Rhythm Nation


Some will proclaim that black music provided the soundtrack to America. Others will conclude that black music is THE soundtrack of America. One thing is for certain is that black music has always been thoroughly woven into the fabric of America. The contributions of West Africans brought from the numerous regions of West Africa, consisting of very complex and artistic cultures is immense. In some shape, fashion, and form, everyday one uses an element of the West African experience. Whether it is culinary contributions such as black eyed peas and candied yams, or inventions, dance, instruments, and music, the impact is there.

Although America was unwilling to accept blacks as equals, it did accept the song and dance of black Americans. Even at the peak of chattel slavery, whites were intrigued and as often found entertaining, the uniqueness of the slave's ability to entertain themselves as well as laugh. For the slaves, music was their way to express their emotions and feelings in the midst of a horrific existence of permanent servitude. The pain and suffering, as well as the joys and devotion to God were all contained in song.

Most of the slave songs can be filed under three categories: religious, work, and recreational. They all spoke to the slave experience. They were therapeutic songs of survival that were often multifaceted. Some songs contained codes to inform slaves of attempts to runaway. Some were jubilant songs to help navigate the harshness of slave life and maintain one's sanity. Others were hymns or even pleas to the Lord to be set free from the master, but yet none of these songs contained hatred.

The slaves gave an array of African instruments such as the 5 string banjo, and most importantly, perhaps the original internet and tweet, the heartbeat of Africa-the drum.

The banjo is perhaps one of the most important instruments in early African American music, although it is more closely associated with country-western and bluegrass. The earliest banjos were based on West African lutes. Over time, banjo craftsmen gradually adapted their banjos to European tuning systems, resulting in a truly American instrument that incorporated Western music theory, despite its design being based on centuries old African models.

The black experience gave a diverse catalog of musical genres. What would America be without Jazz, ragtime, be-bop, the Blues, R&B, soul, funk, and hip hop ? No other ethnicity has contributed to the musical fabric of this nation than blacks. Despite the obvious roots of American music, many black musicians and artists were routinely taken advantage of, denied royalties, and had their music stolen and credit given to others. It is widely known that Elvis Presley sang in a gospel choir at a predominantly black church, learned how to play the guitar from black Mississippi bluesmen, and often "covered" songs previously sung and recorded by black artists such as Big Ma Raney's "Hound dog", but yet he is regarded as the king of rock and roll. Such was the case of many white artists that took credit for music previously recorded by blacks, thus reaping massive financial rewards while most black artists died broke.

Over the years many have questioned the existence of cable networks such as Black Entertainment Television (BET). Some have questioned the existence of previous print magazines such as Ebony and Jet. "If white people had a White Entertainment Television (WET), that would be racist", many people have stated over the years. Apparently those who harbor such sentiments are very much so in the dark about the history of why these mediums exist in the first place.

Initially when MTV hit the airwaves, executives were forward and upfront that music videos by black artists would not be shown on MTV. In these contemporary times, this would be hard pressed to believe by the current generation as American pop culture without rap/hip hop, Beyonce', Kanye, Jay-Z and a host of others is unthinkable. But this was not always the case.

When MTV debuted in 1981, it was supposed to be a rock and roll format, a genre that did not have a significant representation of blacks at the time. In a 2006 issue of Jet magazine, Buzz Brindle who was the director of music programming in 1981, he stated that, “MTV was originally designed to be a rock music channel. It was difficult for MTV to find African American artists whose music fit the channel’s format that leaned toward rock at the outset.”. Despite the claim of MTV execs at that time that MTV was to be a rock and roll genre video outlet, not all videos were rock and roll at that time. Therefore there were opportunities to include non rock genre black artists. Even at the beginning of Michael Jackson mania with the release of the Thriller album, Michael Jackson coming off of the success of the Off The Wall album, was not initially welcomed on the station. It took the "MTV exclusive" Thriller video and the heavy electric guitar laden "Beat It" that paved the way for black artists to be showcased on the video network.

The popular held belief is that executives at the major labels threatened to pull their videos of white artists from rotation at MTV, if MTV still refused to show videos of their black artists. Some will say that this is only partly true. However, what we see is a slow crawl of black inclusion. The gradual inclusion of videos by black artists eventually led to 1980's pop icons such as Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Prince, and Janet Jackson just to name a few. Minus the breakdancing era, hip hop was largely excluded from both MTV and BET because the genre was not considered a true musical artform and was but a simple passing fad. As hip hop began to gain serious traction in the urban inner cities, hip hop videos were not shown. Just as with Michael Jackson some years previously, RUN DMC followed the same formula.

