All of American music is black music, said Bruno Mars in a recent interview, and he wasn’t the first to say so. “When you say ‘black music,’ understand that you are talking about rock, jazz, R&B, reggae, funk, doo-wop, hip-hop and Motown, ” Mars said. “Even salsa music stems back to the Motherland.” Black music, he said, is “what gives America its swag.”
It was President Jimmy Carter, the peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia, who first declared June Black Music Month. “I won’t make the other states feel inferior by naming all the black musicians that have come out of Georgia,” he joked. Thirty years later, during the inaugural year of the first black presidency, Barack Obama renamed the celebration African-American Music Appreciation Month, noting the ways black musicians have helped all of America “to dance, to express our faith in song, to march against injustice and to defend our country’s enduring promise of freedom and opportunity for all.”
This from the guy who once nailed an impromptu rendition of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” at a fundraiser at the Apollo Theater. Though memorable, that little episode didn’t exactly change the world. These moments did.
There were many other notable figures in the early history of the great American product called jazz, among them Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet and Duke Ellington. But when a young New Orleans native named Louis Armstrong busted out on his own after outgrowing his role in Fletcher Henderson’s dance band, jazz began its transformation from the ragtime of the early 20th century to the instrumental, solo-based art form we still recognize today.
Who knows what really happened down at the crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi? What’s indisputable is that the legacy of this star-crossed bluesman inspired many of rock music’s most influential guitarists — from Muddy Waters to Eric Clapton to Keith Richards — 30 years after his tragic death.
As a young girl, Little Rosetta Nubin was a prodigy, performing with her mother in a traveling evangelical troupe where she was billed as a “singing and guitar-playing miracle.” Taking her stage name from her first husband, a preacher, Sister Rosetta Tharpe began her recording career in 1938, when she went into a studio with Lucky Millinder’s orchestra to cut her first four songs, including “Rock Me.” Churchgoing audiences were aghast, but music lovers were instantly thrilled. The “Godmother of Rock ’n’ Roll” went on to inspire Elvis Presley, Little Richard and many more of the music’s first greats, and she entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018 as an early influence.
When Billie Holiday began singing “Strange Fruit” at New York’s Cafe Society in 1939, the club owner set a few rules: The song would be the last of the night, the waiters would stop serving drinks and the only light in the room would be on the singer’s face. Written by songwriter Abe Meeropol as a poem that asks how the world could ignore the gruesome practice of lynching, the song was so powerful that Time named it the song of the century in 1999. Record executive Ahmet Ertegun once called “Strange Fruit” a “declaration of war,” the opening salvo of the civil rights movement.
1950 | Miles Davis redefines cool
After cutting his teeth in Charlie Parker’s band, trumpeter Miles Davis put together a nine-piece ensemble that countered the frenetic instrumentation of bebop with an introspective style influenced by classical music. The dramatic departure helped launch the “cool jazz” movement of the 1950s. Though various tracks from the sessions were released on 78 rpm discs, the classic album Birth of the Cool didn’t come out until 1957. By then, the restless Davis was well on his way to other adventures.
“You can’t catch me,” sang a young St. Louis native named Chuck Berry in 1956. Imagining himself soaring over the New Jersey Turnpike in a flying car, Berry would go on to write so many classics — “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Johnny B. Goode,” and “Rock and Roll Music,” to name a few — that generations of rock ’n’ rollers scrambled to keep up.
1959 | Fats Domino inspires ska
When New Orleans R&B great Fats Domino appeared in Montego Bay for the Jamaica Music Festival in early 1961, he was treated like royalty. For years, Jamaicans had been listening to big-signal radio broadcasts from the Crescent City and Miami, which came in loud and clear on the island. By some accounts, it was the lilting, offbeat rhythm of Fats’s 1959 single “Be My Guest” that singlehandedly inspired the Jamaican R&B known as ska.
