Saluting Black Music Month

Black Music Month, inaugurated by President Jimmy Carter at the urging of songwriter and record producer Kenny Gamble in 1979, answers the statement posed by writer extraordinaire Ralph Ellison, What would America be like without Blacks. African American music carries and conveys not just the history and struggle of Africans in America, but equally important, the struggle to improve the human condition. The “Negro Spiritual”, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”, dates back to the era of slavery in the United States when it was common practice to sell children of African Americans away from their parents. The song expresses pain and despair as it conveys the hopelessness of a child who has lost her mother. Blues artist B.B. King returned to this theme in the 1980s when the crack cocaine drove mothers to abandon their children for what Hip Hop artist Too Short characterizes as the “H-i-t”. Kings lyrics conveyed the tragic sense of a loveless world, “Nobody loves me, but my mother, and she could me jivin’ too. Billy Holiday decried the lynching of blacks in her song “Strange Fruit”: Southern trees bear strange fruit/ Blood on the leaves and blood at the root. Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze/ Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. In the 1940s, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker asserted black manhood and self-determination expressed through the Bebop tune “A Night in Tunisia”.

Black music informed and was influence by the 1960s Freedom Movement. Curtis Mayfield told African Americans to “Keep on Pushing” despite the push back from segregationist because “We’re Winner.” And with the ushering in of the Black Power Movement, James Brown declared, “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” Echoing Martin Luther King’s Beloved Community, John Coltrane spoke to a generation of Americans when he declared “A Love Supreme” will bridge the divide in America.

The Hip Hop artist speaking to the Black condition in the 1980s and 1990s responded to Langston Hughes haunting question, What happens to a dream deferred? In the rap song, “The Message”, Grand Master Flash, expressing the feeling of so many black youth left behind and trapped in the “war zones’ called ghettoes, cried out, “It’s like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder/How I keep from going under.”   Rapper Ice Cube characterized the ghetto streets of Los Angeles as the “concrete Viet Nam.” And, Marvin Gaye, a quarter of a century earlier, produced a masterpiece, “What’s Going On”, raising the issues of  the war in Viet Nam, unemployment in the ghetto, police violence, destruction of the earth’s ecology, Inner City Blues” (make me want to holler) and a plea to “Save the Children.”

All of this month we salute Black Music and uncover its meaning for us today. The articulation of this music, vocally and instrumentally, embellishes and extends Ralph Ellison assertion that: The nation could not survive being deprived of the presence of blacks, because “by the irony implicit in the dynamics of American Democracy, they symbolize both its most stringent testing and the possibility of its greatest freedom.”

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