In what can be considered the first major hip hop crossover hit, RUN DMC infused much electric guitar into one of their classic hits entitled "Rock Box". The video component co-starred next to the hip hop trio, a young Caucasian boy enjoying what seems to be a healthy weekend together. The subliminal message in the video suggested that hip hop was cool because it bridged the new genre with rock & roll. Second, it said that these three black men from the tough streets of Hollis Queens were in fact harmless. The strategy worked and it opened RUN DMC up to a new audience and paved the way for their 1984 sophomore album release, "The Kings Of Rock". This catapulted the group into mainstream stardom and gave rap more national appeal, even globally. They were the only hip hop act to perform at Live Aid. It would not be until 1988 that hip hop was routinely shown in rotation at MTV, despite its global impact.

BET was born out of the absence of blacks and black culture and entertainment in the American mainstream. Whereas black artists were initially excluded from MTV, BET created platforms such as Video Soul and Video Vibrations to showcase black artists and give exposure to those who otherwise would not have gotten in on outlets such as MTV and VH-1. It was only natural and logical that where there was a void, there would a commercial attempt to fill the void and meet a need.

As a lobbyist for the growing cable industry from 1976 to 1979, Robert Johnson noticed that a very large African American TV audience was going unrecognized and untapped. Johnson realized that there was not another cable network that featured black television shows, movies, and music. So in 1980, he launched BET. Robert Johnson built BET from a tiny cable outlet, airing only two hours of programming a week in 1980, to a network giant that claimed an audience of more than 70 million households. In 1991 BET became the first black-controlled company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Robert Johnson merely replicated the approach of yet another pioneer in black music and entertainment.

A then Chicago based radio disc jockey, Don Cornelius recognized that Dick Clark's American Bandstand did not feature many black artists. This pioneer envisioned a platform that would showcase every aspect of black music and the black experience. It duplicated the environment of a dance club and featured a variety of noted musical performers as well as both professional and amateur dancers. Don Cornelius wanted to present an image of Black culture as upbeat, exciting, and vibrant as opposed to being marginalized and oppressed.

Soul Train aired from October 2, 1971, to March 27, 2006. In its 35-year history, the show primarily featured performances by R&B, soul, dance/pop, funk, jazz, disco, and gospel artists. The show did more than just promote black music. Soul Train captured the style, fashions, trends, and latest dances. It was considered a cultural phenomenon because it was the first and only of its kind. As writer Nelson George wrote in his book, "The Hippest Trip in America: Soul Train and the Evolution of Culture and Style", "So Soul Train not only entertained us, but it was a guide for style, a guide for dancing and a guide to music. So it was a very 360 cultural experience".

It has always been said that you knew when Soul Train was on. Bicycles and big wheels would be laying still in the front yard. No children would be playing outside. Simply motionless. Everyone would be inside crammed around the television set to witness the featured artist(s) of the day, to watch the latest dances as well as fashion trends, and to guess the Soul Train scramble board trivia question. More so than American Bandstand, the TAMI Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, and any other musical variety show, what Soul Train offered the best music and artists that Black America could present and package as authentic, prestigious, colorful and electrifying. It clearly influenced several generations. In the years that followed, many whites revealed that they too were big fans of the show. Soul Train clearly was a game changer and defined an era. Most importantly, it showcased talent that otherwise would not have gotten exposure, or would have gotten very little exposure on other formats at the time. Music executives aggressively sought to have their artists perform on Soul Train.

As Soul Train evolved over the years, we see an evolution in musical styles and genres. Change is often a hard pill to swallow for some. Every generation has been defined by its fads and fashions, movies and music, and genre. No other form of music has had the global impact as hip hop, commonly referred to as rap. There is very little in this world that has not been touched by rap. Rap is used to sell products, imagery, ideas, even insurance. In the midst of the COVID-19 Corona Virus Pandemic and stay in place order, the number one commercial during the year 2020 was Geico's "Scoop There It Is", by the legendary rap duo Tag Team. Despite this ultimate cultural influence and impact, rap was not always welcomed much less loved.

Don Cornelius was from the era of Doo-Wop crooners and the "Motown Sound". As the prevailing sound of the 1960's gave way to the R&B and Soul genre of the early 1970's, it took some time for him get accustomed to the shift in music. The later 1970's saw the emergence of Funk and Disco in which he had to grow accustomed to these genres. However, with the emergence of rap in the mid 1980's, this was something far from the musical palate of the Baby Boomer Generation.

