One month not enough time to appreciate influence of African Americans on music (video collection)


“What does music mean to you? What would you do without music?”

— Duke Ellington

The irony of this question is that without Duke’s innovations in jazz, the genre would not be what it is today. It is also ironic because among the myriad reasons why black lives matter, music and the contributions made to it by African Americans, often go unrecognized and underappreciated.

June is African American Music Appreciation Month, as proclaimed on June 7, 1979, when President Jimmy Carter made the designation as “Black Music Month.” President Barack Obama commemorated the 30th anniversary with the current moniker.

We can all agree that music is something virtually everyone enjoys. Whether it be pop, rock, rap, country, bluegrass, jazz or any of the various subgenres, music is inspirational and at the very least it entertains us. It is in the scores of our favorite movies and in the soundtracks of our lives.

But what some take for granted and others may have never realized is how influential African Americans have been in the development of the music we all love. Their contributions to American music “are so fundamental to American music that there would be no American music without them,” reads a Smithsonian Institute Article titled “Musical Crossroads: African American Influence on American Music.”

Under the painful veil of slavery, folk spirituals emerged as early sociopolitical protests from people who, newly introduced to Christianity, identified with the persecution of Jesus. The spirituals gave birth to what generations later would call American Gospel. Many of the songs were improvised and performed while working, as a form of encouragement. When they were not working, early accounts describe slaves spending time making music on banjos, tambourines, and drums, and instruments with roots in Africa.

Segregation and oppression in America continued to adversely affect the lives of African Americans even after slavery, and by the late 1800s ragtime and blues were reflective of modern life and experiences in the black community. In the early 1900s, movements like the Harlem Renaissance helped to propel jazz to its status as a recognized form of popular music. That evolution continued well into the 1970s, producing such notable artists as John Coltrane, Count Basie, Miles Davis, George Duke, Billie Holiday and Herbie Hancock.

The great Stevie Wonder once said that “music, at its essence, is what gives us memories. And the longer a song has existed in our lives, the more memories we have of it.”

No time in contemporary history, arguably, has music provided such fond memories as it did in the 20th century. For many of us music has been the fabric of our lives, and for that credit goes to the generations of black musicians whose blood, sweat and tears built a musical legacy. Unfortunately, during a time when popular music was celebrated most, African Americans were still struggling for the same freedoms many Americans already had.

The tradition of the folk spiritual continues today in many forms of music from blues to rock ‘n’ roll to rap, and its protests are more profound than ever. Listen to Marvin Gaye’s timeless hit more closely. He isn’t asking America how we got where we are; he’s challenging us to understand the oppressed, the people affected most by how we got where we are.

“Picket lines and picket signs

Don’t punish me with brutality

Talk to me, so you can see

What’s going on. Yeah, what’s going on.”

— Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On”

A life without music, for me, is unimaginable, and so is a life without perspective. For many, the Black Lives Matter movement is a call for greater equality. For me, it is also a time to re-evaluate why black lives matter and not to simply qualify that “all lives matter.”

I am often left confounded with holidays whose subject of celebration is limited to a month. African American Music Appreciation month is one of them. When I think of how important music is to me, personally, it is difficult to limit my appreciation to just one month. But in its most practical way, this is a calendar reminder we need now more than when the holiday was established 41 years ago.

Duke Ellington was one of the first musicians to champion his blackness and see it as an essential part of the music he made. If he were here today, I wonder what he would think of this all, and if he would frame his question the same way.

“What does music mean to you? What would you do without music?”