of black popular music that it will likely never be repeated again. Among the white youth, who claimed rock & roll as their own music, saw it transformed into an underground music simply called 'Rock.' As the white youth searched for the origins of this music, a new popularity among the urban blues artists mentioned earlier began to resurface. But the man who elevated this new style of music to its highest level was none other than the true king of rock, Jimi Hendrix.
His album "Band of Gypsies," and the track 'Machine Gun,' is still regarded as the greatest electric guitar solo ever recorded. His rendition of the 'Star Spangled Banner,' at the Woodstock Festival, considered the last great event of the 1960s, was the defining moment of the entire festival. Included in the all time greatest versions of the 'Star Spangled Banner,' is Marvin Gaye's version. As the 1960s artists carried over into the 1970s, the music industry started to see a drastic decline in the quality of music and sales. This caused many record companies to initiate mass layoffs of employees. Something had to be done to revitalize the record business.
White producers developed a style of popular music with a very simplistic, monotonous beat. It became a musical standard in the disco clubs, thus, it became known throughout the country as 'disco music.' Donna Summer was crowned the disco queen, but it was more like a flash in the pan. It didn't last. At the same time, teenagers of Afrikan descent were getting increasingly bored with disco. It offered nothing for them, as swing began to disinterest the youth of the 1940s. They began to experiment with breaks in records, usually where the instrumental solos were, and replaced it with talking in a rhythmic rhyming style over these breaks.
After several revisions and name changes, it finally became known as 'rap music.' An entire sub-culture evolved out of the Bronx in New York City. Hip hop was the next musical evolution as be bop was of the 1940s. It was the musical, poetic personal expression news wire that went through every youth community in America, ultimately the world. Young black America had a music they could relate to and didn't need adult approval. Rhythm & blues, as the dominant popular black music, took a back seat throughout most of the 1990s.
Artists such as Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five, RUN DMC, Whodini, LL Cool J, and several others were the frontrunners. As the new millennium approached, hip hop artists such as: NWA, Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G., Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Snoop Dog dominated the rap scene. According to young and old, the down side of this style of music was that many artists turned from being a revolutionary, fun-loving, boosting, partying, encouraging message music to romancing and popularizing a gang-oriented, profanity-laced, female degrading, materialistic, drug and violent themes. It is almost like a new form of self-inflicted cultural and mental slavery, dominated by music business executives who control the five major record companies.
As we began to leave the last millennium and enter a new one, a quiet musical revolution began to emerge in popular black music. Those adults who gained some level of black consciousness in the 1960s and '70s, would later question if there would be any creative fruits to bare from their mental transformations. The Reagan era seemed to wipe away what had been gained from the cultural revolution sparked by Minister Malcolm X.
All the books that were read and written, the name changes, the natural, Afrikan cloths and all the other societal fringes seem to have just musically dissipated in the air until Lauren Hill came out with her album, "The Miseducation of Lauren Hill." The name was taken from the Dr. Carter G. Woodson revolutionary book of its time (1933), "The Miseducation of the Negro," which showed a higher level of consciousness many thought did not exist among the younger generation. This was an album that reaped every musical and financial rewards obtainable, which translates into the market place being receptive to substance in music.
What is curious about this present black popular musical revolution, it seems to be female-driven, which creates another discussion. Since Ms. Hill's conscious music, we also have the Afrikan consciousness of Eryka Badu, closely followed by Jill Scott, with the ever upward evolution of India Arie. That is not to say that the men have disappeared, but their lyrics do not hit the social consciousness of the women artists previously mentioned. Their musical quality has greatly improved with such artists as: D'Angelo, Joe, Musique Soulchild, with the hope that R Kelly will one day evolve to a higher level.
The music igniting this present black music revolution almost seems to defy any musical category, though radio stations and record companies will pigeonhole their styles for playlist, marketing and promotion purposes. Many of the meaningful themes that were so popular during the revolutionary 1960s seem to have resurfaced. If the present black popular music revolution is any indication of music to come, not only will the younger generations embrace this music, as they have, but also the older generations who have been looking for some quality black music for a long time.