From painting to sculpture, music to dance, song to silhouette, African Americans have found voice and flight through the visual and performing arts. Bringing narratives of solace, songs of resistance, images of
strength, lyrics of love, power, and empowerment to the foreground, African American artists have been at the forefront of a rich tradition of creativity and culture in the United States. This month, X 102.3 is celebrating X-cellence in black music.
“What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye
Inspired by Ball Of Confusion, Gaye grew tired of singing love songs and wanted to expand into socially conscious music. Berry Gordy didn’t think anyone was ready for such a romantic singer to sing political songs. Gaye said that he wouldn’t deliver another album unless he could do what he wanted. Therefore, he recorded What’s Going On, written by Obie Benson from the Four Tops along with Al Cleveland and Gaye himself. Gordy hated it, not for its politics, but because he thought, it was a terrible song. It sold over 200,000 copies in its first week.
Michael Jackson breaks MTV’s color barrier
“Music Television” took off right from the first notes of its opening video, broadcast on August 1, 1981. The channel made stars of acts like Men at Work and Billy Idol, and helped breathe new life into the careers of established stars like David Bowie and Robert Palmer. What it did not do was play black artists — that is, until the president of CBS Records threatened to pull his other acts from the airwaves if MTV continued to ignore Michael Jackson. A child star in the early 1970s, Jackson became a worldwide megastar when his hits “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” became blockbuster successes on MTV, breaking an unspoken policy of “cultural apartheid,” as the music historian Mark Anthony Neal has called it.
Prince unleashes Purple Rain
Multi-talented dynamo Prince already had five records to his name, including the double album 1999, when he released his monster smash Purple Rain in 1984. The album, which featured the No. 1 hits “Let’s Go Crazy” and “When Doves Cry” alongside the anthemic, seven-minute title track, was the soundtrack to Prince’s star-making feature film of the same name. Purple Rain is also credited with a more dubious success: the track “Darling Nikki” was the racy song that inspired Tipper Gore to launch the Parents Music Resource Center, a group that forced the music industry to include warning stickers on records with lyrical content deemed offensive.
“Motown Records” Berry Gordy
Famously, Berry Gordy borrowed $800 to launch the biggest African-American-owned business of its era. Considering that his background included boxing, running a record shop that went bust and fitting upholstery on a car assembly line, it was quite an achievement. But the Detroit dynamo’s success was built on firm business principles which the many record companies who dreamt of becoming “the new Motown” would have done well to follow. Berry Gordy worked out a way of beating the odds when they were always stacked against black people in 60s US – without him, there wouldn’t be a P Diddy or Jay Z.
Motown Records was founded in 1960 by Berry Gordy, Jr. and was the first record label owned by an African American. Primarily featuring African American artists, Motown Records achieved crossover success with a sound that bridged genres and a popularity that reached across racial lines during a time when much of the country was still segregated. Motown had 110 top 10 hits from 1961 to 1971 (!!) and many after that, from artists including Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Supremes, The Four Tops, and The Jackson 5.
Beyoncé sparks a new women’s movement
Beyoncé previewed her sixth album at Super Bowl 50 in February 2016. The Black Panther-inspired concept for her performance of “Formation” drew some criticism, but when a planned protest outside NFL headquarters in New York City was announced, no one showed up. Fans did, however, show up in droves when Beyoncé released the album Lemonade that April. Accompanied by a bonus 65-minute art film, the release explored the toll infidelity takes on a marriage and one woman’s revenge fantasy. “Middle fingers up,” Queen Bey commanded in the breakup song “Sorry,” and a huge wave of feminists and their supporters obliged.
“Say It Out Loud-I’m Black And I’m Proud” by James Brown
Often considered one of the forerunners of rap, Say It Out Loud-I’m Black And I’m Proud is also a significant touchstone in how people refer to themselves. In the late Sixties, the polite term for African Americans was Negro. Calling someone “Black” was considered something of a put down. In the song, James Brown says that he is proud of being BLACK and he insists that the audience say it too. As homage, the song has been sampled in countless hip-hop songs.
James Brown becomes the most sampled artist of all time
There would be no hip-hop without pioneering DJs like Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash. There would also be no hip-hop without James Brown, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, a force of nature who created funk music and whose heavily rhythmic tracks inspired two decades of rap. By the late 1980s, the stars of the genre — Public Enemy, Eric B. & Rakim, LL Cool J and many more — were indebted to the JBs’ “Funky Drummer” and countless other Brown songs.
