Celebrating Black Music Month — or African-American Music Appreciation Month for those of you who aren’t into the whole brevity thing — brings with it a passel of contradictions. On the one hand, there are surely many a well meaning folk out there who aren’t even aware such a month exists in the first place!
Neither MTV nor VH1 have recognized the celebration this year — even on their websites. Neither, for that matter, has Rolling Stone or Spin. XXL, Vibe, AllHipHop.com and other outlets for “urban music” have stepped up and recognized, often with some quite insightful contributions, but in light of the broader ignorance, it almost comes off as ghetto-ized. Roughly three weeks into what should be a nationwide celebration, most of the mainstream has made nary a peep.
Black Music Month, however, isn’t anything new. According to its entry on Wikipedia (whose full length reaches a grand total of one four sentences):
African-American Music Appreciation Month is a celebration for African American Music every year in the month of June in the United States. It was originally started as Black Music Month by President Jimmy Carter, who on June 7, 1979, decreed that June would be the month of black music. Since then, presidents have announced to Americans to celebrate Black Music Month. For each year of his term, President Barack Obama has announced the observance under a new title, African-American Music Appreciation Month.
Unsurprisingly, Obama’s own decrees regarding this month have largely flown under the radar. After all, the nation’s first African-American president has been too busy promoting policies that keep Blacks under a boot for this kind of announcement to receive any real credence.
The outrageous tragedy here is, of course, that American music would look absolutely nothing like it does today without the influence of Africa. This deserves to be recognized, and not just during the month of June.
Without slave spirituals and the “blue note” common in West African music, we wouldn’t have the blues. Without the blues, there would have been no ragtime or jazz. Neither would there have been any R&B, rock or soul. Disco and funk? Nope. And as for hip-hop, a style and culture that has now become a global force, it wouldn’t have even been a distant twinkle.
Make no mistake: this evolution was far from a smooth one. Untold numbers of slaves were beaten or killed for singing spirituals for fear that they provided coded escape plans (which they sometimes did). The blues was derided as “devil’s music” by white preachers, as well as a few Black churches.
Jazz innovator and “father of the blues” W.C. Handy’s bassist was killed in the South because a white man didn’t like that the musician was wearing a nicer suit. John Coltrane’s best friend was beaten to death by a Philadelphia police officer for refusing to walk in the gutter. Abbey Lincoln, after recording her wonderful “Freedom Suite” with Max Roach, found it impossible to record for years afterward.
Many readers are no doubt aware of the long string of scapegoating campaigns against hip-hop — from the PMRC to the Fraternal Order of Police. And then there are the innumerable dollars of unpaid royalties (millions of by some estimates) still owed to this very day to Bessie Smith, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Sarah Vaughan, DMX and countless other Black artists or their estates.
Running next to all of this is a history of sonic resistance too rich to recount in one article. Duke Ellington’s “Black, Brown and Beige” suite, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Gil Scott-Heron, Public Enemy, Erykah Badu. All of these are artists who stood up and in their own way said that things have to change. In the process, they most certainly did change music.
Any true music lover would jump at the opportunity to celebrate all this. So why the silence? Why has there been so little mention from the music scribes on this topic? Why so little recognition? Might it be that, in “post-racial” America, we have little need for a Black Music Month?
Or might it be that so little attention is paid to these landmark contributions in popular culture because, as so often happens, the wrong questions might be asked?
After all, any honest look at African-American history is bound to yield a few inconsistencies. Today, sanitized recreations of Martin Luther King are played during commercial breaks in between speeches from the nation’s first Black president. It’s all proof that racism is a thing of the past, that America has finally buried the hatchet of slavery, Jim Crow and beyond.
Except for Trayvon Martin. Or Ramarley Graham. Or Darius Simmons. Or Tamon Robinson, Shantel Davis, Rekia Boyd, Stephon Watts or any of the others gunned down by racist cops and vigilantes in the past several months.
Except for the 2.3 million people behind bars, the vast majority of whom are people of color, their labor exploited in prison, their names permanently tagged with stigma after their release that can prevent them from getting a job, decent housing, or government assistance.
The phrase goes that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. In some ways, that’s exactly what continues to frighten so many in the American establishment — that a new wave of protest might rise up declaring that the Civil Rights movement isn’t over. Except for reparations, the forty acres and a mule, the unpaid royalties still due after all these years and the scapegoating of hip-hop that still takes place to this very day.
These are all precise reasons for Black Music Month to be recognized much wider than it currently is, and these just scratch the surface. It should be celebrated, studied and learned from well past the end of June. There’s some unfinished business out there, and I can think of more than a few musicians who would agree.