Simply put, Don Cornelius didn't like rap. He didn't understand it. It was far from the starched and stiff, polished presentation that he felt that black artists should portray. Mind you he was from an era in which artists wore matching suits and either knee or ankle length dresses with identical hairstyles. Rap was anything but polished and corporate. At the first ever Soul Train music awards, hosted by Luther Vandross and Dion Warwick, there was not a rap category. However, he did allow LL Cool J to come out and perform a rap tease. Just as Soul Train was very reluctant to support rap, such was the case with BET.

To capitalize on the lack of diversity at MTV, BET did play a bigger selection of music by black artists and a minimal share of rap. BET founder Robert Johnson, and Jeff Lee, the Vice President of network operations as told by then Alvin Jones, "The Unseen VJ" simply did not like rap music. This would eventually change when MTV introduced YO! MTV Raps. This was at a time before BET was the 24/7 and billion dollar net worth network that it is today. At the time, BET was relatively low budget and was only on the air 6-8 hours daily. With MTV now airing a program that aired all rap videos for an half hour on Saturdays, BET had to step up their rap rotation to remain competitive.

The response was Video Vibrations. The programmer Alvin Jones did play music videos by rappers but due to the limited number of hours that BET broadcasted, the videos were spread out. For the more traditional sounds and artists, Robert Johnson created Video Soul. For the more up and coming artists and other genres such as rap and reggae, there was Video Vibrations. Rappers began to complain that they didn't see enough of their videos on the network. To counter these complaints, Alvin Jones decided to air only rap videos on Video Vibrations during Rap Week. The power move sent BET's ratings through the roof. This ushered a new show, Rap City that ran for 19 years, from 1989 to 2008. Another interesting note is that one of the original pioneering VJ's at BET, Donnie Simpson who also was a local DJ in the DMV area at WRC (later became WKYS) was pro-rap as many of his listeners routinely called in to his radio show to request popular rap songs. Because he was an early proponent for rap on BET and often interviewed rappers on Video Soul on BET, he gained a cameo appearance in the hip hop classic motion picture, Krush Grove. How ironic that the very genre that was initially disregarded as a passing fad, lacking musical integrity, and unworthy of serious exposure and credibility is the same genre that gave MTV, BET, and VH-1 there longevity. Without rap, there would essentially be no Soul Train Music Awards. Simultaneously, without rap music, there would be no BET Music Awards because rap music dominates these formats and outlets.

The art and creativity of the black musician has always touched the heart, mind, soul, and psyche of America. What would America be without jazz, the blues, ragtime, be-bop, gospel, R&B, disco, and rap ? Not only has black music been the pulse of America, it has been the every lifeblood itself. Black music has served as the intersection upon which all races could connect through a universal language, despite the racial segregation laws of the time. The airwaves and record players were integrated long before the ballrooms, theaters, and dancehall clubs of the day. Ray Charles breached a contract in Augusta, Georgia for refusing to play before a segregated crowd. Contrary to what was portrayed in the motion picture "Ray", he was never banned from performing in Georgia. He was sued by the promoter and ordered to pay $800. Despite these contractual breaches, his electrifying music, which often combined several styles and genres of music, united the races through the universal language.

Composers and leaders of big bands such as Count Basie and Duke Ellington provided the soundtrack for being young and carefree at the time. Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and many others defined an era. Just as black musicians gave America a form of a fountain of youth, some artists forced America to take a long and painful look at itself. Billie Holiday's, "Strange Fruit" forced the nation to acknowledge the horrific realities of lynching in America. Nina Simone raised eyebrows with her very controversial "Mississippi G-d damn". This song revealed the stress and frustrations of blacks in the segregated south. The irony of these songs raised the issue that the music and artistic talents of blacks would be accepted, but America would not accept the artist.

For much of America, black music may have been simply entertainment. But for many blacks particularly the artist, the music was a manifestation of the deepest most innermost part of the soul. Commenting on the forthcoming documentary release of 1969's" Summer Of Soul", Reverend Al Sharpton stated that, "Gospel was therapy for the stress and pressure of being Black in America," Rev. Al Sharpton says, earlier in the film. "We didn't go to a psychiatrist. We didn't go lay on a couch. We didn't know anything about therapists. But we knew Mahalia Jackson.". The music contained the God, the hurt, the pain, the passion, rage, the mystique, and celebration of the Black experience.

Billie Holiday pulled the coat of America's conscious when she made the song, "Strange Fruit" in response to the lynchings of blacks. Nina Simone angered America with her ultimate protest song, "Mississippi Goddamn". The song was written in response to the church bombings, mainly in Birmingham, and the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi. The backlash involved several whites entering record stores and destroying copies of the song. But perhaps no other other song shook America to its core than James Brown's, "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud".

