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A history of contemporary Black music


By Desi K. Robinson


While looked upon as a sign of contentment, gospel music expressed sorrow, anger, and a fighting spirit. The Bible’s Old Testament inspired many early black spirituals and references to such stories can be found in the lyrics of "Go Down Moses," "Joshua Fought The Battle Of Jericho," "My Army Cross Over," and "Singing With A Sword In My Hand."  


Where whites heard songs like "Steal Away To Jesus" and "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" as flights of fancy, blacks imagined and plotted a life on the free soil of Canada, Boston, and Philadelphia.

Before the easy listening and mellow Kenny G and Norah Jones became the new standard for contemporary jazz music, it was a gymnastically challenging art form that harkened blues and gospel music. Before it became a white middle-class fascination, it was rooted in a vivid, socially motivated call for change.


When bebop was born, it was the voice of black Americans calling for freedom, and jazz expressed it in a way that allowed artists to be liberated within the music. Charlie "Bird" Parker composed “Now's the Time,” insisting the moment was right for social change. 


Charles Mingus composed “Fable of Faubus” in response to Orval Faubus's racism as governor of Arkansas. John Coltrane recorded “Alabama” after four black girls died in the Birmingham church bombing. The American jazz community of both whites and blacks backed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s campaign for Civil Rights.

The American and British occupying forces in
also brought American popular music with them; during the Third Reich, many Germans found it exhilarating after May of 1945 to listen to jazz music. They saw American tunes that could be heard in all occupation zones as a symbol of more general liberation from Nazi oppression. The consciousness and spirit of jazz influenced the development of “Swing,” ”Dixieland,” “Free Jazz,” “Modern,” Fusion,” and “Latin Jazz.”


       Marvin Gaye: Used his music to challenge America's involvement in Vietnam


The ills and injustices of urban hardships can so clearly be heard from the powerful delivery of the Empress of the Blues Bessie Smith to the rawness of the Queen of hip hop soul Mary J. Blige. Blues, soul and R & B music captures the ills of contemporary urban America: racism, drug abuse and economic adversity as well as the vitality, creativity, intelligence, and relentless spirit. Artists like Nina Simone and landmark albums like Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and Stevie Wonder’s “Innervisions” built some of the most intimate portraits addressing American life and opposition to the Vietnam War.

Like many other music forms, country music is an amalgam of influences. Its sound, structure, and lyrical text reveal a heavy debt to African American musical styles, particularly blues and gospel. The music as storytelling has roots in southern Protestant sermonizing, bar room sadness, front porch chillin’, and the general character of regional oral traditions. 


Country music often suffers from a double-edged sword in that its call for simple living and traditional values often harkens past images of ignorance, racism, slavery, Civil War, and the Ku Klux Klan. Even though country music has always been a voice for small farmers, factory hands, day labourers, the displaced and unemployed, carrying an implicit critique of capitalism, it still tends to support God, the American flag, and the agenda of protecting it at all costs.

Reggae music has made its way into hip hop, as a dancehall sensation, Ska, with a souped-up Latin beat in the now explosive “Reggaeton”: Spanish reggae. This all tends to be very feel-good music but Reggae’s origins developed in Rastafarians bringing Jamaican culture, politics, religion, a social message and music together.

To the Rastafarian in reggae, ultimate social change can only occur with the end of the Babylon System. Babylon is a Rastafarian term referring to western society oppression, where blacks cannot gain power and advance as a race of people. Early political Rastafarian music places the focus of the music on the structure of this society.

The ambassador of Reggae music, Robert Nesta Marley, know to us affectionately as “Bob,” and his Wailers would be proud to know that in the many realms of reggae today, along with the ‘rude boy’ image, defining an era of social instability, it still calls for social change as is what is needed for blacks within Jamaica and the rest of the world to succeed.  

And they said it wouldn’t last.

Editor's Note: The concluding part of this piece will appear on Wednesday.

Main picture: London Community Gospel Choir

Desi K. Robinson is an editorial staff with Ricenpeas, an award-winning independent film-producing company. With thanks to Ricenpeas where this piece was originally published.

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