June is African American Music Appreciation Month! Created by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, this month celebrates the African American musical influences that comprise an essential part of our nation’s treasured cultural heritage.
Formerly called National Black Music Month, this celebration of African American musical contributions is re-established annually by presidential proclamation.
In this year’s proclamation, President Biden stated: “This month, we celebrate the songs and artists that challenge us to think critically, stand up to injustice, and believe in ourselves. We recommit to expanding the promise of dignity and opportunity for all Americans. And we revel in the sounds, spirit, and soul of some of the very best music ever created.”
Though by no means exhaustive, below is a primer that will guide you through some of the different genres that African Americans have created, inspired and fostered.
Sacred music, which includes spirituals and gospel music, illustrates the central role that music plays in African American spiritual and religious life. The earliest form of Black musical expression in America, spirituals were based on Christian psalms and hymns and merged with African music styles and secular American music forms. Spirituals were originally an oral tradition and imparted Christian values while also defining the hardships of slavery. Gospel music originated in the Black church and has become a globally recognized genre of popular music. In its earliest manifestations, gospel music functioned as an integral religious and ceremonial practice during worship services. Now, gospel music is also marketed commercially and draws on contemporary, secular sounds while still conveying spiritual and religious ideas.
African American folk music links back to African cultural traditions. Stemming from field hollers, work chants and game songs, folk music bursts with social commentary. Popular folk protest music spread in the 1960s, and its influence is still found within hip-hop today.
The blues form the foundation of contemporary American music. As did sacred and folk music, the blues also greatly influenced the cultural and social lives of African Americans. Geographically diverse incarnations of the blues arose in various regions, including the Mississippi Delta, Memphis, Chicago, and Southern Texas. Each regional manifestation of the blues features a uniquely identifiable sound and message. For example, Mississippi Delta blues illustrated the poverty of the region while celebrating its natural and cultural richness.
Beginning with the Revolutionary War, African Americans have always held a significant role in the armed services’ military band tradition. In the Revolutionary War and Civil War, African Americans served in fife and drum corps. Musicians that played in military bands during World War I and World War II often incorporated modern musical styles, such as jazz, into their song selections. They also toured the United States and Europe, entertaining civilian and military audiences alike.
Jazz evolved from ragtime, an American style of syncopated instrumental music. Jazz first materialized in New Orleans and is often distinguished by African American musical innovation. Multiple forms of the genre exist today, from the dance-oriented music of the 1920s big-band era to the experimental flair of modern avant-garde jazz.
Rhythm and Blues
The predecessor to soul music, R&B is another stylistically-diverse genre with roots in jazz, the blues and gospel music. R&B helped spread African American culture and popularized the idea of racial integration on the airwaves and in White society. Today’s iteration of the genre has assimilated soul and funk characteristics.
Rock ‘n’ Roll
Rock ‘n’ roll music incorporates elements from all African American music genres and combines them with American pop and country music components. The genre was born in the 1950s and appealed to the rebellious yearnings of American youth culture.
Hip-Hop and Rap
Hip-Hop and rap are musical traditions firmly embedded in African American culture. Like jazz, hip-hop has become a global phenomenon and has exerted a driving force on the development of mass media. Hip-hop music spawned an entire cultural form, while rap remains a means for artists to voice opinions and share experiences regarding social and political issues.
This list of musical styles merely scratches the surface. In addition to the genres previously detailed, African American musicians and artists have also developed and influenced classical music traditions, country and western music, pop music, and dance music such as disco, techno and house, among other genres and styles. Millions of people around the globe listen to and are touched by music that carries elements of African American musical traditions.