How We Sound, Is How We Are
How we sound, i.e. how we make music is the beat and best of us, the meaning and measure of us. Is how the world knows us and how we know ourselves. This essay will explore the historical development and cultural implications of the various music forms that, collectively considered, some of us call “Great Black Music.”
The term “Great Black Music” (GBM) is not a racial term per se, even though it contains a racial element. When African Americans refer to someone as Black, we generally mean a lot more than race; after all, we are a mixture of races. The biological is the least important of the three elements of Blackness, which are color, culture and consciousness. Culture and consciousness are the more critical elements. Culture roots the individual in a social group, a community of people who share behavior, attitudes, ethos, and ideals. Consciousness is identification with and examination of; to be conscious is to choose and commit to, not simply to be born into and experience. Consciousness is the most critical because an individual can be biologically Black and Black-acculturated by rearing, but still choose to serve as a representative of some other cultural interests. Additionally, just because a Black person does something does not make that act or creation representative of Black culture.
The music most of us refer to as Black music is not slave music. This music is the expression of an emancipated people. Although the music we revere has some historical roots in slavery times, three (gospel, blues and jazz) of the four principal genres (popular music is the fourth genre) all developed after the Civil War.
While it is common to divide the music along sacred and secular lines, to say that we had “religious music” that gave praise to God on one hand and “good times” (or bad times, in the case of the blues) music that gave praise to pleasure (or bemoaned the absence of pleasure) on the other hand, and although it is also popular to say that religious music preceded the other genres, the truth is a bit more complex, particularly if one equates religious music with Christian liturgy.
When we were enslaved during the African holocaust of chattel slavery and colonialism, with the notable exception of Congo Square in New Orleans, those of us forcibly brought to the United States were not allowed to publicly speak our African languages and publicly practice our African customs. We, of course, found ways to retain essential aspects of our African languages and customs, and these aspects are called African retentions, but the retentions were forced to reside inside European forms and/or Creole forms—in this case “Creole” refers to new cultural forms that resulted from mixing, amalgamation and adoption within the context of a multicultural, although White-supremacy dominated, context.
The reason that religious music was the first organized expression of African American musical talent is because of the restrictions of slavery. In the crucible of chattel slavery, we were denied the opportunity to practice our religious rituals and retain our languages. To the degree that anything beyond subservience was taught us, we were taught Christianity, and as scholar/historian Vincent Harding accurately asserts in his important book There Is A River, although we were involuntarily conscripted into Christianity, we shaped Christianity to meet our needs and, in so doing, became the authentic practitioners of Christianity as a theology of liberation.
In ante-bellum America the initial development of Black churches and the development of unique forms of musical worship by African Americans took place exclusively in the North. Reverend Richard Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopalian (A.M.E.) Church in Philadelphia in 1797, and in 1801 Rev. Allen compiled and produced a hymnal which contained original musical compositions as well as variations of traditional Christian praise songs. This music was closer to what became generically known as “Negro Spirituals” than to what we consider “Gospel” music today.
In the South, where the overwhelming majority of our people were, the development of independent churches was not tolerated, and the compilation of hymnals was mostly by word of mouth. In the early 1800s a wave of religious revivalism swept across the South. In many cases, African Americans were included in the services, although segregated either in special sections of the camp meetings or at separate camp meetings.
We practiced African-intensive religious modes of worship in these Southern camp meetings. The modes included trance and spirit possession, dance, communal chants and semi-sung oratory (“talk-singing”), improvised musical passages, and community sharing of hardships. Practices such as prayer services and the telling of one’s determination gave each individual the opportunity to “speak” her or his piece as well as the opportunity to seek her or his peace in the Holy Spirit. While some African American Christians deny the relevance of such cultural practices and consider them either quaint or reprehensible expressions of illiterate people, these cultural expressions are philosophical projections of an African sensibility rather than simply a reflection of ignorance of European culture.
