The Influence of Black Music on Popular American Culture (by Lindsay Guion)

One of the most direct influences on American culture has to be Black Americans and the musical culture they brought to America. In addition to being behind almost every genre at the point of creation—Soul, Blues, Jazz, Country, Rap, Hip-Hop, Rock, and Pop—Black music has also impacted American fashion, design, art, and lifestyle. As we close out June, Black Music Month, Lindsay Guion, President & COO, of Music Industry Quarterly (who has over 20 years of experience working in the music industry), wanted to briefly highlight the immeasurable impact that Black music has had on culture in America, and continues to have to this day.

The Birth of Blues

The roots of Black music’s influence on American culture dates back as far back as the 1600’s. People of African descent were among the first non-indigenous settlers in America, and brought music borne of their struggles. The rhythms and lyrics of Black music can be found throughout American history. Developed within the bonds of slavery, Blues music is the first notable genre that evolved across the country out of the traditional African slave spirituals, work calls, and chants. Blues formed the foundation of all contemporary American music. In addition to the Blues, Jazz’s influence on the world music scene would be nothing short of trans-formative.

The Harlem Renaissance

One of the most pivotal moments of Black music’s influence on culture happened during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. The Harlem Renaissance was an intellectual, social, and artistic explosion centered in Harlem, Manhattan, New York City. Lasting from the 1910’s through to the 1930’s, this period is considered a Golden Age in African American culture, manifesting in literature, music, stage performance, and art.

The Harlem Renaissance allowed artists to explore new ways of working, and exhibiting in Black-owned venues. Aaron Douglas, an American painter, illustrator and visual arts educator consciously incorporated African imagery into his work, and is often called the Father of Black American Art. In addition to art, the Harlem Renaissance also had a major impact on fashion. Influenced by Louie Armstrong and other musicians at the time, Black artists influenced the fashion trends of the era due to their unique over-sized silhouettes and wide lapels. From flappers to cloche hats and hairstyles, the influence of this era and Black music can be found in every corner of American culture today.

From Early Jazz to Rock and Roll

Jazz saw its early development in Black communities in the south, with rhythms reflecting the diversity of cultural influences from West Africa to the West Indies. The ever-mutating style of Jazz turned into Swing music, Soul, and cool Jazz, which turned into Rock and Roll in the early 1950s. The influence of this genre, represented by Little Richard, Chuck Berry to Elvis Presley, inspired groups like the Rolling Stones and Beatles, who often credited early 20th century American music such as Blues as their inspiration. In addition, Hip-Hop and Rap are musical traditions firmly embedded in African American culture. Hip-Hop has become a global phenomenon, influencing artists in countries around the world as far and wide as South Korea.

The further we get from the origin of influential Black musicians who created blues, jazz, swing, and rock and roll, the more difficult it becomes to differentiate what influenced what. Black music and culture has become so deeply interwoven with American culture that people often forget its origin. 

Due to mass media technologies and the broad influence of American culture around the world, Black music contributions have influenced culture in almost every corner of the world, and during the month of June and year round, they deserve to be continuously celebrated.