Disappointed by his earnings after “Lonely Teardrops” became a big hit for Jackie Wilson, Detroit songwriter Berry Gordy decided the real money was in publishing. In 1959, he launched Tamla Records, which became Motown the following year. That year, Gordy moved the company’s offices and recording studio into a home he named Hitsville U.S.A. The label had a few hits (“Money,” “Shop Around”) before taking off in 1961 with singles by the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, the Marvelettes and others. Gordy’s master plan was to appeal not only to young African-Americans, but all of the country’s youth. Through much of the ‘60s, it worked.
Beginning in 1953, the great Ray Charles scored a steady stream of hits by melding blues and R&B with his gospel roots. He unleashed his talent onto the pop mainstream in 1959 with his smash call-and-response hit “What’d I Say.” That led ABC-Paramount to offer Charles a deal like few others in the record business at the time, including a $50,000 annual retainer and the eventual ownership of his master recordings. Having grown up in the deep South listening to plenty of country music, Charles tested his label’s promise to give him full artistic freedom by recording an album of classic “hillbilly” songs, as he called them. Released to ample skepticism during a time of racial turmoil, the experiment became perhaps his best-loved album: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music.
With its droning, improvisational instrumentation, the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” is often considered the first psychedelic rock song. The California group had been listening to a lot of jazz saxophone master John Coltrane while recording. Guitarist Roger McGuinn has said he loved Coltrane’s innovative playing, including “all those funny little notes and fast stuff at the bottom of the range.” Though the veiled drug references in “Eight Miles High” got the Byrds banned from many radio stations, Coltrane’s influence has carried on, inspiring Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa through classic hip-hop and experimental electronica like that of Flying Lotus (the grand-nephew of Coltrane’s wife, Alice).
Andrew Young, the former mayor of Atlanta, UN ambassador, and close associate of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., once called Chicago soul musician Curtis Mayfield “a prophetic, visionary teacher of our people and of our time … who sang of the triumph and of the glory of us coming together as a people.” With his group, the Impressions, Mayfield recorded some of the best-known songs of the civil rights era, including “Keep On Pushing,” “People Get Ready” and “Amen.” The late singer’s website respectfully notes the significance of freedom songs like “We Shall Overcome” and “Blowin’ in the Wind”: “But if it came to the people’s choice … it would be Curtis Mayfield, hands down and clenched fist up!”
The child of a Baptist minister, Aretha Franklin grew up in Detroit singing gospel music in church. When her incredible voice landed her a contract with Columbia Records in 1960, however, her talent was mostly misused on pop standards and vocal jazz. It wasn’t until she signed with Atlantic Records in 1967 that Aretha became “Aretha!” Pairing her gospel roots with funky Muscle Shoals musicians, she began a long strong of hits with “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” “Respect” and “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman,” establishing herself as the formidable Queen of Soul.
When a young, flamboyantly dressed electric guitarist named Jimi Hendrix ended his white-hot set at the Monterey Pop Festival by lighting his guitar on fire, a new kind of rock music was born. Though he died young in 1970 — he was only 27 — Hendrix completely remade the role of the guitar in popular music during his short career. Artists as diverse as Miles Davis, Prince and Stevie Ray Vaughan were all deeply influenced by Hendrix’s astounding ability to treat his instrument like it was an extension of his subconscious mind.
1970 | Fela Kuti creates Afrobeat
Nigeria native Fela Kuti was already in his thirties when he spent the better part of a year with his band in Los Angeles in 1969. Having named his developing style of music “Afrobeat,” Kuti absorbed the political ideas of the Black Panther Party. Upon returning to Nigeria, the bandleader made his improvisational, horn-heavy music a form of constant protest against the military juntas that controlled the state and its oil wealth. Kuti died in 1997, but not before inspiring generations of international musicians, from Talking Heads to Antibalas and Tune-Yards.