The music that is considered classic “Negro Spirituals” was codified into a cultural force in the late 1800s when the spirituals were “spruced up” and presented as concert music in 1871 by the famous Fisk Jubilee Singers. Here begins the common practice of dating developments within African American music by its presentation to the Euro-centric mainstream and its acceptance by “Whites.” Here also is the nexus of cultural production and cultural authenticity—i.e., until Afro-centric cultures are produced for (or more importantly “produced by”) Whites, the culture goes unrecognized by the mainstream unless “money” can be made from controlling the sale of the cultural “product.”
It is worth noting that the selling of Black music is directly tied to the technology of reproducing the sound of Black music. In this case, it is no mere coincidence that radio and sound recordings, not to mention electrical amplification and movies with sound, all developed and came to fruition after the Civil War and before the Great Depression, the same time period that saw the development of the genres we known today as blues, gospel and jazz. The technology of capturing sound is important because Black music can not be appreciated or replicated solely as notes on paper.
The precursor of modern Gospel was Rev. Charles A. Tindley, who composed and published what some critics consider the first modern Gospel songs. Rev. Tindley was at his height between 1901 and 1906 and marked the beginning of known individual composers of African American religious music. The main creators of modern Gospel were composer and pianist Thomas Dorsey and vocalist Mahalia Jackson. It is instructive to note that in the mid-1920s when Dorsey, Jackson and others began to practice this new Gospel form they were rejected and, in fact, prohibited from performing in some churches because they were accused of “jazzing up” religious music or of bringing “the Blues” (i.e. the “devil’s music”) into the church.
Nearly a century later, the “contemporary” Gospel movement as exemplified by Yolanda Adams, numerous “mass” choirs, and composer/choir director Kirk Franklin, represents a continuance of the Dorsey/Jackson rejuvenation of Gospel to “include” the significant and essentially Afro-centric musical developments of the day into the religious music canon. Those who reject contemporary Gospel artists today because they are making worldly music and calling it Gospel are of the same temperament as those who rejected early Gospel in the 1920s.
In the overall scheme of contemporary Gospel music, perhaps the single most significant development is the insertion of the drum. The drum, considered the “most savage and pagan” of all instruments, was indelibly associated with our African origins. The drum had always been excluded, indeed condemned, in Christian music making except, of course, drumming through hand clapping, in which we used our bodies as a percussion instrument. Next we developed an unrivaled facility with the small hand drum, known as the tambourine. But it was not until the Black Power era of African affirmation that Gospel music actively embraced the drum set as an integral part of the instrumentation of religious music.
That the drum today is found in the choir stands and on the stages of almost every Gospel concert is an amazing development that indicates not only the strength of African retentions but also the inevitability of Afro-centric cultural expressions surfacing among the masses of African Americans, even among those who had consciously rejected the drum in previous times.
Gospel has retained much of its African character precisely because it is ritual rather than commercial. Indeed, except for a handful of professional recording artists, most Gospel artists seldom tailor their performance to commercial considerations. Moreover, the network of independent churches provides both a stage and a conservatory for the development of artists apart from the vicissitudes of popular tends. This is not to say that there are no trends in Gospel music. Certainly Gospel is subject to fads and the mass adoption of certain styles in a given era, but the adoption or rejection of commercial influences is not a life-and-death issue for Gospel artists.
The primary audience for Gospel music is an audience of “believers” who partake in the music with the expectation of being moved to religious ecstasy. Through their collection offerings the Gospel audience (i.e. the church) supports the vocalists, choirs, instrumentalists, and musical directors. This audience validates the worth of the artist, not some recording executive, not the status on the commercial charts, not television (or radio) popularity, although all of these certainly play a role in contemporary Gospel music.
