Celebrating the Influences of African American Artists Over the Decades
On June 7, 1979, President Jimmy Carter hosted an event on the South Lawn at the White House featuring performances from the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Andre Crouch, Evelyn “Champagne” King and more. It was on this day that Carter designated June as “Black Music Month”. Fast-forward to June 2, 2009 and African American Music Appreciation Month is born, thanks to President Obama. Obama renamed the holiday to encourage “more activities and programs to raise awareness and foster appreciation of music which is composed, arranged and performed by African Americans."
But what motivated Carter to create this month in the first place? It was the influences of the Black Music Association, which at the time was a trade association dedicated to educating young producers and writers in the music industry about how to protect their intellectual property, how to market their work and how to be properly compensated as artists.
African American artists have had an immeasurable impact on American pop and rock music today, from Chuck Berry’s smooth style of rhythm and blues that influenced the likes of Elvis Presley, to the vocals of Etta James that inspired ground-breaking artists like Beyonce. Although the list of impacts made by black artists is seemingly endless, here are some of the greatest breakthroughs made by these artists in the past year alone.
At this year’s Coachella music festival, Beyonce made history in becoming the first ever African American headliner of the event. She stormed the stage for a jaw-dropping 27 song set, with a strong focus on black culture and history that helped to shape her as the performer she is today. Beyonce performed “List Every Voice and Sing” while incorporating quotes from Malcolm X between songs. Through the performance, Beyonce payed homage to HBCU universities with an impressive display of marching, stepping and drum lines typical to HBCU homecomings and culture.
Kendrick Lamar Wins Pulitzer
Another groundbreaking moment in African American music this year was the recognition of Kendrick Lamar’s album “DAMN.” by the Pulitzer Center. Lamar is the first rapper in history to receive the award and is the first winner who was not a classical or jazz musician since the Pulitzer Center began its music award in 1943. This is also the first award given to a hip-hop album, while the board decided to award Lamar with the honor unanimously. The board called the album “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.”
Donald Glover’s “This is America”
American actor, singer and writer Donald Glover made waves in the music and political world with the release of his single “This is America” as host of “Saturday Night Live” early this May. Though the video for the single may not be appropriate for younger audiences (there are blatant displays of gun violence through the video), it highlights some important political issues surrounding African American culture and music, as well as its place in American pop culture as a whole. Perhaps most notable is Donald Glover dancing as his hip-hop alter ego “Childish Gambino” in the opening of the video. Glover twists and contorts his body in seemingly sporadic ways, with greatly exaggerated facial expressions. A second look reveals that these moves are reminiscent of Jim Crow era caricatures of African Americans.
The video’s choreographer, Sherrie Silver is a Rwandan-born dancer, and has worked to incorporate and highlight the influence of Afro culture on wildly popular dance crazes like the “Shoot”, “Reverse” and “Nae Nae”. This influential piece of work is a stand out of the year thus far for its ability to highlight the influence of African American culture on popular culture in modern day.