The Depth of Black Musical Influence

The Depth of Black Musical Influence

By Olivia Yokubonis


When we think of the influence of black culture in music, we often think of the clear examples, like rap and hip-hop, but this influence goes so much deeper than we have been taught. In honor of Black History Month, we are taking you on a brief trip down the incredible path formed by Black Music, and how nearly every genre that we enjoy was forged by black artists.


Pre 1800’s

Depiction of enslaved people singing spiritual songs.


Gospel music can be traced all the way back to the early 17th century, born from the traditional hymns and spiritual songs the Africans sang during the slave era as they held on to the only piece of their homeland that they could truly embrace. Music was a release from the toils and burdens of slavery. These were songs of hope sung by the enslaved people not out of joy, but out of a desire to be free. Slaves were forbidden to use drums because slave masters believed that drums could be used to send messages to other plantations. Most of the churches relied on hand-clapping and foot-stomping as rhythmic accompaniment as they had very few instruments. Most of the singing was done a cappella. This Gospel genre is best preserved by the music of artists like Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin in the 20th century.



Cakewalk dances were an integral part of minstrel shows for decades. Minstrel Poster Collection (Library of Congress)


One of the earliest expressions we can find of black music was the cakewalk. Slaves competed with one another by dancing to the beat of the music, often making fun of their masters without their knowledge. In the late 1800s, artists such as Ernest Hogan and Bob Cole brought this music to off-Broadway.



A more unfortunate influence that black music had on the music industry was blackface. A memorable example is Dixie from the 1859 minstrel song performed by D.D. Emmett. He was known to imitate the lyrics and rhythms of Black Music in blackface during his minstrel acts, especially cakewalks. It was even so greatly popular that is was performed at Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s inauguration in February 1861.


Early 1900’s 

A jazzing orchestra in 1921. Jazz formed by combining blues harmonies, ragtime drive and habanera rhythms.

Ragtime dominated the first fifteen years of the 20th century with its syncopated techniques all rooted in African music. This method was known as “ragging a tune”, meaning any tune could be improvised while sustaining the harmonic structure. Just like there were cakewalk contests, there were ragtime contests in which musicians ragged over a standard composition.



W.C. Handy was one of the first to popularize Blues music with the introduction of Memphis Blues (1912) and St Louis Blues (1914). The basis of blues music lies within a 12-bar structure featuring three cords (I, IV, V) and the use of “blue notes” and the blues scale (I, IIIb, IV, V, VIIb) for improvisation. Blues is rooted in call and response from the slave songs sung on plantations, and evokes turning raw emotion into sound. Singers like Charlie Jackson and Huddie Letbetter were frontrunners, and set the foundations of Country Music.



In the early 1900’s, Ragtime, Blues, and Jazz were all making headway in the music world. The way that Jazz stood out was the syncopated improvisation of melodies over a harmonic structure. Post World War I, the “Roaring 20s” were also often referred to as the Jazz age. Some of the earliest Jazz musicians, like self proclaimed “father of Jazz”, Jelly Roll Morton were former ragtimers that helped to transform the music. The list goes on to include  Eubie Blake, King Oliver, and Louis Armstrong; who was the first to receive national acclaim and helped form a foundation of Jazz.



Heading into the 50s, African American musicians such as Chuck BerryLittle RichardFats Domino and Bo Diddley were the trendsetters of this new genre called the Boogie Woogie. It is a heavily percussive style of blues piano boogie-woogie, where the right hand plays riffs against a driving pattern of repeating eighth notes. It was initially developed in African-American communities since the 1870s and expanded from piano to piano duo and trio, guitar, country music, and gospel. In he 50s this style of music was heavily enjoyed, and it became imitated by white musicians as record companies quickly realized that more money could be made by having white artists perform black songs.



Also popular during the 50s were Doo-wop groups like The Platters and The Drifters who homed in on a more romantic style of song. In the late-50s, singers Ray Charles and Sam Cooke became notable artists as they combined Blues, Gospel and Jazz into a soulful sound.


LATE 1900’s

The Motown 7s Box Set Volume 2: Rare And Unreleased vinyl box cover


As black people relocated from the South to the Motor City, Detroit MI, they brought in a whole new wave of music with them. Motown helped to transform the Rock and Roll and Doo-wop sounds of the 50s into the Soul Music of the 60s. When Berry Gordy created the company in the early ‘60s, it was all about R&B music but he managed to create a genre that would seal its iconic status as one of America’s most renowned labels. This label helped introduce an array of famous worldwide artists, including Diana Ross, The Jackson 5, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and Martha & The Vandellas.



In the late 60s, James BrownSly and the Family Stone and others helped to lay the foundations of what would become the Funk of the 70s. In the early 70s, the music of Isaac HayesBarry White, Curtis Mayfield and Gill Scott-Heron included rap, which was later defined in the late 70s.



During the rise of rap, the CD became the primary form of sharing and listening to music. Aspiring rappers would go in search of LPs to scratch; recording raps over popular 70s beat samples. The samples from songs like Chic’s *Good Time* and Herbie Hancock’s Rockit became the foundation of early Rap and Hip-hop, which set the stage for N.W.A, Dr. Dre , 2Pac, Biggie, and others that would emerge in the 90s as part of Gangsta Rap infatuation.


Black influence has always been a springboard of American culture. Although we have only touched the surface, there are still so many genres circulating with a foundation from Black Music. Genres like House Music, Dance Music, and even Disco Music were forged by predominantly African American, LGBTQ, and Latino people. Next time you listen to your favorite song, ask yourself who inspired it.


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