What is Black Music?

In class on Thursday, Professor Early challenged the group to think about what black music is. He began by playing several pieces of music that from one perspective might seem not to qualify as black music: Sammy Davis, Jr.’s highly polished, Sinatra-esque performance of “My Shining Hour”; and Ray Charles’s country-western “You Don’t Know Me.” We struggled with the question of how to define black music—and with the question of whether the term was meaningful or not.

On the one hand, there have been those who have sought to pin specific attributes on to black music—a certain looseness and flexibility, perhaps; a penchant for improvisation; an earthy, emotive authenticity. Yet such attempts almost inevitably become mired in patronizing stereotypes, as Prof. Early suggested with his mockery of Jack Kerouac’s swooning over black people’s liberated earthiness in On the Road. On the other hand, there is an opposing impulse to conclude, simply, that race has no bearing on music; that music is music and race has nothing to do with it, even though our racialized culture insists on yoking the two together commercially and cognitively. This idea was proposed in class, and Prof. Early, I think, acknowledged that on some level it may be true. Mostly, though, he resisted letting the discussion end there, instead hearkening all the way back to 1830 in a capsule history of black music in America.

As I think about the discussion now, I’m reminded of something I read in Toni Morrison’s essay “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature.” Here Morrison asserts the importance of understanding the relationship between race and culture:

For three hundred years black Americans insisted that “race” was no usefully distinguishing factor in human relationships. During those same three centuries every academic discipline, including theology, history, and natural science, insisted “race” was the determining factor in human development. When blacks discovered they had shaped or become a culturally formed race, and that it had specific and revered difference, suddenly they were told there is no such thing as “race,” biological or cultural, that matters and that genuinely intellectual exchange cannot accommodate it. In trying to come to some terms about “race” and writing, I am tempted to throw my hands up. It always seemed to me that the people who invented the hierarchy of “race” when it was convenient for them ought not to be the ones to explain it away, now that it does not suit their purposes for it to exist. But there is culture and both gender and “race” inform and are informed by it. Afro-American culture exists and though it is clear (and becoming clearer) how it has responded to Western culture, the instances where and means by which it has shaped Western culture are poorly recognized or understood. (126)

Prof. Early’s point, it seems to me, is similar to Morrison’s. The term black music does have meaning because black music has a specific history, a rather complex history that has required (and indeed still requires) much study and thought to articulate, and a history that is still unfolding today. Black music exists not because of some innate biological traits that accompany skin pigmentation and somehow express themselves musically, but instead because of the material conditions that such pigmentation has been associated with in America over the centuries: slavery, segregation, and so forth. Thus the curious history of minstrelsy and its eventual influence on black musical theater; thus the development of black spirituals; thus the evolution of blues and jazz and R&B and hip-hop, all of which are inflected by the cultural conditions of people who are considered “black” in a society where that “blackness” is thought to mean something more than simply the color of their skin.

As Prof. Early pointed out, it’s important to remember that “black music” does not mean just one type of music. There are multiple streams of black music, which might be usefully divided into the sacred and the secular. And there is also a history of black people playing European music—and of Europeans (and European-Americans) playing black music. And as Leonard Feather proved in the blind test he gave Milt Jackson, it really isn’t possible to identify the race of a musician simply by listening to the music. So, in that sense, it is true that music is music and race has nothing to do with it. But to leave the discussion there ignores all of the cultural realities and history that are so central to why music matters to people in the first place.

What we’re doing in this Institute, it seems to me, is closely related to Toni Morrison’s final idea in the passage quoted above. Understanding that Afro-American culture exists (and focusing on two aspects of that culture, jazz and Motown, during a discrete period of time), we’re investigating not only how it has responded to the broader American culture but also, and perhaps even more importantly, how it has in turn shaped that broader American culture.

—Frank Kovarik