It is listed as Number 305 on Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It also peaked at Number 10 on Billboard Hot 100 Singles, and spent six weeks at Number 1 on the Billboard R&B Singles chart. The song inspired the title of a VH1 television special and box set, Say It Loud! A Celebration of Black Music in America. It has been sampled by an unknown number of hip hop artists including Eric B. and Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, LL Cool J, the Intelligent Hoodlum, and the 2 Live Crew. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's had proved a pivotal and emotionally draining decade for blacks. The 60's saw the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and the Kennedy's seemed to rip the heart out of blacks who only desired equality and human dignity.

For James Brown, the song merely meant race pride for a group of people that was not grated it. For some others, it meant militancy, maybe even serving as a dog whistle for urban blacks to revolt and riot. Much of America was still in smoke and ashes from the riots of 1968 in the aftermath of the aforementioned assassinations. James Brown recorded the song on August 7, 1968 when racial tensions were at their peak, stemming from the assassination of Dr. King in the previous month of April.

History has recorded James Brown as "The man who saved Boston". James Brown was to perform in Boston during the time of Dr. King's murder. The mayor of Boston at the time, Mayor Kevin White feared that blacks would riot in the city as many did in other urban cities. If the concert was cancelled, promoters feared the loss of significant revenue. Tom Atkins, a black city councilman, made the point that it was unwise to have thousands of angry fans downtown demanding refunds at Boston Garden. A compromise was reached that the concert would not be cancelled but televised live on WGBH. Only a smaller number of patrons would be allowed to actually attend the concert. James Brown was compensated by the city for the loss of ticket sales due to this move.

Through the performance, fans jumped on stage after which they were met with the aggressive countermoves of the Boston Police. James Brown intervened to restore order and most importantly keep the peace. The plan by local politicians and law enforcement to televise the concert worked. The city of Boston was spared the violence and destruction that met other major urban centers. The fact that James Brown was able to stop a riot with music earned him yet another moniker, "the Funky President" of black America.

Say It Loud, became the anthem of the black pride and black power movement. Older generations did not take to it so kindly as they grew up at a time when the proper term was Negro or Colored. As a matter of fact, some black owned radio stations refused to play it as the term "black" was seemed as offensive to those who preferred the term colored or Negro. Also they were afraid of the possible backlash of whites. In his 1986 autobiography, James Brown: The Godfather of Soul, he wrote that:

"The song is obsolete now. Really, it was obsolete when I cut it, but it was needed. You shouldn't have to tell people what race they are, and you shouldn't have to teach people they should be proud. . . . But it was necessary to teach pride then, and I think the song did a lot of good for a lot of people. That song scared people, too. Many white people didn't understand it. . . . People called Black and Proud militant and angry - maybe because of the line about dying on your feet instead of living on your knees. But really, if you listen to it, it sounds like a children's song. That's why I had children in it, so children who heard it could grow up feeling pride."

James Brown brought a sense of style, finesse, swagger, and an explosive dynamic that changed the course of music forever. His live performances on television, particularly the TAMI show left audiences in a seemingly ecstatic frenzy. Blending rhythmic deep basslines, with a blaring brass section, and an electrifying stage show of dance, he redefined and redirected musical theory. He is credited with the concept of making the first note, the dominant note, or as he termed it, "jamming on the one". He influenced the likes of Sly and the Family Stone, Prince, Michael Jackson & the Jackson 5, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, and is just as much the "Godfather of Rap" as he is the "Godfather of Soul". He is one of the most sampled artist by rappers of all times. As a matter of fact, when James Brown was incarcerated it was the hip hop community that launched the "Free James Brown" movement, due to the influence that he had on the genre. At one point, most hip hop songs sampled James Brown's classic hits and ushered in a new era in hip hop.

On February 28, 1984, the King of Pop Michael Jackson won eight awards at the 26th Grammy Awards show, thus setting a new record. He is also recognized as the most successful entertainer of all time by Guinness World Records. At a time when MTV refused to air music videos by black artists, the music videos for his songs, including “Beat It,” “Billie Jean,” and “Thriller,” were credited with breaking down racial barriers and transforming the music video medium into an art form and promotional means. Hence the song, "Video Killed The Radio Star". As a result, American music became a global import, taking pop culture to a new height.

America stood in unified pride when Whitney Houston sang her stirring rendition of the Star Spangled Banner in Super Bowl XXV. A few year prior, Marvin Gaye seemingly swooned the nation in his silky smooth rendition of the National Anthem. America's heart was calmed with the tender hearted and soulful ode to the State of Georgia as Ray Charles expressed how Georgia was on his mind, in a way that only he could perform it. Black music has always appealed to the heart, mind, and soul of America during its best and worst of times, reminding the world that America was much more than a nation, but a soulful ideal, full of promise, note by note


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