By Justin Wong
When thinking of the origins of Rock n’ Roll music, many people would quickly associate it with artists such as Elvis Presley and Aerosmith. However, the beginning of rock music as we know it today, can be traced all the way back to the blues and the strong influence of Black culture and musical traditions.
Blues music evolved from the work songs and spirituals that were sung by those who brought over from Africa, to North America to work in the slave trade. Work songs were sung in time with the task at hand, and would often feature call and response phrases, while spirituals were religious songs featuring vocal harmonies. Those prominent features were soon combined with the folk music of the White European settlers, to produce new styles of music including blues and country blues. Upon the end of the American Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves, many African Americans moved from the South to more Northern cities such as Detroit and Chicago, bringing the blues with them and making it immensely popular in those cities.
Jazz clubs began to appear all over the United States, and the art form soon found its way to Europe in the 1960s. The rise of the blues rock scene paved a way to create what is known as rock ‘n’ roll music. Rock ‘n’ Roll pioneer Little Richard once told TIME magazine in a 2001 interview: "There wasn't nobody playing it at the time but Black people — myself, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry.” According to Benjamin Harbert, a professor of music in the Department of Performing Arts at Georgetown University, Chuck Berry played to both Black and White audiences and “He tried, through music to overcome racial divisions between audiences, but, in playing rock ‘n’ roll, he never let go of his roots.” While mainstream rock ‘n’ roll became catered to a predominantly White audience, its Black origins cannot be understated.
Rock n’ roll isn’t the only popular genre that can be traced back to Black culture and artists. Pop and hip hop would not be what they are today without the influence of prominent Black artists. In particular, hip hop, a genre that originates from the Black communities of New York City, infused drum sounds and fragments from soul and R&B songs, with the Caribbean practice of “toasting”, or rhythmic vocal addresses. Pop music was also forever changed by the popularity and music of Black artists such as Michael Jackson, Prince, and Whitney Houston. Their widespread appeal was able to overcome the racial prejudices that had existed around the world for centuries and as a result, Black music and artists have became an inseparable part of American music identity.
The success of Black Music was not only limited to America, but around the world, with hip hop scenes popping up in all corners of the globe. From Brazil to Europe and all the way to Korea, it is undeniable that hip hop and pop music’s large global influence is owed to Black artists and Black culture for us to thank.