After James Brown exploded soul music — stretching it out, emphasizing rhythm over melody and adding layers of syncopation — a horde of musicians swept onto the newly opened dance floor. Sly Stone made it psychedelic. George Clinton, with his two groups Parliament and Funkadelic, took the sound to another galaxy. Other groups, like the Ohio Players, Earth, Wind & Fire and Kool & the Gang, helped put funk on the pop charts. “Funky music sho nuff turns me on,” sang the Temptations, and the record-buying public enthusiastically agreed.
Clive Campbell was one of six children born in Kingston, Jamaica, where he experienced the city’s outdoor “sound system” parties. When his family moved to the Bronx, the boy began recreating those parties in the rec room of his family’s high-rise apartment building. Taking the stage name DJ Kool Herc and playing carefully selected records by James Brown, Booker T. and the MGs and others, he invented a technique he called the “Merry-Go-Round” — switching between breakbeats played on two turntables — that would mark the origin of hip-hop as we know it today.
After producing several hit records in the late 1960s, songwriters Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff formed Philadelphia International Records as a competitor to Berry Gordy’s Motown. With their house band, MFSB (Mother Father Sister Brother), the duo created a style of dance music that combined slinky rhythms with lush orchestration. With the O’Jays, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes and others, their “Philly soul” would become a foundation of the new music known as disco.
“At first I was afraid, I was petrified”: Gay or straight, anyone who’s ever gotten over a lost love is all too familiar with the opening words to soul singer Gloria Gaynor’s disco-era classic “I Will Survive.” Amazingly, this timeless song wasn’t considered a potential hit when it was first released in 1978 as a B-side. But nightclub audiences knew a sure thing when they heard one, and the rest of the country soon caught on: “I Will Survive” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in March 1979. It hasn’t lost a bit of its anthemic power over the years, with VH1 naming it the greatest dance song ever and the Library of Congress adding it to the prestigious National Recording Registry in 2016.
In 1978 in Jamaica, rival politicians Michael Manley and Edward Seaga were vying for power with the help of assorted street thugs and enforcers. Only one man could bring them together: Bob Marley, the king of reggae, who had brought international attention to the island nation with his music. After an assassination attempt in 1976, Marley had been living in exile in London, but he returned to Jamaica upon learning of plans for a concert intended to bring calm to a tense political climate. Dubbed the “Third World Woodstock,” the show featured sets by Marley’s former bandmates Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer, as well as the unlikely occurrence of the fierce opponents Manley and Seaga clasping hands with Marley, the peacemaker.
Frankie Knuckles was already a successful DJ in New York City when he moved to Chicago in the late 1970s, where a friend was opening a nightclub called the Warehouse. Playing a mix of disco, rare soul and European avant-garde, Knuckles soon added a drum machine to his repertoire, creating a new style of four-to-the-floor music he called “house.” House music went mainstream on hit tracks by Madonna, Paula Adbul and many others, and the style would eventually pave the way for the ubiquity of electronic dance music in the new century.
“Music Television” took off right from the first notes of its opening video, broadcast on August 1, 1981. The channel made stars of acts like Men at Work and Billy Idol, and helped breathe new life into the careers of established stars like David Bowie and Robert Palmer. What it didn’t do was play black artists — that is, until the president of CBS Records threatened to pull his other acts from the airwaves if MTV continued to ignore Michael Jackson. A child star in the early 1970s, Jackson became a worldwide megastar when his hits “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” became blockbuster successes on MTV, breaking an unspoken policy of “cultural apartheid,” as the music historian Mark Anthony Neal has called it.
1984 | Prince unleashes Purple Rain
Multi-talented dynamo Prince already had five records to his name, including the double album 1999, when he released his monster smash Purple Rain in 1984. The album, which featured the No. 1 hits “Let’s Go Crazy” and “When Doves Cry” alongside the anthemic, seven-minute title track, was the soundtrack to Prince’s star-making feature film of the same name. Purple Rain is also credited with a more dubious success: the track “Darling Nikki” was the racy song that inspired Tipper Gore to launch the Parents Music Resource Center, a group that forced the music industry to include warning stickers on records with lyrical content deemed offensive.
