If you were not already aware, February (the shortest month of the year) is Black History Month. This month is an annual celebration of the achievements of African Americans and a month devoted to recognizing those who have helped shape American history.
Black History Month was originally established as “Negro History Week,” by prominent African Americans including Carter G. Woodson.
Beginning in 1976, every U.S. president designated the month of February as Black History Month, usually endorsing a specific theme. This year, the theme for Black History Month is “African Americans and the Vote,” which honors the hundredth anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment and the 150 anniversary of the Fifteenth Amendment.
In this edition of The Eagle, I wanted to take time to highlight African American artists throughout time and how they impacted the music industry, popular culture and American history.
The late 1800s to early 1900s
Throughout history, Black artists have heavily influenced American culture, especially when it comes to music. Between the late 1800s and early 1900s, an artist known as Scott Joplin became the “King of Ragtime,” becoming the genre’s most popular contributor. From there artists like Ma Rainey, William Christopher Handy and Deford Bailey rose to prominence with their unique forms of the blues genre. In fact, Bailey was the first performer to be introduced on the Grand Ole Opry.
Around the 1920s, jazz music swept the scene with iconic artists such as Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holliday, Lionel Hampton and Dizzy Gillespie. Jazz was much more than just a music genre. It was a major form of musical expression, drawing from blues and ragtime. Josephine Baker is credited as the first Black movie star and one of the first people to be considered a celebrity.
The 1940s to early 1950s
While jazz music was still wildly popular in the United States, the 1940s and 1950s brought the rise of rock ‘n’ roll music, with artists like Goree Carter (who is referenced to have released the first ever rock and roll record), Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Jimmy Preston. Although these artists are considered pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll music, white artists such as Elvis Presley and Bill Haley would cover songs made by Black artists, which then would become more popular due to them being more palatable to white audiences.
The 1950s was a marking point for the introduction of soul music. Many unforgettable Black artists rose to prominence during this period including Sam Cooke, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown, Etta James, The Temptations, The Supremes, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone and Otis Redding. A combination of gospel, rhythm and blues, and jazz music genres, soul music was created out of the Black experience in America.
Without a doubt, rockstar Jimi Hendrix is one of the most popular black artists of all time. In the late 1960’s, the Jimi Hendrix Experience released three studio albums which are among Rolling Stone’s 100 greatest albums of all time.” The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame considers him the “greatest instrumentalist in the history of rock music.”
The 1970s introduced many different types of genres including funk and the early stages of what would come to be known as hip-hop. Examples of artists who contributed to this period of music include Gladys Knight & the Pips, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Parliament, Chaka Khan and Sister Sledge. Other artists making waves in the music industry include Bob Marley & The Wailers, who revolutionized reggae music and Isaac Hayes, who was the first African American to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song for “Theme of Shaft.” Towards the end of the 1970s, the Sugarhill Gang released their track “Rapper’s Delight,” which is credited for introducing hip-hop and rap to a global audience.
Sequentially, in the 1980s, hip-hop became a huge movement in the United States, bringing black artists to the forefront of popular culture. Rap groups in the 1980s such as Run-D.M.C., Public Enemy, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince and N.W.A. created mostly politically charged music fueled by the Black experience, which helped pave the way for rappers in the future. Meanwhile, the release of Michael Jackson’s album “Thriller,” changed the musical landscape, both market wise and sonically, and became one of the most successful albums of all time. Another Black artist also changing the musical landscape of this time was Prince, who pioneered the new wave, funk-rock subgenre known as Minneapolis sound.
During the 1990s, hip-hop music’s influence spread rapidly, with new artists constantly rising to prominence. Black artists like 2Pac, Queen Latifah, The Notorious B.I.G., and Lauryn Hill proved their skills as rappers and hip-hop artists. Rhythm and blues (R&B) and soul music also saw a rise in popularity towards the end of the 1990s with artists like Whitney Houston, Boyz II Men, TLC, Aaliyah, Erykah Badu and Sade contributing to the growing genre.
The 2000s, to the 2010s, to the future
The 2000s were a shift for Black artists who started to experiment with different types of hip-hop, R&B and pop music. Some of these artists include Outkast, Missy Elliot, Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z and John Legend.
In the 2010s, Black artists continued to experiment with their styles of hip-hop, R&B, and pop, resulting in the rise of artists like Lil Wayne, Drake, Nicki Minaj, Pharell Williams, Frank Ocean, The Weeknd, Rae Sremmurd, Rihanna, Solange, J. Cole, Chance the Rapper and Childish Gambino. In addition, the end of the 2010s mark the height of careers for artists like Beyonce, the most nominated woman in Grammy’s history, and Kendrick Lamar, who won a Pulitzer Prize for music for his album “DAMN.”
As far as the future of music goes, promising black artists such as Khalid, H.E.R., Daniel Caesar, Travis Scott, SZA, Lil Nas X and Lizzo seem to carry on the tradition of the great black artists that came before them by redefining genres and expectations set for Black artists in the music industry.