African-American Music

African-American music is an umbrella term covering a diverse range of music and musical genres largely developed by African Americans. Their origins are in musical forms that arose out of the historical condition of slavery that characterized the lives of African Americans prior to the American Civil War.

Following the Civil War, Black Americans, through employment as musicians playing European music in military bands, developed a new style of music called ragtime which gradually evolved into jazz. In developing this latter musical form, African Americans contributed knowledge of the sophisticated polyrhythmic structure of the dance and folk music of peoples across western and sub-Saharan Africa. These musical forms had a wide-ranging influence on the development of music within the United States and around the world during the 20th century.

The modern genres of blues and ragtime were developed during the late 19th century by fusing West African vocalizations – which employed the natural harmonic series, and blue notes.

African-American Music

African-American Music

The earliest jazz and blues recordings were made in the 1920s. African-American musicians developed related styles such as Rhythm and Blues in the 1940s. In the 1960s, soul performers had a major influence on white US and UK singers. In the mid-1960s, Black musicians developed funk and they were many of the leading figures in late 1960s and 1970s genre of jazz-rock fusion. In the 1970s and 1980s, Black artists developed hip-hop, and in the 1980s introduced the disco-infused dance style known as house music. In the 2000s, hip-hop attained significant mainstream popularity. Modern day music is heavily influenced by previous and present African-American music genres.

Historic traits

The Banjo Lesson by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1893

The Banjo Lesson by Henry Ossawa Tanner, 1893

As well as bringing harmonic and rhythmic features from western and sub-Saharan Africa to meet European musical instrumentation, it was the historical condition of chattel slavery forced upon black Americans within American society that contributed the conditions which would define their music.

Many of the characteristic musical forms that define African-American music have historical precedents. These earlier forms include: field hollers, beat boxing, work song, spoken word, rapping, scatting, call and response, vocality (or special vocal effect: guttural effects, interpolated vocality, falsetto, melisma, vocal rhythmization), improvisation, blue notes, polyrhythms (syncopation, concrescence, tension, improvisation, percussion, swung note), texture (antiphony, homophony, polyphony, heterophony) and harmony (vernacular progressions; complex, multi-part harmony, as in spirituals, Doo Wop, and barbershop music).


18th century

In the late 18th century folk spirituals originated among Southern slaves, following their conversion to Christianity. Conversion, however, did not result in slaves adopting the traditions associated with the practice of Christianity. Instead they reinterpreted them in a way that had meaning to them as Africans in America. They often sang the spirituals in groups as they worked the plantation fields.

Folk spirituals, unlike much white gospel, were often spirited: slaves added dancing (later known as “the shout”) and other forms of bodily movements to the singing. They also changed the melodies and rhythms of psalm sand hymns, such as speeding up the tempo, adding repeated refrains and choruses, and replaced texts with new ones that often combined English and African words and phrases. Originally being passed down orally, folk spirituals have been central in the lives of African Americans for more than three centuries, serving religious, cultural, social, political, and historical functions.

Folk spirituals were spontaneously created and performed in a repetitive, improvised style. The most common song structures are the call-and-response (“Blow, Gabriel”) and repetitive choruses (“He Rose from the Dead). The call-and-response is an alternating exchange between the soloist and the other singers. The soloist usually improvises a line to which the other singers respond, repeating the same phrase. Song interpretation incorporates the interjections of moans, cries, hollers etc… and changing vocal timbres. Singing is also accompanied by hand clapping and foot-stomping.

19th century

The influence of African Americans on mainstream American music began in the 19th century, with the advent of blackface minstrelsy. The banjo, of African origin, became a popular instrument, and its African-derived rhythms were incorporated into popular songs by Stephen Foster and other songwriters. In the 1830s, the Second Great Awakening led to a rise in Christian revivals and pietism, especially among African Americans. Drawing on traditional work songs, enslaved African Americans originated and began performing a wide variety of Spirituals and other Christian music. Some of these songs were coded messages of subversion against slaveholders, or that signaled escape.

During the period after the Civil War, the spread of African-American music continued. The Fisk University Jubilee Singers toured first in 1871. Artists including Jack Delaney helped revolutionize post-war African-American music in the central-east of the United States. In the following years, professional “jubilee” troops formed and toured. The first black musical-comedy troupe, Hyers Sisters Comic Opera Co., was organized in 1876. In the last half of the 19th century, U.S. barbershops often served as community centers, where most men would gather. Barbershop quartets originated with African-American men socializing in barbershops; they would harmonize while waiting their turn, vocalizing in spirituals, folk songs and popular songs. This generated a new style, consisting of unaccompanied, four-part, close-harmony singing. Later, white minstrel singers adopted the style, and in the early days of the recording industry their performances were recorded and sold. By the end of the 19th century, African-American music was an integral part of mainstream American culture.