Contrary to popular belief, the Blues is not slave music, even though slave-era work songs, field hollers, chants, and the like were some of the basic ingredients of the Blues. In fact, the archetypal image of the wandering blues musicians, roaming from town to town with his guitar, is de facto testimony that blues musicians, as we know and mythicize them, could not have existed prior to Emancipation because our people did not enjoy freedom of movement during slavery.
The initial form of itinerant Blues must that became known as Country Blues is best exemplified by Mississippi’s Robert Johnson. Johnson, who was born in 1911, was not the first to record nor was he the originator or even popularizer of the Blues or various Blues vocal and instrumental techniques; however, he was easily the most developed and forceful Blues musician of his era to record.
An extraordinary guitarist and seminal composer, as well as a mesmerizing vocalist, Johnson, who recorded only 29 songs during two different sessions in 1936 and 1937, set standards for acoustic Country Blues performance that stand today. Literally thousands of performers, including many of the most popular and best known rock recording artists, have extensively “borrowed” Johnson’s melodies, riffs, and even whole songs, often without crediting Johnson.
A second form of Blues is known as the Classic Blues, the only modern genre of music that has been led by women. In a country dominated by patriarchal values and male leadership (should we more accurately say “overseership”?), Classic Blues is remarkable. Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters, Ida Cox, Alberta Hunter, Sippie Wallace, and the incomparable “Empress” of the Blues, Bessie Smith, were far more than simply female fronts for turn-of-the-century Blues Svengalies. These women often led their own band, chose their own repertoire, wrote or co-wrote their own songs, and certainly composed or chose their own lyrics. Moreover, those who were truly successful, like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, actually ran their own production companies. The was not one major male singer of Classic blues.
Never again since the Classic Blues era of the 1920s have women as a group performed leadership roles in the music industry, especially not African American women. The entertainment industry intentionally curtailed the trend of highly vocal, independent women—most of whom, it must be noted, were not svelte sex symbols comparable in either features or figure to slender White women, but rather these sisters were robust, dark-skinned, African-featured women who thought of and carried themselves as the equal of any man. America fears the drum and psychologically fears the self-determined empowerment of the bearer of the first drum, the feminine heartbeat that we hear in the womb.
Indeed, chronologically, in terms of recordings, the Classic blues came before the Country Blues. Aesthetically, the music the Classic Blues divas sang was closer to an amalgam of popular music of the era infused with blues elements than it was to Country Blues per se. When Russian-born immigrant Sophie Tucker was unable to make a recording date because of contractual conflicts, vaudeville and Blues musician Percy Bradford convinced Okeh, a small record label at that time, to allow one of his featured singers, Mamie Smith, to r4ecord. Eventually, they produced “Crazy Blues,” the first Blues record. The record was released in August of 1920, selling over 75,000 copies in the first month and over one million within a year. Soon the then fledgling record industry was literally rushing to record every Blues-singing Smith woman they could find, thus beginning the industry trend of churning out clone after clone of whatever is perceived as a “hit formula.”
The third category of the Blues is the Urban Blues—the up-South, big city, electrified variation of the mainly acoustic Country Blues. Most of the founding fathers of Urban Blues, such as Muddy Waters, B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Willie Dixon, and literally hundreds of others, were Mississippi-born transplants.
These artists laid the foundation for modern pop music. Except for the wholesale raiding of Robert Johnson’s repertoire, there has been no larger cross-cultural appropriation than the coveting and covering of Urban Blues songs by White pop artists—especially the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, two groups that, unlike their American predecessors and peers, actively acknowledged that they got their music from African American Blues artists.
Although White American artists such as Elvis Presley became rich copying “Hound Dog” from Big Mama Thornton and recording the songs of Otis Blackwell (an African American composer who would send Presley tapes so that Presley could learn to sing the songs), most White American singers did little to acknowledge and celebrate the sources of their riches.