“Chocolate City” by Parliament
In sharp contrast to Dancing In The Street which was re-interpreted by the Civil Rights Movement, Chocolate City makes its allegiance clear right from the start. Also mentioning cities with large Black populations, it focuses on the nation’s capital, and George Clinton isn’t singing about dancing in the streets. He’s telling the world (We’re) “gaining on you!”
Whitney Houston redefines the blockbuster
Whitney Houston was one of the biggest pop stars of the 1980s, but she shot to a whole new level with the 1992 release of the soundtrack to The Bodyguard, her first starring role at the movies. Her knockout version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” stayed at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for a then-record 14 weeks, and the album went on to sell more than 40 million copies worldwide, making it one of the top five best-selling albums of all time.
“Dancing in the Street” by Martha and the Vandellas
When Dancing In The Street was released in the summer of 1964, it wasn’t seen as anything but a fun party song. It mentioned Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Baltimore, and Detroit, all cities with large African American populations. That same summer, the Civil Rights movement took off in earnest, and people in those cities took to marching, adopting the song as their soundtrack. Some people amended the chorus to “Fighting in the street”. As for Martha Reeves herself, she never saw it as anything other than a light hearted song.
Jay-Z makes rap big business
The young Brooklyn rapper known as Jay-Z was an independent artist when he released his debut album in 1996. By the end of the decade, the label he’d created with his friend Damon Dash, Roc-A-Fella, was providing the blueprint for a new kind of American tycoon: the star rapper who’s also the king of his business domain. The label spawned Kanye West, who started as a beat producer for the boss, and it eventually made Jay-Z the wealthiest man in hip-hop with a net worth of $900 million.
“Ball of Confusion” by The Temptations
In the early Seventies, Motown Records were seen as a slick hit-making label, safe for the masses. Label head Berry Gordy steered clear from politics and controversy for the sake of record sales. It was Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong who wanted to start addressing the social issues of the day. And they did a brilliant job with Ball Of Confusion, recorded by The Temptations (who were, as a hugely popular group, also reluctant to rock the boat). Spitting out a series of complaints over a sinewy groove, the song proved to be immensely popular, opening Motown up to include political music at last.
Tupac makes hip-hop poetry
Hip-hop was still the music parents loved to hate when Tupac Shakur released “Dear Mama,” his Mother’s-Day-all-year-long tribute to his own mother, in 1995. Raised in a home dedicated to black nationalism, Shakur also had deep artistic training, studying theater at Baltimore School for the Arts. As a rapper, he brought a poetic sensibility to a genre obsessed with toughness without sacrificing his own masculinity. A fan of Shakespeare, Shakur was killed in the modern-day tragedy of his deadly feud with fellow rapper the Notorious B.I.G.
Sly and the Family Stone, Parliament-Funkadelic give up the funk
After James Brown exploded soul music — stretching it out, emphasizing rhythm over melody and adding layers of syncopation — a horde of musicians swept onto the newly opened dance floor. Sly Stone made it psychedelic. George Clinton, with his two groups Parliament and Funkadelic, took the sound to another galaxy. Other groups, like the Ohio Players, Earth, Wind & Fire and Kool & the Gang, helped put funk on the pop charts. “Funky music sho nuff turns me on,” sang the Temptations, and the record-buying public enthusiastically agreed.
The child of a Baptist minister, Aretha Franklin grew up in Detroit singing gospel music in church. When her incredible voice landed her a contract with Columbia Records in 1960, however, her talent was mostly misused on pop standards and vocal jazz. It wasn’t until she signed with Atlantic Records in 1967 that Aretha became “Aretha!” Pairing her gospel roots with funky Muscle Shoals musicians, she began a long strong of hits with “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” “Respect” and “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman,” establishing herself as the formidable Queen of Soul.
Childish Gambino takes aim at modern America
At a time when Americans are still struggling with the legacies of the civil rights movement and the first black president, actor and rapper Donald Glover seized hold of the conversation over race relations with his intense and satiric video for “This Is America.” With imagery borrowing from gangster fantasies and Jim Crow stereotypes, the video raises harrowing questions about the country’s gun policies and ongoing racial tensions. A viral sensation, the video pushed the song to No. 1, a first for Glover’s Childish Gambino alter ego.