Early 20th century (1900s–1930s)

The Slayton Jubilee Singers entertain employees of the Old Trusty Incubator Factory, Clay Center, about 1910

The Slayton Jubilee Singers entertain employees of the Old Trusty Incubator Factory, Clay Center, about 1910

In early 20th-century American musical theater, the first musicals written and produced by African Americans debuted on Broadway in 1898 with a musical by Bob Cole and Billy Johnson. In 1901, the first recording of black musicians was of Bert Williams and George Walker, featuring music from Broadway musicals. Theodore Drury helped black artists develop in the opera field. He founded the Drury Opera Company in 1900 and, although he used a white orchestra, he featured black singers in leading roles and choruses. Although this company was only active from 1900 to 1908, black singers’ opportunities with Drury marked the first black participation in opera companies. Also significant is Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha, which is unique as a ragtime-folk opera; it was first performed in 1911.

The early part of the 20th century saw a rise in popularity of African-American blues and jazz. African-American music at this time was classed as “race music”. This term gained momentum due to Ralph Peer, musical director at OKeh Records, who put records made by “foreign” groups under that label. At the time “race” was a term commonly used by African-American press to speak of the community as a whole with an empowering point of view, as a person of “race” was one involved in fighting for equal rights. Also, developments in the fields of visual arts and the Harlem Renaissance led to developments in music. Ragtime performers such as Scott Joplin became popular and some were associated with the Harlem Renaissance and early civil rights activists. In addition, white and Latino performers of African-American music were visible, rooted in the history of cross-cultural communication between the United States’ races. African-American music was often adapted for white audiences, who would not have as readily accepted black performers, leading to genres like swing music, a pop-based outgrowth of jazz.

In addition, African Americans were becoming part of classical music by the turn of the 20th century. While originally excluded from major symphony orchestras, black musicians could study in music conservatories that had been founded in the 1860s, such as the Oberlin School of Music, National Conservatory of Music, and the New England Conservatory. Black people also formed their own symphony orchestras at the turn of the 20th century in major cities such as Chicago, New Orleans, and Philadelphia. Various black orchestras began to perform regularly in the late 1890s and the early 20th century. In 1906, the first incorporated black orchestra was established in Philadelphia. In the early 1910s, all-black music schools, such as the Music School Settlement for Colored and the Martin-Smith School of Music, were founded in New York.

The Music School Settlement for Colored became a sponsor of the Clef Club orchestra in New York. The Clef Club Symphony Orchestra attracted both black and white audiences to concerts at Carnegie Hall from 1912 to 1915. Conducted by James Reese Europe and William H. Tyers, the orchestra included banjos, mandolins, and baritone horns. Concerts featured music written by black composers, notably Harry T. Burleigh and Will Marion Cook. Other annual black concert series include the William Hackney’s “All-Colored Composers” concerts in Chicago and the Atlanta Colored Music Festivals.

The return of the black musical to Broadway occurred in 1921 with Sissle and Eubie Blake’s Shuffle Along. In 1927, a concert survey of black music was performed at Carnegie Hall including jazz, spirituals and the symphonic music of W. C. Handy’s Orchestra and the Jubilee Singers. The first major film musical with a black cast was King Vidor’s Hallelujah of 1929. African-American performers were featured in the musical Show Boat (which had a part written for Paul Robeson and a chorus of Jubilee Singers), and especially all-black operas such as Porgy and Bess and Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts of 1934.

The first symphony by a black composer to be performed by a major orchestra was William Grant Still’s Afro-American Symphony (1930) by the New York Philharmonic. Florence Beatrice Price’s Symphony in E minor was performed in 1933 by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. In 1934, William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony was performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra.

African Americans were the pioneers of jazz music, through masters such as Jelly Roll Morton, James P. Johnson, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Fletcher Henderson, and Duke Ellington.

Mid-20th century (1940s–1960s)

Billboard started making a separate list of hit records for African-American music in October 1942 with the “Harlem Hit Parade”, which was changed in 1945 to “Race Records”, and then in 1949 to “Rhythm and Blues Records”. By the 1940s, cover versions of African-American songs were commonplace, and frequently topped the charts, while the original musicians found success among their African-American audience, but not in the mainstream. In 1955, Thurman Ruth persuaded a gospel group to sing in a secular setting, the Apollo Theater, with such success that he subsequently arranged gospel caravans that traveled around the country, playing the same venues that rhythm and blues singers had popularized. Meanwhile, jazz performers began to push jazz away from swing, a danceable popular music towards more intricate arrangements, improvisation, and technically challenging forms, culminating in the bebop of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, the cool sounds and modal jazz of Miles Davis, and the free jazz of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane.

