What is ‘black music’? How are race and identity conveyed in the music media?

What is ‘black music’? How are race and identity conveyed in the music media?

It could be argued that all forms of popular music from the 20th and 21st century derive from what is often termed as ‘black’ music. Heavy metal from rock, rock from blues/rock n roll, blues from gospel, as just one example. Modern pop music may have roots in European folk/classical traditions in terms of harmonic structure, but has been heavily influenced by the rhythms, phrasing, and instrumentation of ‘black’ forms such as R&B, soul, blues and jazz since its inception. ‘Black music’ in this context refers to music that originates from black communities and contains a majority percentage of black performers (hip-hop, R&B, soul etc). However, this shorthand term used by the mainstream media appears to make no recognition of the influence and control ‘black music’ has had on the wide spectrum of popular musical forms.
Very simply, one could point to the mass transportation of West Africans to America during the slave trade as the starting point of 20th century popular music. Traditional elements, such as rhythmic tribal drumming, mixed with the pre-existing folk music. This, along with enforced Christianity and English language, were the roots of early gospel and spirituals. Slave work songs transformed in to the blues. Leftover instruments from the marching bands of the American Civil War became the first tools of early jazz. As jazz grew in popularity across America and Europe, black music began to converge upon the public consciousness, and the race and identity of popular musicians first became a divisive issue in the media.

Often cited as the “first major form of black art” (Neal, 1999:19), jazz became the blueprint for the exploitation of black music styles by largely white corporations over the next eighty years (see Eminem’s phenomenal first album sales, or the explosion of the horrifically termed ‘blue-eyed soul’ genre of the early/mid ‘70s.) As Neal explains, jazz was “readily accessible and thus commodified and appropriated by a willing and needy white public” (1999:19). With the birth of television, the visual media began to focus largely on white jazz artists such as Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller (both extollers of the ‘swing’ form, a style considered to be further from the African-American influence than most), to maximise potential viewing figures in a still heavily segregated society. ‘Blackface’ singers, such as Al Jolson, became popular at the cinema with films such as 1927’s ‘The Jazz Singer’. ‘Blackface’, in which a white man literally blackens his face to impersonate a black man, represents the beginnings of the development of a ‘black vernacular’, described by Tommy Lott as “the oral and paralinguistic activity of the speakers of a black dialect” (1999:85). This notion of impersonating, and often ridiculing, most notably African-American dialects and slang has become widely accepted today, as seen in the use of a black vernacular in films or television programs to denote ‘street’ talk, or appropriations of a cool style.
As music writing developed in to a platform for academic critique in the ‘60s, with magazines such as Rolling Stone, Creem and Crawdaddy all discussing music as a serious art form, black music was pushed aside in favour of the supposed complexities of rock. Within these publications and other mainstream forms of music media, black music started and ended at soul/jazz, just as it appears to with rap/hip-hop today. As Nelson George explains, everything considered as black was prefaced with the word ‘soul’ – “soul-clap, soul-food” etc (2008). He goes on to explain that now the same is true of hip-hop. If you were to read the mainstream press, it would appear that “the only thing that was happening in black American culture is hip-hop” (George, 2008), whereas there exists a huge percentage of the black community who do not care about the genre. George claims that this is symptomatic of mainstream culture’s attitude towards black art forms, saying that “the complexity in the range of expression in the black community is always under appreciated” (2008).
That white music was rock/metal and black music was soul/funk was a common generalisation in the music press of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Many musicians of both races abhorred this. Funkadelic, primarily a black funk band led by the charismatic George Clinton, felt this way. The band’s blend of funk and soul with rock was difficult to market for its label Westbound (and later Warner Bros.), and their exasperation with the musical segregation in the press was exemplified on the song Who Says A Funk Band Can’t Play Rock Music from 1978’s One Nation Under A Groove, on which Clinton sings
Who says a jazz band can’t play dance music? Who says a rock band can’t play funky? Who says a funk band can’t play rock? We’re gonna play some funk so loud, rock and roll around. Watch them dance (Clinton, Hampton, Morrison. 1978)

The fact that one of rock’s earliest and finest pioneers, Jimi Hendrix, was black didn’t fit in with existing structure. He was constantly categorised as blues or R&B, when it was obvious to all in the music community that his guitar work was leading the way for the new rock sound, and later heavy metal. Even following Hendrix’s death in 1970, Time magazine’s short obituary read simply
“Died. Jimi Hendrix, 27, Seattle-born rock superstar whose grating, bluesy voice, screechy, pulsating guitar solos and pelvis-pumping stage antics conveyed both a turned-on, fetid sense of eroticism and, at best, a reverberated musical equivalent of the urban black’s anguished spirit; apparently of an overdose of drugs; in London” (Time magazine, September 28th, 1970).

