• Danielle Lowe, MT-BC

Black Peoples' Invaluable Contributions to American Music

Updated: Aug 20

In music therapy, we always strive to utilize client preferred music in sessions. As a music therapist, I see all kinds of people, so I use all kinds of music - country, rap, spiritual, rock n’ roll, pop. The list goes on. Despite their differences, these genres all have something in common - they all derived from Black people.


Steven Lewis, curator of National Museum of African Music writes, “Describing the African-American influence on American music in all of its glory and variety is an intimidating—if not impossible—task. African-American influences are so fundamental to American music that there would be no American music without them.”


There are endless examples of how Black people have influenced a variety of genres we know and love. That being said, I want to discuss some contributions you may or may not have known Black people have brought to the music world. However, this is by no means all of them.


Black peoples’ influence in music can be traced from ancient times, but in America, starts when Black people were brought to America to be slaves. Black people brought the drum from Africa and continued to play them through their time in slavery. They used the drum to express themselves and keep their morales high throughout this horrid time in history. Now, drums are used in almost every American musical genre.


Music also played an important role in the Civil Rights Movement by providing Black individuals an outlet to exercise personal agency and identity, despite the public humiliation and suffering they were enduring. They used music to cope, as well as to send a message and practice spirituality.


Despite country music being heavily known as a White genre, Black people actually made a huge contribution to this genre - the banjo. The banjo was a staple of early African American music.


We also of course cannot forget about jazz. Jazz originated as a combination of popular songs and marches with African folk forms, like rag time. What is now known as “America’s classical music” gave us Black icons like, Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong.


Even rock n’ roll, which like country, many would consider to be a largely white genre originates from Black peoples’ contributions to music. Rock n’ roll came from the rhythm and blues (R&B), which African Americans created. It’s important to recognize that throughout American history, White culture often took over and continues to utilize Black pieces of art, whether it be a genre of music or hairstyle.


In the 1950’s when rock n’ roll was created, music served an immensely important purpose during this time. Besides for it being the beginning of a popular genre, rock n’ roll got White people listening to Black peoples’ music. This could be credited as one way America started to become a less segregated country.


Much of the time when we think of Black culture, it is associated with hip hop, a genre which brings together song, speech, empowerment and social commentary. R&B music (rhythm and blues), another black originated genre, has given us musicians we love like tony Braxton, Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige and Usher.


Hip hop music has altered the kind of pop music we listen to by bringing in more drums, bass and sampling, something that many White artists use. The pop stars of today wouldn’t really exist without the influence of Black music. We have many iconic Black pop musicians, such as Prince or Mariah Carey that have put Black individuals in the forefront of the music world.


So next time we listen to country, rap, hip hop, jazz, and so many more, let’s remember that we have Black people and culture to thank.

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