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Rhythms of the Oppressed

The Discrimination Against Black Artists in Music

Painting of John Coltrane by Sebastian Benitez

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 , , , and 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”.

Big Mama Thornton (left) and Elvis Presley (right). Blues and Music News

History repeats itself during the early years of rock with the rise of Elvis Presley. and .

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.

Miles Davis in a New York Courtroom in 1959.

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.

Many would assume that this violence was merely a symptom of the era of segregation, but this trend still continues today. 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.

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.

The legacy of this philosophy can be found when public figures such as 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, 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.