Black Music Through the Decades


 Photo of Lt. James Reese posing with his jazz band of the 369th regiment on the way home from war during World War 1. Historians credit the 369th regiment for laying the foundation of jazz in France. (Photo in public domain/The National Guard Bureau)

African-American influence in the United States is strong. Despite language and geographic barriers, things like fables, art, people transfer through different walks of life. Music is something that is in all cultures and is continuing to evolve as it spreads. Black artists have created some of the most popular music genres in the world. 

Jazz, blues, and hip hop were forms of expression for African Americans during the late 1800’s up until now. These three prominent genres have evolved tremendously since their origins.

Slave hymns were the original form of expression through song for enslaved people. Their conversion to Christianity was the birth of gospel music. Some early gospel songs or Negro spirituals were encoded messages about their hope to find freedom, but eventually turned into some of today’s most famous gospel songs. 

Blues originated on southern plantations in the 19th century. Seeking a music style of their own, African Americans would often come together to sing, chant, and play music. This was the birth of blues in the US. They used the few instruments they had to convey their grief and sorrow for their daily life. Eventually, this genre evolved to focus on the sound rather than a message. 

Jazz’s roots are in New Orleans; it was not acknowledged as a genre till the 1920’s. Jazz emerged from blues and ragtime. Artists like Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald helped push this genre forward tremendously. The goal was to create music that centered around rhythm and feel. Jazz puts emphasis on the music instead of the words like other music genres do. Artists mostly use instruments like the saxophone, piano, and trumpets. A lot of Jazz music is improvisation. 

Rap is one of the most recent genres created. Black people in the 60’s and 70’s took their poetry and combined it with music to make one of today’s most popular genres, rap. Early artists focused their topics on current events redlining, segregation, poverty, the justice system and more. Like Negro spirituals, this is another form of expression. 

The next time your favorite rap song comes one or you hear a powerful instrumental solo take a moment to think about how far music has come to reach where it is now.


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