By the 1990s, other than a handful of legendary figures, and a larger number of relatively unknown elderly practitioners, Whites dominated Blues—or, more correctly, they dominated the “representation” (as opposed to the creation) of the Blues. One central fact needs to be kept in mind: Other than the three schools of the Blues (Classic, Country and Urban), over the last fifty years there have been no real developments of the Blues as a form, although there have been significant transformations and off-shoots. In terms of ongoing development, the Blues is at a dead end.
One of the most vexing and seemingly contradictory aspects of GBM is that the majority of Blues fans, and arguably the majority of Blues musicians (no argument if you only count people 35 and under), are White. Why don’t Black people listen to and play the blues today?
There are all kinds of theories, but there is one simple fact: GBM is functional. Unlike Western culture, which is obsessed with eternal life, African culture accepts the inevitableness of death and rebirth through generational transformation. Thus, when something dies, we grieve and then move on, carrying the spirit of the deceased within us as we create anew.
The Blues is dead because the soil that produced the blues either lies fallow or has been covered with concrete, and because the social conditions that produced the Blues no longer exist in the same configuration as during the Jim Crow era. However, the Blues sensibility, the impulse to rise above by declaiming just how tough times are, the laughing to keep from crying, the celebration of the transformatory power of violence—all of that is found in the Blues music of the turn of the 20th century, which is, of course, Rap.
We as a people have never been hung up on perpetuating the American status quo. Our goal has always been to either flee Babylon or burn it down, to leave it or fundamentally change it. In the case of the Blues, as a specific reflection of Jim Crow America, we did both—we left the Blues as a specific genre of music and we transformed the Blues into other popular forms of music. In fact, what is Rhythm and Blues but post-WWII Blues, and what is Rap but a literal recitation of the Blues over “phat beats”?
What we must distinguish is the difference between process and product, between focusing on a sensibility that informs the creative process as opposed to fixating on the forms that are the result of a specific creation. The Blues as a historic genre is moribund. The Blues as a sensibility is very much alive. The Blues is dead. Long live the Blues.
One of the most common and inaccurate myths about Jazz is that it was born in the brothels of Storyville at the beginning of the 20thcentury in New Orleans. The truth is that Jazz was born in the streets and parks of the New Orleans African American community. Initially, Jazz was primarily an outdoor music performed at social occasions such as weddings receptions, funerals, parties, births, parades and picnics.
The immediate precursor to Jazz was a piano-based music known as Ragtime. The major figure of Ragtime was Scott Joplin who composed numerous popular rags and also composed a ragtime opera, Treemonisha. Ragtime was a highly syncopated, up tempo, happy music and reflected the high hopes that our people had during the period of Reconstruction that grew out of the North’s victory in the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. Ragtime was also the first American-born cultural expression to achieve international acclaim. The dance steps associated with Ragtime, most notably the “Cakewalk,” were a worldwide rage. However, the end of Reconstruction also marked the end of Ragtime as a major musical form.
Jazz played Ragtime but with a major infusion of the Blues. Jazz was also a band music, whereas Ragtime was primarily, but not exclusively, a solo piano-based music. It is also interesting to note that the technology associated with Ragtime, piano rolls and the “player piano” were eclipsed by the development of records. Whereas a player piano could only replicate piano sounds, the record could replicate every musical instrument and the human voice. What cds have done to vinyl, 78-records did to piano rolls.
There are many other elements in the development of Jazz, which moved up river from New Orleans to St. Louis and Chicago, and from there to New York and the entire East Coast, as well as to California. Jazz became so dominant a cultural force that the advent of modernism in America, i.e. the 1920s, is popularly known as the “Jazz Age.”
Key to an appreciation of the cultural dominance of Jazz is the fact that from the beginning there were White practitioners who, not surprisingly, received more acclaim than their Black peers (who were the chief innovators and creators of Jazz). Thus, the first major commercializer of Jazz was the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (ODJB), an all-White group led by cornetist Nick La Rocca. In February of 1917, while performing at Reisenweber’s Café in New York city, RCA gave the ODJB the opportunity to record the first Jazz record.