Though the media called it “gangsta” rap, the artists had another term for it. When N.W.A began cutting tracks that illustrated the truth of the mean streets of Compton, they called it “reality rap.” Around the same time, Public Enemy frontman Chuck D declared that his group’s music was like “CNN for black people.” Many of hip-hop’s early stars used their amplified voices to protest the prison-industrial complex, the ongoing race disparity in America and other social issues, and the practice continues today.
There would be no hip-hop without pioneering DJs like Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and Grandmaster Flash. There would also be no hip-hop without James Brown, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, a force of nature who created funk music and whose heavily rhythmic tracks inspired two decades of rap. By the late 1980s, the stars of the genre — Public Enemy, Eric B. & Rakim, LL Cool J and many more — were indebted to the JBs’ “Funky Drummer” and countless other Brown songs.
Whitney Houston was one of the biggest pop stars of the 1980s, but she shot to a whole new level with the 1992 release of the soundtrack to The Bodyguard, her first starring role at the movies. Her knockout version of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” stayed at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for a then-record 14 weeks, and the album went on to sell more than 40 million copies worldwide, making it one of the top five best-selling albums of all time.
1995 | Tupac makes hip-hop poetry
Hip-hop was still the music parents loved to hate when Tupac Shakur released “Dear Mama,” his Mother’s-Day-all-year-long tribute to his own mother, in 1995. Raised in a home dedicated to black nationalism, Shakur also had deep artistic training, studying theater at Baltimore School for the Arts. As a rapper, he brought a poetic sensibility to a genre obsessed with toughness without sacrificing his own masculinity. A fan of Shakespeare, Shakur was killed in the modern-day tragedy of his deadly feud with fellow rapper the Notorious B.I.G.
1999 | Jay-Z makes rap big business
The young Brooklyn rapper known as Jay-Z was an independent artist when he released his debut album in 1996. By the end of the decade, the label he’d created with his friend Damon Dash, Roc-A-Fella, was providing the blueprint for a new kind of American tycoon: the star rapper who’s also the king of his business domain. The label spawned Kanye West, who started as a beat producer for the boss, and it eventually made Jay-Z the wealthiest man in hip-hop with a net worth of $900 million.
Beyoncé previewed her sixth album at Super Bowl 50 in February 2016. The Black Panther-inspired concept for her performance of “Formation” drew some criticism, but when a planned protest outside NFL headquarters in New York City was announced, no one showed up. Fans did, however, show up in droves when Beyoncé released the album Lemonade that April. Accompanied by a bonus 65-minute art film, the release explored the toll infidelity takes on a marriage and one woman’s revenge fantasy. “Middle fingers up,” Queen Bey commanded in the breakup song “Sorry,” and a huge wave of feminists and their supporters obliged.
Established in 1943, the Pulitzer Prize for Music has been awarded to classical composers including Aaron Copland and Samuel Barber, as well as the jazz musicians Wynton Marsalis and Ornette Coleman. The prize had never gone to a pop musician until the surprise announcement earlier this year that rapper Kendrick Lamar had earned the honor for his fourth studio album, DAMN. Though he doesn’t turn 31 for a few weeks, Lamar has been lavished with praise throughout his short career, with 12 Grammy Awards and an acknowledgment from Time as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. “Sit down, be humble,” he advises on one of DAMN.‘s singles. For this once-in-a-generation talent, that’s easier said than done.
At a time when Americans are still struggling with the legacies of the civil rights movement and the first black president, actor and rapper Donald Glover seized hold of the conversation over race relations with his intense and satiric video for “This Is America.” With imagery borrowing from gangster fantasies and Jim Crow stereotypes, the video raises harrowing questions about the country’s gun policies and ongoing racial tensions. A viral sensation, the video pushed the song to No. 1, a first for Glover’s Childish Gambino alter ego.