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Malayna Kancov
Professor Fields
UWRT 1102
12 October 2016
Black Music in American Culture
In this literature review exhibit, I will attempt to answer the question of what the role of
black artists in America traditionally has been and how these creative minds have impacted
culture in America and countries abroad as a whole. The significance of this question lies not
only in highlighting the creative accomplishments of black Americans, but also in emphasizing
all of the ways that black talent has been underwritten and overlooked. I hope to bring many
different ideas into light as I analyze the history of black music in America, and my overall goal
is to outline important and varied perspectives on my research question to provide an
understanding of the role of black people in music.
Culturally, black Americans have always had a stunning and undeniable presence. From
our slave songs, to our invention of jazz, to our current artists who stand as some of the most
relevant names in music, we have invented and reinvented music styles many times. Id like to
start off by referencing some of the movies that brought stories of black artists to life so that
anybody in the world can witness and learn about some important change makers. The amount of
biopics and other movies that chronicle the life and times of impactful black artists is countless,
but there are a few that stand out with relation to this paper. Specifically, the Netflix original
biopic that earned an Oscar, What Happened, Miss Simone?, chronicles her beginnings as an
aspiring classical pianist, her activism, and her sad decline in old age, and the triumphant legacy

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of her career (Blay, 1). Nina Simone is an important figurehead in black music, and I chose to
reference her first in this paper because she was a complete game-changer.
The most notable acts committed by Miss Simone would be her activism and her stand
on black people in America. She consistently used her status as an international star to lift black
people up, to define her own beauty standards rather than to fall victim to comparing herself to
white beauty standards, and to shock the world by singing openly about the plight of black
people in America as well as the pressing need for change. Specifically, Simones song,
Mississippi Goddamn, released in 1964 as a song about the current state of civil rights, was
unorthodox for the time because of the use of the word goddamn. This was one of the first
instances in which a singer cussed on stage and in a record, and she used this as a platform to
promote change. This is just one example of how a black artist changed the culture of America
during her own time, and is a great example of how timeless that change was, as there is now a
documentary on Netflix that speaks on it in length.
Im now going to shift the attention from the perspective of movie producers and history
documentaries over to the perspective of black rappers in America. It is a well known fact that
black people started hip hop and rap in America. However, for his song Fire Squad, released in
2014, artist J.Cole received plenty of backlash regarding his comments made about Elvis, Iggy
Azalea, Eminem, Justin Timberlake, and Macklemore. The lyric from his song reads as, Same
thing that my nigga Elvis did with Rock n Roll/ Justin Timberlake, Eminem and then
Macklemore/ While silly niggas argue over who gon snatch the crown/ Look around, my nigga,
white people have snatched the sound/ This year Ill prolly go to the awards dappered down/
Watch Iggy win a Grammy as I try to crack a smile (Cole).

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J. Cole is referencing the history of white artists taking inspiration from black artists
without those black artists receiving credit for their part in creating styles and sounds. An article
referenced J.Coles interview with Angie Martinez on Power 105, in which Cole referenced the
beginnings of jazz as well as the fact that iTunes Jazz page features mostly white people. Cole
states, "It's fine; anybody could do whatever music they want, it's art. Jazz is a black form of
music in its origins. And not only is it a black form of music, it was the hip-hop of its day. It was
that much of a rebellious music." The connection became even more clear, "It's not Iggy Azalea's
fault. It's not Eminem's fault. And I don't want to put Eminem in a category with anybody in
terms of skill level. What I'm saying is, there comes a time when the system realizes that, I can
sell this white person a lot easier -- it's no conscious person (Fleischer, 1). Some people believe
that the space in music for black people is narrowing, despite the fact that black people created it.
J. Cole is just one example of somebody who recognizes that, and draws attention to it and to the
culture that surrounds black space in music.
The perspective of white and other non-black artists is important to include in this paper
for the cultural examples. I want to name one of my favorite artists of all time, Amy Winehouse.
Amy Winehouse was one of the first white singers I had ever heard who had soul and sang with
the depth and emotion that I previously always connected with black artists. The Guardian
magazine takes clips and words from Amy Winehouse in which she recalls her great influences.
She first speaks broadly about her favorite genres, I liked Otis Redding from 14 or 15, but I
listened to hip-hop and jazz for so many years. It goes jazz, soul, Motown, then hip-hop.
Obviously, I've gone in the middle (Winehouse, 1). For the purpose of this paper, it is important
to point out that all of these genres were created and carefully cultivated by black people. At