From 1917 on, there has been a continuous racial boosterism of specific Whites as the dominant forces in Jazz. Over the years, ODJB was followed by Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman, Dave Brubeck, Kenny G. and so on. This complicates the appreciation of Jazz as GBM, but just as Blacks singing opera doesn’t negate the fact that opera is a European Classical artform, the existence of Whites as Jazz musicians in no way means that Jazz is not an African American artform.
The major eras of Jazz were New Orleans Jazz at the turn of the century as the founding style. Then came “Swing” Jazz, followed by Bebop, the Avant Garde, Fusion and finally what is today called Smooth Jazz.
The dominant figures of early New Orleans Jazz were trumpeter Louis Armstrong and pianist Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton. For swing music, the reigning trio of big band leaders were Fletcher Henderson, Count Basie and the incomparable Duke Ellington, all of whom were consummate arrangers, with Duke being the greatest modern American composer (George Gershwin notwithstanding). Bebop is undisputedly led by saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and pianist Thelonious Monk. The Avant Garde was championed by saxophonist John Coltrane. Trumpeter Miles Davis is most often cited as the popularizer of Jazz Fusion. Smooth Jazz is the result more of marketing than of any significant musical developments, although the mixing of Jazz with Soul music by musicians such as saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. and pianist Ramsey Lewis, directly led to a style that is now dominated by Whites such as saxophonist Kenny G. and mainly White groups such as Sypro Gyra and others too numerous to mention.
Jazz is quintessential 20th Century American music. Jazz embodies the basic concepts of freedom and democracy more so than any other music form or genre. However, at the beginning of the 21st century, Jazz is at a decisive crossroads and its future is unclear. The major problem with much of today’s Jazz is that many young musicians are so intent on recreating old forms that they have nothing new to say. A major part of their silence evolves form the fact that they are the products of an uneventful assimilation into the American status quo. Their music has no fire because there is no fire in their personal lives. And, as Charlie Parker (the legendary “Bird”) said, what comes out of your horn is your life.
Historically, poorly paid Jazz musicians were the epitome of “starving artists.” They persued their art despite economic injustices and inequities, not because they wanted to starve but because making money was not the main reason for creating Jazz. Jazz was their religion, rather than simply their career.
After the 1980s Jazz became a middle-class, respectable pursuit. So is it any wonder that much of today’s Jazz does not relate to the lives of the working class, under- and mis-educated, poor and de facto segregated urban masses of African Americans? At the beginning of the 21st century, Rap has over taken Jazz, and unless there is a radical development, Jazz will go the way of Blues.
On the one hand it is undeniable that Rap is the dominant musical artform and on the other hand is equally undeniable that the majority of Rap is merely entertainment during a period of extreme trauma in the Black community.
My basic contention is that if our popular music is in sad shape, it is because we as a people are in sad shape. What we are witnessing (and too often participating in and collaborating with) is the total commercialization of our music. Thus R&B (regardless of whether it is called “Neo-Soul” or “Funk” or whatever) and Rap are both designed mainly not only to sell records but also to sell to an audience, the majority of whom are not African Americans. If this audience was mainly the large majority of people in the world who are the descendants of the colonized, this would be a good development. However, the “auditors” of fame and fortune in America are mainly White: White youth in momentary revolt against their parents, a White music industry who capitalize of the sale of Black music, a White-controlled media that exists as an adjunct (and advocate) of the business sector and that uses GBM to sell products.
The integration of African American artists into the mainstream of entertainment media necessarily results in a dilution and/or prostitution of the music. There is no better example of this co-opting and corrupting phenomenon than what has happened to Rap music.
