By MURPHY BROWNE
Thirty years ago (June 1979) a delegation of African-American musicians, led by songwriter and record producer, Kenny Gamble, persuaded then-U.S. president, Jimmy Carter, to designate June as Black Music Month.
Since then, June has been recognized as Black Music Month with even George W. Bush getting in on the action. In his 2008 Black Music Month proclamation, he stated, “I encourage all Americans to learn more about the history of Black music and to enjoy the great contributions of African-American singers, musicians and composers.”
June is also recognized as Black Music Month in Toronto and as far away as Britain.
The music of America without the contribution of the descendants of enslaved Africans is unimaginable. There is hardly a popular genre of American music that was not pioneered by African-Americans, including the now White-dominated rock and roll and country and western music.
The large scale cultural appropriation of African-American music can be seen in the popularity of White musicians like Elvis Presley, groups like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and even the many White jazz musicians. There is a tried and true pattern to this appropriation. African-Americans will invent a form of musical expression, White society will declare it primitive, even vulgar, then White musicians will imitate the music and become wildly successful even if their copy is a pale imitation.
From Asa Yoelson (Al Jolson 1886-1950) to Marshall Bruce Mathers III (Eminem), White appropriation of African music has seen what begun as a despised African art form, used by cunning White men to gain fame and fortune. In Yoelson/Jolson’s case, he was a member of a vaudeville act and did not experience any kind of success until he began to perform in “blackface”, imitating African-Americans.
This pale imitation of a vibrant African-American art form, which came out of the suffering of a people who were terrorized and brutalized for centuries, led to Yoelson/Jolson being described by the White press as a “sensation” and, more recently, “America’s first superstar”.
Fast forward to the 21st century where an African-American art form that originated approximately three decades ago and became the voice of disenchanted African-American youth who suffered through the racist Reaganomics period now has a White “icon,” Eminem.
The beginning of rap is deeply rooted in ancient African culture and oral tradition, supposedly begun in the Bronx by Jamaican-born DJ Kool Herc. The practitioners of this art form used it as a platform to address the inequity and racism of American society which, in many cases, led to drug abuse and violence in poverty stricken communities.
In the song, ‘They Schools’, by the duo, Dead Prez, this profound statement sums up the reality for the existence of many African-Americans: “The same people who control the school system control the prison system and the whole social system ever since slavery”. The same can be said for the music industry which, of course, is part of the social system. With the commercialization of rap music and the manipulation of young people who may be gullible and trying to make their way out of poverty, the music has gone from focusing on a message to address inequities, to “gangsta rap” and pretenders like Eminem. There is no saying how long it will take for the genre to be hijacked and become White.
The rap music industry reportedly posted revenues in excess of $1.5 billion in 2005. How much of that money actually went to the performers is anyone’s guess.
Sadly, there were many African-American musicians whose talents were appropriated, not only by White musicians, but also by White managers. In Space is the Place: The Life and Times of Sun Ra, John F. Szwed writes: “By 1950, most Black entertainment was under the control and direction of White entrepreneurs and conventions of performance and cultural expectations alien to the Black community were imposed from outside. At the worst of this development, Black musicians were expected to conform to White stereotypes; at the very least they were handed incongruous models of performance developed in the White community.”
The music of Africans from other parts of the world has also been appropriated by White entertainers. One of the most famous cases involved a calypsonian from Trinidad whose work was stolen. In 1944, the Andrews Sisters, a trio of White American women, recorded ‘Rum and Coca Cola’, which became the number one hit in the U.S. during 1945, spending 10 weeks at the top of Billboard’s U.S. Pop Singles chart.
The song was listed as being the work of three White men, copyrighted in the United States by Morey Amsterdam as the lyricist with Jeri Sullavan and Paul Baron as musical composers. The words, in fact, had been written by Trinidadian calypsonian, Rupert Westmore Grant (Lord Invader), and the music written by Trinidadian composer, Lionel Belasco. Westmore Grant and Belasco filed a lawsuit in the U.S. for copyright infringement and, after years of litigation, won their case and received an award of $150,000 in owed royalties.
Fortunately, there has been some change since the days of Yoelson/Jolson in that African-American musicians have a better chance of benefiting financially from their musical talents. Eminem might be better paid than Common, Dead Prez, Mos Def, Nas or Talib Kweli but, at least, he cannot appropriate their lyrics and deny them recognition and royalties.
June is Black Music Month and also the beginning of summer with several street festivals happening during the next few months, starting with the 10th Muhtadi International Drumming Festival (June 6-7) at Queens Park in Toronto. The Drumming Festival includes drummers from many parts of the world and since the drum is a very important part of African culture, there will be many drummers from the African continent and the Diaspora.