Consisting of Spirituals, Gospel, Blues, Jazz, Rock & Roll, R&B, Hip Hop, House, and so many other genres, Black music birthed most popular music today. A matter of fact, Black music is so powerful that it has literally changed the world. Enslaved Africans sang Spirituals, not only as a source of strength, but as a way to pass on secret information about the Underground Railroad right under the slave master’s nose. The Blues gave people the means to channel their deepest sorrows. Rhythm & Blues drew from its predecessors to create Rock & Roll as well as the soulful sound of the 60’s and 70’s, epitomized by Motown, Stax, and other iconic labels. Legends like James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, and Aretha Franklin provided the soundtrack of both the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement. Hip Hop culture and Rap music evolved from these rich traditions to become the voice of the voiceless and disenfranchised. In the 80’s and early 90’s, the likes of Public Enemy, Rakim, KRS-One, Queen Latifah, Poor Righteous Teachers, and X-Clan inspired teenagers around the world to wear African medallions, learn Black history, and become activists. The powers-that-be couldn’t possibly risk losing their much-coveted social status to a growing movement of highly-motivated, educated, and empowered young Black Hip Hop fans who stood on the shoulders of those heroes that came before them. Something had to be done.
The truth is, Black music’s erosion had begun years ago.
In 1972, a Harvard report titled “A Study of the Soul Music Environment” outlined how the music industry could market Black music to a broader, i.e. whiter audience. As a result, executives with no personal stake or interest in the preservation of Black music’s rich history and social significance were brought in to make decisions about its direction. While the music didn’t transform overnight, the seeds of change had undoubtedly been planted, starting with popularizing the term R&B over Rhythm and Blues to tone down the music’s southern roots and risk alienating white listeners.
In the late 70’s, the term “Black Music” was slowly being replaced with “Urban Music”. Going further, Black Music Departments at various labels across the nation were renamed Urban Music Departments. The industry, focusing on profit over culture, reasoned that this name-change would make Black music easier to market to mainstream audiences. Many suspected that this was done to disassociate Urban music from its African-American roots in order to make white consumers feel more comfortable. Today, it’s almost politically incorrect to use the term Black music for fear of excluding multi-cultural audiences. Ironically, the term Latin Music is embraced wholeheartedly. Could the word “Black” just be too much for mainstream audiences to digest? And what does “Urban” music mean anyway – city music?
Then, Hip Hop culture and Rap music emerged. Bold, groundbreaking, and rebellious, its do-it-yourself ethos shut out the mainstream industry, relying instead on independent and underground channels to grow and blossom. Eventually, major labels weaseled their way in and surprisingly allowed rap to flourish virtually untainted, probably because their inexperience with this new phenomenon had created an opportune moment for rap’s development. However, by the late 80’s/early 90’s, Hip Hop culture’s influence over Black youth had managed to put more fear than ever into the hearts and minds of the so-called “ruling party”. The music industry was no longer going to allow messages of unapologetic Black pride and rebellion to filter through its airwaves and distribution channels. Executive shot callers would make sure of that.
Urban Music, i.e. rap music, was used to sell anything ranging from Chicken McNuggets to Barbie dolls. With advertisers trying to appeal to younger demographics, rap was increasingly associated with branding, marketing, and consumerism, and decreasingly synonymous with culturally-affirming, rebel music. If rap music that celebrates Malcolm X and the Black Panthers was perceived as a threat by the powers-that-be, using rap to sell Fruity Pebbles in commercials would surely weaken the music’s potency in the public eye. Hip Hop’s new generation of critical thinkers couldn’t be allowed to grow and risk challenging the ruling order of the day.
Record labels began aggressively promoting gangsta rap during the peak of Hip Hop’s Afrocentric and Pro-Black era. While acts like NWA, Compton’s Most Wanted, and DJ Quik had comfortably coexisted with culturally-conscious rap, a more celebratory form of gangsta music was about to hit the world by storm. African medallions and X hats were replaced by marijuana chains and logos. Songs about Black Unity and Nubian Queens were being obscured by titles like “Murder Was the Case” and “Bitches Ain’t Shit”. Although such topics had always been part of rap (see Too Short, 2 Live Crew, Schooly D, etc), the climate that had once provided a balance for both messages had now been tipped in favor of guns, weed, sex, and crime. In the 1992 hit “Let Me Ride”, Dre raps, “No medallions, dreadlocks, or Black fists”. It couldn’t have been said any plainer. But Dre, Snoop, and the entire Death Row family were pawns, backed by an industry that had a bigger agenda than just making a few rappers rich.
Gangsta Rap had successfully changed the direction of music, inspiring the East Coast and Down South to become more thugged-out, and even forcing R&B to adopt the rising gangsta trend. 80’s favorites like Anita Baker, Regina Bell, Surface, and Alexander O’Neil couldn’t compete. Although artists like Digable Planets, Toni Braxton, The Fugees, TLC, Gang Starr, and Babyface would go on to experience success in their own right, rap music’s empowering Pro-Black messages and R&B’s clear-cut romance and sophistication had been overshadowed by wannabe pimps, players, boss bitches, and thugs. As long as weed, sex, alcohol, and violence distracted the masses, the powers-that-be no longer felt threatened by the former movement of musically-empowered critical thinkers. After all, who could possible feel threatened by a Young Thug?
During that time, former R&B artists such as Usher and Beyonce became pop stars, the term Hip Hop went on to include folks like Future and Chris Brown, and Iggy Azalea was crowned princess of rap. Traditional R&B is now considered alternative. Hip Hop music with a message is mostly underground. Today’s generation couldn’t distinguish Blues and Jazz from Country and Classical. And the term Black music is seen as offensive, if not flat-out racist.
Someone please tell me – where do we go from here?
Sebastien Elkouby is a creative consultant, speaker, Hip Hop culture historian, freelance writer, and award-winning educator. For more info, go to SebIsHipHop.com or contact him at SebastienElkouby@gmail.com. Find him on Twitter at SebIsHipHop.