While some adults still argue about whether Rap is really music, Rap has become “the” major force in American popular music and a major force on the international music scene. Regardless of what one thinks about the language of Rap, the reality is that Rap speaks directly to and for African American youth, as well is influential on the lives and outlook of youth internationally. These youth, especially those in the working class and underclass segments of society, are alienated, marginalized, mis- or un-educated, abused, and socialized into a life of crime and/or dependency. Most over-40 adults have no idea how hard it is to be an African American teenager in an urban setting. In fact, many adults will never understand, because much of the more dangerous and damaging social and psychological pressures felt by youth did not exist in preceding generations.
On the other hand, the adults who run the recording industry callously exploit this reality. Driven by both the need and the greed for profits, the recording industry—the same industry which commercialized Blues and Jazz—is now pushing Rap for two reasons: There is money in it, and there is a large talent pool.
The existence of this talent pool (i.e. surplus creative labor) is critical to Rap’s profitability as a commodity. Literally thousands of would-be Rappers daily submit demo tapes to record executives in the hope of landing a contract so that the aspirant star can “get paid” and “live large.” This talent pool nurtures and grooms itself, and in many cases delivers “demo” tapes that are virtually finished products. There is no necessity for the recording companies to make a major investment in studio time to record these potential million-selling artists. At the same time to make it difficult for the artists to avoid signing with them, the major record companies in union with cable television have made having a professionally produced video the new gold standard. In order to “go gold” a recording artist is almost required to have a video, which costs a couple of hundred thousand dollars to produce. But, again, as has been the case throughout the history of GBM, technology plays a major role in the status and development of the music. Digital video is on the verge of making video production affordable and accessible, and could also pose a serious challenge to the strangle hold major record companies currently have on emerging artists. The stakes are high because the music industry is a multi-million dollar industry.
Rap has a genre has brought two major innovations into popular music: First, Rap reintroduced the Afro-centric oral tradition as an artform, and Rap demonstrated a profound advancement in the use of computer technology in the service of art. Rap’s use of electronic instruments and recording equipment is an advancement whose far-reaching significance is akin to the African American appropriation and elevation of the saxophone at the beginning of the 20th century.
The verbal wordplay of Rap is a major advance on the general state of lyrics in pop music. Whereas most pop lyrics are content to use end rhymes, commonplace metaphors and similes as their main literary devices, rappers have significantly upped the ante through the employment of a sophisticated approach to word play. It is not uncommon to hear rappers use rhymes within as well as at the ends of lines; the metaphors and similes range from the satirical to the surreal; and the use of onomatopoeia, alliteration, and other forms of word wizardry is, in the mouth of a master rapper, astounding.
But Rap is more than just technique. Rap has also reintroduced the relevance of “saying something”—i.e., political and social commentary. This is especially important during a period when Black popular music had become little more than hip elevator music and commercials for consumerism run amok.
In terms of using computer-aided technology to create pop music, rappers are pioneers and originators. Just as few people think of the fact that African Americans created the trap drum set, many people are unaware of the technological innovations created by Rap artists. Sampling—using selected passages of pre-existing music mixed with other elements to form a new composition—is Rap’s best known, but by no means only, innovation. The use of environmental sounds and noise elements as part of the music bed is another example. But perhaps the major achievement is the turning of computer and electronic instruments into drums used to produce poly-rhythms—and not just simple backbeats, but complex cross-rhythms of “found” (sampled) and “created” (programmed) sounds, creatively patched together in an aural quilt of musical scraps turned into a magic carpet of head-bopping motion.
As an aesthetic, Rap is both a throw-back to basic voice and body percussion and a look into the future when music becomes simultaneously more natural (in that it draws on every available sound in the environment) and completely synthetic (in that it can be created without using “musicians” per se). Rap is both the literal creation of music without musicians and a major redefining and expanding of our perception of what a musician is and does.
Although the technical achievements are awesome, perhaps the most significant effect of Rap as been to create more space for musical artists in every genre to make overt political statements and social commentary in their music. The political immaturity of “gangsta” Rap notwithstanding, Rap has reintroduced the concept of the artist as social critic at a time when popular entertainment threatened to inundate us with romantics, clowns and minstrels.