As white blues-based rock bands such as Cream and Led Zeppelin began to appear in the wake of Hendrix’s impact, their appropriations of black music forms granted them an air of authenticity, something that Allan Moore refers to as “authenticity of execution” (1993). Moore explains that this “arises when a performer succeeds in conveying the impression of accurately representing the presence of another” (1993). It can be argued that the same attribution would not be made if the roles were reversed. For example, the black folk singer Richie Havens’ brand of Dylan-esque folk music is still written about with a prefix or suffix of a black music style, such as the “folksy soulfulness” of his 2004 album Grace Of The Sun in The Independent (Gill, 2004). In the same way, the substance lacking, adult-contemporary warbling of later Lionel Richie is still referred to as ‘soul’.
Music has often been used as a platform for black communities to express their dissatisfaction with their treatment in society, and this has frequently pushed its artists to the underground end of music reporting, its issues deemed too ‘risky’ for mainstream press to cover. For example, in Britain in the early ‘70s the music press favoured the now white-dominated ska sound, marginalizing the many politically minded black reggae groups that existed. Often the important messages in the music are seen as secondary to the artist as commodity. When Island Records sold Bob Marley to the world, they did so by ‘sanitising’ his sound. The Wailer’s debut, Catch A Fire, was rerecorded by the company using white rock artists to achieve the required ‘crossover’ sound, and Marley was marketed to the rock audience first, and the reggae audience second.

Conscious or otherwise, there is still racial segregation in music reporting. In the UK, the major weekly and monthly music publications such as MOJO, Q and NME rarely feature black artists or cover black musical forms, except to use black artists almost patronisingly as figures of entertainment as opposed to worthwhile artists. Dylan Mills, AKA Dizzee Rascal, is a prime example of this form of exploitation. Once connected with a UK underground music scene described as ‘dangerous’ by the press, Mills now creates pop-dance hits that many see as ‘safe’, or in some circles ‘sell out’. Due to this change of direction, the music press and broadsheets have decided that he is now a harmless subject, and even go as far as to patronisingly commend him for his movement away from the more ‘dangerous’ and ‘untamed’ music of his younger days (while still referring to him as ‘hip-hop’, a genre in which it could be argued that Mills has never produced music). By associating themselves with him, these publications are attempting to gain Moore’s “authenticity by execution” (1993), and add to their credibility. Even television programs use Mills as a voice of black communities in Britain. Following the election of Barack Obama in the USA, Mills appeared on an edition of BBC 2’s Newsnight, in which he, when asked if a black man could be elected leader in the UK, he replied “I think a black man, purple man, Martian man could run the country” (BBC, 5th November 2008). Many believe Mills was patronised by host Jeremy Paxman, while others believed that the musician’s use of such a strong ‘black vernacular’ throughout was detrimental to racial representation in highbrow media.

