In the late 19th century, former slaves and the children of former slaves – robbed of centuries of cultural and musical heritage – gathered in the streets of New Orleans to forge a musical tradition to call their own. The style they ultimately created would spread throughout the country in a unifying force for the Black community: jazz.
Half a century later, Frank Sinatra – a man who was 100 percent Italian – serenaded white audiences to jazz music. Behind him sat an all-white band. Though the music of New Orleans and Frank Sinatra may both be remembered as jazz, Sinatra’s big band style was heavily dictated by a western musical structure which attracted spectacular white crowds. This history begs a few questions: Why did Sinatra, Benny Goodman and Buddy Rich become some of the most successful jazz musicians of all time while countless Black musicians of equal or greater talent remain forgotten? Why have white musicians with a Black style historically dominated the Billboard Top 100? Why is Elvis Presley, not Chuck Berry, remembered as “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll?” These questions span the marginalization of Black music and artists in American culture, and answering them may strike at the heart of current American racial struggles.
White audiences have a long history of indulging themselves in Black culture — the trend began centuries ago with white performers in blackface assuming Jim Crow-like characters. Today, every major trend in American music — from jazz, to Rock ‘n’ Roll, to Hip-Hop — started from a place deep within the plight of the Black community and was eventually co-opted by white audiences. Yet, while white audiences enjoyed Black music, they refused to grant them a proper place in their society. Though it may seem paradoxical to appropriate another culture’s musical style while simultaneously doing little to even acknowledge the struggles of that culture, the trend is as American as apple pie.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily, School of Music, Theatre and Dance professor Ed Sarath explained that the detachment white audiences make from Black music’s cultural origin is “a subset of the marginalization of Black culture.” Sarath is a professor of jazz and contemporary improvisation and author of the book, “Black Music Matters.” According to him, the Eurocentric framework that governs how music is taught in schools works to whitewash Black music and separates it from its Black roots.
Modern audiences and musicians who listen to and play jazz music are still largely unaware of jazz’s uniquely African American essence. Improvisation, sophisticated rhythms and a spiritual playing style that’s seen throughout mainstream American music all owe themselves to Black artists and the uniquely Black style they pioneered. White students of jazz often fail to make this connection between the art and its Black roots, and generations of young musicians who grow up without the connection between Black music and Black American culture only exacerbates this issue.
This lost connection is just one piece of the larger puzzle of systemic racism white America is only just waking up to, Sarath said. Allowing Black music and culture to be recognized for what it is must be an integral part of any strategy to end systemic racism in the United States.
“Now that we’re coming to terms with the holocaust of racism in new ways,” Sarath said, “the juxtaposition of the celebration of Black contributions with the horrible thing that goes back for centuries, would be a very powerful formula for healing.”
Systemic racism continues to manifest itself in subtle ways within the music industry, too. In an interview with The Daily, Music, Theatre & Dance professor Andy Milne detailed how Black musicians often feel pigeonholed into musical categories because of their race.
“If you’re a person of color and you’re writing in [Western musical traditions], often you’re considered a Black composer,” explained Milne, an assistant professor of music and pianist for the band Dapp theory. “But you don’t call white composers who compose for [Western musical traditions] white composers,” Milne said.
Conversations led by vocal Black musicians, like Tyler, the Creator when his album Igor won the Grammy for the best rap album, express the very real frustration of Black artists when they attempt to experiment with their craft.
“Half of me feels like the rap nomination was a backhanded compliment,” Tyler said to a reporter at the 2019 Grammys. “I don’t like that urban word. It’s just a politically correct way to say the N-word to me.”
Black artists are thus forced into a paradoxical social system in which they are undervalued when they play Black music but stigmatized when they dare to challenge societal expectations.
This summer saw an uptick in support for Black Lives Matter and a reckoning with this country’s racist past and present — but part of that support must include the acknowledgement that Black music matters, too. The issues of systemic racism and musical gentrification are one in the same. In our fight for racial justice, if we don’t make efforts to preserve and celebrate Black musical culture, we will undoubtedly fail in our efforts for both.
Daily Arts Contributor Kai Bartol can be reached at email@example.com
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.
For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.