Philosophically, the major deficiency of Rap artists is buying into the mainstream assertion that “racism” alone, and ipso facto, is the only problem stopping African Americans from enjoying the good life. Unless and until rappers confront the need to oppose commercialism and other divisive “isms,” such as patriarchal sexism, the music will never achieve its full potential and will always end up debasing itself for the dollar.
THE WAY AHEAD
Whites now seriously compete with African Americans both as producers and as artists in all genres of GBM. Although White domination of the genre has not yet happened in Gospel, White rapper Eminem is widely recognized as a major, if not the most popular, Rap artist. Some people view Eminem as an abnormality and point out that the overwhelming majority of major Rap artists are Black and that Jay-Z, the most skilled Rapper, is also Black, and that therefore there is no chance of Whites taking over. However, that same argument was made in Jazz thirty years ago and we see the color of Jazz today. Not long ago there were serious statements that one could tell if Jazz musicians were White or Black simply by listening to them. Obviously, that is no longer the case. Not only do some Whites sound Black, but a number of Blacks sound White—assuming that one even entertains a discussion of sound being synonymous with biology.
On the other hand, from a cultural and consciousness perspective, “sounding White” is simply accepting the status quo and attempting to conform to a standard that has been established as the paragon of sound. “Sounding Black” is making an individual statement within the broad social context while utilizing the basic principles and traditions of GBM. Thus, any individual person, White or Black, can sound White or Black depending on the individual’s culture and consciousness.
We need cultural workers and warriors who understand that, within the broad and capitalist-driven American social context, “sounding”—i.e. making music—can not uphold the status quo and at the same time contribute to the development of African Americans precisely because the status quo is based on economically and politically exploiting us. (For those who doubt the extent of this exploitation, any examination of social index figures, whether it is wealth and income; or sickness, morbidity and life expectancy; or education; or incarceration, and examination of such figures will show that not only are we as a people disadvantaged, the examination will also show that the gaps are widening. Moreover, we have only to look at what happened to Black voters in the last presidential election to get a clear and undeniable picture of the political exploitation of African Americans by the American mainstream.)
Any and all music worthy of the designation GBM must oppose the status quo exploitation of African Americans. Throughout the history of GBM, African American artists have struggled to create their own record companies, to secure their publishing rights, to control venues and how the music is presented, and to form collectives, associations and businesses to bring these objectives to reality. The challenge facing GBM, and facing both Rap and Jazz in particular, is how to regain the independence they had when the artists existed either on the periphery of or totally outside of the music industry mainstream.
There are many other challenges, for example: no major African American-owned publications which seriously focus on and critique GBM; the declining significance and existence of Black-owned radio stations; the almost total lack of community-based, Black-owned music venues; the abysmally small number of GBM festivals, conferences, and special events which are controlled, organized, and curated by African Americans.
Today we have more African American musicians and entertainers who are millionaires than ever before. At the same time we have less control, less ownership, and less independence than at any time in the history of GBM. What we face is neocolonialism of individual musicians who, in exchange for big salaries, do nothing to confront some of the very real problems and deficiencies GBM faces. What we have is the near total control not only of the production and distribution, but also of the discourse about and documentation of GBM by forces that are de facto siding with the status quo in the continued exploitation of GBM.
In the final analysis it’s all about context and control—what we do with and in our own space and time. Everything is informed by its own time of creation, existence and demise: what was happening when it was going on.
The social and aesthetic significance of African American music is neither abstract nor biological. The social and aesthetic significance of GBM is very precisely its warrior stance in the face of status quo exploitation and its healing force for the victims of that exploitation. Ultimately, the best of our music helps us resist exploitation and reconstruct ourselves whole and healthy. Traditionally GBM is been both an inspiration to keep on keeping on and a healing force in the universe. That is why GBM is such a joyful noise!
—kalamu ya salaam / 2006