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another point in the interview, Amy name drops a few of her favorite artists that made an impact
on her life and music, and who are also black people. Sarah Vaughan is one of my favourite
singers of all time. She was an instrument. I've heard one record, it's like a humming solo, and
she sounds like a reed instrument like a clarinet. I came to Sarah Vaughan later: I was about 18.
And I learned to sing from Dinah Washington, and from stuff like [Thelonious] Monk. It wasn't
just the vocal jazz I learned from everything, really (Winehouse, 1). The point of quoting
these statements is just to draw attention to the perspective of one of the most celebrated modern
voices in jazz, to whom black artists made an impact on, effectively staking a place in musical
To understand the significance of black people in musical culture, it is important to have
knowledge of the history of popular black music. I make the distinction of popular black music
because the history of black music reaches back much further, to the time of slaves, when they
were writing their own music that combined music from their native lands with European music.
In relation to this, one bit of research that was all but nonexistent was the role of black artists in
traditionally white musical spaces. For the purposes of this paper, however, the focus should
remain on pop music. The roots of jazz music are black. Jazz artists, such as Duke Ellington and
Billie Holiday, paved the way for new genres of music created by black artists. Most notable of
all genres is rhythm & blues, because it led to rock music (which some still argue is synonymous
with r&b) and the ever present hip hop, which eventually led to rap.
To be more specific, The term "rhythm and blues" describes a number of historically
specific styles that have grown out of the African American vernacular music tradition since midcentury. Rhythm and blues laid the foundation for numerous subsequent styles including rock

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and roll, soul, disco, funk, jazz fusion, rap and, most recently, "smooth" (contemporary) jazz
(Ramsay, 1149). Clearly, artists of all different ethnicities from all over the world create music
that falls under the category of r&b, and the musical styles that have evolved from that. It would
not be exaggeration to state that African Americans are perhaps the most influential group of
people in terms of music.
The topic of r&b and its relation to rock & roll is controversial to say the least. Most
young people see the two as completely different genres, but that was not always the case. For
many, there are no significant differences between the music played by the Bee Gees or Hall and
Oats and that played by the Jacksons or Earth, Wind and Fire. To them the music labeled rock 'n'
roll and that labeled rhythm 'n' blues sounds the same, and historically it is the same (Redd, 32).
Many people also feel that black artists have been slighted in America because they are simply
not given credit for many of their works. For example, Mass-media chroniclers have repeatedly
credited Bill Haley's recording of "Rock around the Clock" with being a rock 'n' roll classic and
the first example of the genre-this despite the fact that the song originally was recorded by black
artist Sonny Dae and Haley's recording was a later cover (Redd, 32).
There are countless examples of this exact scenario throughout Americas musical
history, and not enough time to list them all. I think it is important to also note that people only
have access to the information they are given. Because mass-media portrayed Haleys cover as
an original, people believed that story. It is only with additional and extensive research that I was
able to uncover the truth, and I would not know it if I had not been taught. Unfortunately, despite
black Americans necessary role in music and culture, many game changers and important artists
will never be well-known because of the racism that has always existed in this country.

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To bring this literature review to a close, modern day music will be reviewed. At the
moment, hip hop (which led to rap years after its creation) is one of the leading musical styles
and leads music forward. However, it is not just music. Since its emergence in the South Bronx
and throughout the northeast during the early and mid-1970s, Hip Hop has encompassed not just
a musical genre, but also a style of dress, dialect and language, way of looking at the world, and
an aesthetic that reflects the sensibilities of a large population of youth(Aldridge & Stewart,
190). Although there are many modern day black artists that can be discussed in great lengths in
this paper, Hip Hop defined as a culture brings my analysis of black artists in musical culture to a
poignant close.
The creation of not only a musical style, but an entirely new societal landmark is a
wonderful and accurate way to point to the creativity of black people in America. The
significance of Hip Hop in America draws from a history of intuity and musical styles. The
significance of the question of what the impact of black artists in America has been is important.
An easier question to answer, however, is the question of what the culture of America would look
like without the emersion of black artists. The answer--unrecognizable.

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Works Cited

Blay, Zeba. "21 Movies About Black Music Icons You Should Watch ASAP." Huffington Post.
N.p., 22 Apr. 2016. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.

"Amy Winehouse: In Her Own Words." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 2012. Web.
12 Oct. 2016.

Fleischer, Adam. "J. Cole Explains What Inspired His 'Fire Squad' Verse About Eminem, Iggy
Azalea And Macklemore." News. N.p., 2014. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.

J.Cole. Fire Squad. 2014 Forest Hills Drive, Dreamville Records, 2014.

Ramsey, Guthrie P., Jr. "Popular Music." The African American Almanac. Ed.
Jeffrey Lehman. 9th ed. Detroit: Gale, 2003. 1149-1202. Gale Virtual Reference Library.
Web. 12 Oct. 2016.

Alridge, Derrick P., and James B. Stewart. "Introduction: Hip Hop in History: Past, Present, and
Future." The Journal of African American History 90.3 (2005): 190-95. Web.

Reed, Lawrence N. Rock! Its Still Rhythm and Blues. The Black Perspective in Music, Vol.

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13, No. 1, 1985, pp. 31-47.