Black History Month is an annual reminder to reflect on the impact Black people and Black culture have had on the world. This year we celebrate Black musicians who used their art to give a glimpse into the experience of being Black. When speeches don’t say enough and snapshots don’t capture the full picture, music has the power to connect us as humans so we can shape our future together.
In the 1970’s, Black youths in urban areas had limited options to express their emotions, voices, and talents — so they created their own. Music became an outlet, block parties were safe havens, and creativity birthed hip-hop.
Today, hip-hop is a culture that continues to act as a voice for the younger generation. Through art, dance, and the most dominant music genre in the United States, hip-hop calls attention to the joys and challenges many Black people face in the United States and around the world.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s radio stations, music labels, and recording studios weren’t interested in bringing “Black music” to white audiences.
So, Black entrepreneurs created their own businesses to bring new music to the airwaves. They produced songs that communicated emotions all humans feel — love, heartache, joy — with a sound and style unique to Black culture. They cultivated Black talent and carefully crafted their performances. “Black music” became so popular with a variety of audiences Black music executives, like Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, called it “pop music”. Today, music produced by Black people, once kept off the radio altogether, is broadcast to millions of listeners every day.
Music has long been the cornerstone of Black people’s fight for racial equity. From slavery hymns to civil rights marches to the recent Black Lives Matter protests, Black musicians have used music as a way to cut through the noise so the message is heard loud and clear.
Artists like Kamasi Washington, Janelle Monáe, and Kendrick Lamar call attention to racism, black empowerment, and social injustice by harnessing the emotion, outrage, and reality of Black people. Their music, and the music of many more, fights for racial equality, challenges a rigged system, and hits with a force that demands response.
The power of music comes from human emotion — what the artist puts in to its making and what the listener feels from its playing. This month and every day after, listen to the music from Black artists and you’ll hear more than notes and chords.
You’ll hear frustration with the status quo. You’ll hear joy and respect for the musicians that paved the way. You’ll hear and feel the experience of being Black.