The Discrimination Against Black Artists in Music
Take a moment to think about your favorite style of music. Whether it’s rock, jazz, hip hop, or one of the many other expansive genres, it has likely been greatly impacted by artists in the Black community. Legendary musicians such as Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, and The Sugarhill Gang all created works of art that fundamentally changed the world of music, and deeply entrenched themselves within its history. However, they, and many other incredibly talented Black musicians, created their art whilst enduring the hardships of racial discrimination. Despite their contributions and impact on the music industry, Black artists have been attacked and systematically oppressed through the means of economic, sociopolitical, and scholarly persecution.
An Industry of Whitewashing
Much of the discrimination towards Black musicians comes from a racist music industry using its wealth and power in an attempt to erase the contributions of Black artists from music history. An example of this can be found in Henry Ford’s attack on “Jazz Culture”. Ford was a xenophobic capitalist who feared the spread of Black culture, and linked the jazz music that was popular in their communities with the rampant tobacco and alcohol use in cities. He used his fortune and influence to spread negative lies about Jazz dance halls and fund fiddling concerts to keep jazz music off the radio. However, in the years that followed, jazz became more mainstream and white artists began to perform with jazz bands. No further discriminatory actions were taken against them.
History repeats itself during the early years of rock with the rise of Elvis Presley. Throughout his career Presley took influence from the black artists who pioneered the genre of rock, even going as far as doing his own renditions of songs by Little Richard and Big Mama Thornton. While Presley had no malicious intent in his music making, and often used his influence to help share his spotlight with disadvantaged artists, he was used as a pawn of the music industry to steal rock from black culture. Sam Philips, the then owner of Sun Records, wanted to find a white musician with “black” sound in order to market it to a white audience.
Not only does this economic culture theft whitewash the history of music, but can also harmfully shape the culture of the present. Modern society, even in Black culture, often assumes that rock is a stereotypically white style of music, completely unaware that the Black community is largely responsible for its inception. Through the racism and greed of business, culture has not only been stolen, but nearly erased.
The “Crime” of Music Making
The lack of Black representation is not only due to the efforts of a racist music industry, but also the symptom of a racist and violent legal system. In 1959, jazz legend Miles Davis was performing at the Birdland Club and went outside during a set break to smoke a cigarette. During his break, he was confronted by a New York City police officer who told him he was loitering and needed to move on. Davis attempted to explain that he was working in the club, but the officer refused to listen, beating Davis until he was bloodied and bruised. At the time, Davis was a national icon having released his album, “Kind of Blue” only a week before the incident. The album would go on to become the best selling jazz record of all time. The officer was never arrested, fired, or even reprimanded.
Many would assume that this violence was merely a symptom of the era of segregation, but this trend still continues today. In 2010, jazz trumpet player Christian Scott aTunde Ajuah was held at gunpoint by a police officer in New Orleans while driving home from a concert. He had no criminal record and was not a suspect of any crime, but was told that if he did not comply, his mother would have to pick up his body from the morgue. If Justin Timberlake was held at gunpoint, society would be appalled, yet stories such as these continue to go unspoken.
This violence can be seen as not just senseless and discriminatory, but also as an attempt to rob these musicians of their careers. In her short series “When They See Us”, Ava DuVernay chronicles the stories of the five boys wrongly convicted in the Central Park Five Case. The boys were aggressively coerced by police into giving false confessions to crimes that they did not commit, and sentenced to juvenile facilities and prisons for several year. Once they were released, their criminal records made it impossible for them to find jobs and make a living, robbing them of the value of their labor.
This is the same robbery of value attempted against Davis and Ajuah. In the music business, a violent encounter with police officers can lead to decreases in performance venues, record sales, or industry connections, and has the potential to end a musician’s career. Through police brutality, their own creativity becomes an unviable source of income.
The Language of Musical Racism
Even artists who are able to achieve success in music are still forced to endure the criticism of music analysis rooted in the discrimination and cultural hegemony of Western Europe. In the early 20th century, music theorist Heinrich Schenker used his studies of 18th century composers to formulate much of the basis of what we know to be modern music theory. However, much of his work, known as Schenkerian Analysis, has been used by him and later generations of music theorists to promote a white, Eurocentric, and mostly German worldview of music theory. This made it so that unless a piece of music fit within the melodic and harmonic style of Western Europe, it was impossible to analyze using Schenker’s method. His theories were used to exclude large portions of the musical world, primarily those of the Black community and other minorities, from academic conversation.
The legacy of this philosophy can be found when public figures such as Ben Shapiro attempt to use music theory to prove that genres such as rap and hip hop, two stereotypically Black musical genres in modern culture, are not real forms of music. Once again, Schenker’s ideas are being used to thinly veil white supremacists in the music world.
Even concepts such as sheet music and the twelve note names are constructs of a white, Eurocentric worldview. It is similar to Jamaica Kinkaid’s statement that, “The only language I have in which to speak of this crime is the language of the criminal who committed the crime,”. When expressing one’s own artistic thought, a modern composer is imprisoned by the constraints of a style of writing and thinking that is most interested in advancing its own cultural dominance.
The Need for Change
Music has the potential to be an artform of great diversity and experimentation but time and time again, artists of color are oppressed by the racism of industry, the legal system, and academia. Acknowledging this oppression is paramount for the growth of music as it is the first step to giving an equal voice to all musicians, regardless of race. It gives hope to the Jimi Hendrixs and Big Mama Thorntons of future generations that they will be able to make music fearlessly.