The way in which Mills and other ‘urban’ artists are referred to in the press follows a recent timeline that can be accurately traced back to the change in hip-hop journalism that occurred in mid ‘90s America. The leading form of black music for the past twenty-odd years, hip-hop has its own dedicated press, and the subculture has been largely responsible for creating the ‘identity’ of black artists in the media. Jeff Chang explains that hip-hop journalism “at its best was deeply passionate – writing that celebrated blackness….But, often, the pieces were merely ornamental advertisements that fetishized rappers’ monetary success” (2002:70). Well-respected magazines such as The Source, initially a conscious regional publication, jumped on the mid ‘90s bandwagon of glorifying the violence and money aspect of a rapidly changing culture. They weren’t alone. The Quincy Jones owned Vibe also began to emphasise the gang-related tribalism of the genre, especially the west coast/east coast divide that was appearing at the time. Hip-hop was now big business in America, as Jeff Chang points out, the “industry was peaking, exploding in market share to more than 10 percent of the domestic music market” (2002:68). The editorial focus of both leading publications changed to reflect the flashy money-centric style of the commercial end of the genre. The image of the bejewelled gangster surrounded by images of wealth and violence was born, much to the detriment of many black artists of both hip-hop and other genres. As was the case with jazz, corporate white America spotted the potential commerciality of hip-hop early on, repackaging and reselling it to a white audience through artists such as Vanilla Ice, The Beastie Boys, and later, Eminem. Among the conservative middle classes however, the high profile of hip-hop was blamed for everything from gang violence, to rises in drug use, to teen pregnancy, damaging the reputation of the genre further. Hip-hop journalism wasn’t helping. Chang describes the press portrayal around this time as an “endless parade of flossed and glossed ghetto superstars” (2002:70), but also raises the important question “have hip-hop journalists been guilty of aspiring to celebrity journalism, or did the increasing star-power of hip-hop artists transform hip-hop journalism?” (2002:70).

Today attitudes towards black artists have shifted slightly, and in some respect black has become a byword for authenticity in certain styles. For example, the press often portrays a black man singing the blues as a genuine performance of the style, due to the genre’s history and context within popular music. The same could be said about hip-hop/soul/jazz etc. However there is still a conscious racial divide within the media, with genres such as rock and indie still very much white-dominated, and other such as hip-hop and R&B still black-dominated. Perhaps the best place to see this divide is at the major music awards ceremonies, such as The Brit Awards, or The Grammys in America. Here, all genres are neatly divided up, with categories such as ‘best rap’ or ‘best R&B’ (or the drastically arcane ‘best urban’) dominated by black artists, and ‘best rock’ etc by white. The MOBO (Music Of Black Origin) awards, initially set up to honour the legacy of black music with its carefully thought out name, has seen both black and white winners and performers since its inception in the mid ‘90s. Despite this apparent lack of a racial divide, The MOBOs, along with The Source awards in the USA, make a clear indication that such a thing as ‘black music’ exists, and attempt to clearly define the term through their different award categories.


• Chang, Jeff. (2002). ‘A brief, highly opinionated history of hip-hop journalism’, pp 65-71, Pop Music and Press. Temple.
• Neal, Mark Anthony. (1999) ‘Legislating Freedom, Commodifying Struggle: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Struggle for Black Musical Hegemony, pp 25-54, What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture. Routledge.
• Floyd JR, Samuel A. (2008) ‘Black Music and Writing Black Music History: American Music and Narrative Strategies’, pp 112-121, Black Music Research Journal Vol.28, No.1. University of Illinois.
• Moore, Allan (1993) ‘Meanings’, PP. 181 – 222, Rock: The Primary Text.. Open University Press.
• Lott, Tommy L. (1999) ‘ Black Vernacular Representation and Cultural Malpractice’ pp 84-110, The Invention of Race: Black Culture and the Politics of Representation. Blackwell Publishers.
• George, Nelson. (1999). ‘New Jack Swing to Ghetto Glamour’ pp 114-128, Hip-hop America. Penguin Books.
• Clinton, Hampton, Morrison. (1978). ‘Who Says a Funk Band Can’t Play Rock Music?’ (Song lyrics). One Nation Under a Groove. (Warner Bros.)
• Gill, Andy (2nd July 2004). ‘Album: Richie Havens’, (album review) The Independent. Independent News and Media.
• George, Nelson (2008). ‘What Needs to Change About the Media’s Portrayal of Black Culture?’ (Web Blog Video) Big Think. http://bigthink.com/nelsongeorge
• Hendrix obituary taken from the Time magazine archives, 28th September 1970. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,909654,00.html
• Dylan Mills quote taken from edition of BBC 2’s Newsnight, 5th November 2008.


  1. Michael said,

    This is a very timely essay.Just today a guy from Bangladesh was arguing with me that there is no such thing as “Black Music”.

  2. […] is ‘black music’? How are race and identity conveyed in the music media?” Essentially Eclectic. N.d. Web. 24 Jul […]

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