African-American musicians in the 1940s and 1950s were developing rhythm and blues into a genre called rock and roll, which featured a strong backbeat and whose prominent exponents included Louis Jordan and Wynonie Harris. However, it was with white musicians such as Bill Haley and Elvis Presley, playing a guitar-based fusion of black rock and roll with country music called rockabilly, that rock and roll music became commercially successful. Rock music thereafter became more associated with white people, though some black performers such as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley had commercial success.

The 1950s also saw increased popularity of hard blues in the style from the earliest part of the century, both in the United States and United Kingdom. The 1950s also saw doo-wop style become popular. Doo-wop had been developed through vocal group harmony with the musical qualities of different vocal parts, nonsense syllables, little or no instrumentation, and simple lyrics. It usually involved ensemble single artists appearing with a backing group. Solo billing was given to lead singers who were more prominent in the musical arrangement. A secularized form of American gospel music called soul also developed in the mid 1950s, with pioneers like Ray Charles, Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke leading the wave. Soul and R&B became a major influence on surf, as well as the chart-topping girl groups including The Angels and The Shangri-Las, only some of whom were white. In 1959, Hank Ballard releases a song for the new dance style “The Twist” which became the new dance crave from the early 60’s into the 70’s.

In 1959, Berry Gordy founded Motown Records, the first record label to primarily feature African-American artists aimed at achieving crossover success. The label developed an innovative—and commercially successful—style of soul music with distinctive pop elements. Its early roster included The Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Supremes, and others. Black divas such as Aretha Franklin became ’60s crossover stars. In the UK, British blues became a gradually mainstream phenomenon, returning to the U.S. in the form of the British Invasion, a group of bands led by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones who performed blues and R&B-inspired pop, with both traditional and modernized aspects. WGIV in Charlotte, North Carolina was amongst a few radio stations dedicated to African-American music that started during this period.

The British Invasion knocked many black artists off the US pop charts, although some, among them Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin and a number of Motown artists, continued to do well. Soul music, however, remained popular among black people through highly evolved forms such as funk, developed out of the innovations of James Brown. In 1961, a young boy named Stevland Hardaway Morris recorded his first record under Motown’s Tambla record at the age of 11 as Stevie Wonder and that was the start of his great career.

In 1964, when the Civil Rights Act outlawed major forms of discrimination towards African Americans and women. As tensions started to die down there was more African American musicians crossing over some artist who successfully crossed over was Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and Ella Fitzgerald. In the pop and jazz worlds Leontyne Price, and Kathleen Battle for the classical music realm.

By the end of the decade, Black people were part of the psychedelia and early heavy metal trends, particularly by way of the ubiquitous Beatles’ influence and the electric guitar innovations of Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix was among the first guitarists to use audio feedback, fuzz, and other effects pedals such as the wah wah pedal to create a unique guitar solo sound. Psychedelic soul, a mix of psychedelic rock and soul began to flourish with the 1960s culture. Even more popular among black people and with more crossover appeal, was album-oriented soul in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which revolutionized African-American music. The genre’s intelligent and introspective lyrics, often with a socially aware tone were created by artists such as Marvin Gaye in What’s Going On, and Stevie Wonder in Songs in the Key of Life.


The 1970s was a great decade for Black bands playing melodic music. Album-oriented soul continued its popularity, while musicians such as Smokey Robinson helped turn it into Quiet Storm music. Funk evolved into two strands, one a pop-soul-jazz-bass fusion pioneered by Sly & the Family Stone, and the other a more psychedelic fusion epitomized by George Clinton and his P-Funk ensemble. The sound of Disco evolved from black musicians creating Soul music with an up-tempo melody. Isaac Hayes, Barry White, Donna Summer and among others help popularized disco music. However, this music was integrated into popular music achieving mainstream success.

Black musicians achieved some mainstream success, though some African-American artists including The Jackson 5, Roberta Flack, Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, The O’Jays, Gladys Knight & the Pips found crossover audiences. White listeners preferred country rock, singer-songwriters, stadium rock, soft rock, glam rock, and, in some subcultures, heavy metal and punk rock. During the 1970s, The Dozens, an urban African-American tradition of using playful rhyming ridicule, developed into street jive in the early ’70s, which in turn inspired a new form of music by the late 1970s: hip-hop. Spoken-word artists such as The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron and Melvin Van Peebles are also cited as the major innovators in early hip-hop. Beginning at block parties in The Bronx, hip-hop music arose as one facet of a large subculture with rebellious and progressive elements. DJs spun records, most typically funk, while MCs introduced tracks to the dancing audience. Over time, DJs, particularly Jamaican immigrant DJ Kool Herc for instance, began isolating and repeating the percussion breaks, producing a constant, eminently danceable beat, which they or MCs began rapping over, through rhymes and eventually sustained lyrics. In the South Bronx, the half-speaking, half-singing rhythmic street talk of ‘rapping’ grew into a cultural force known as Hip hop. Hip Hop would become a multicultural movement in young black America, led by artists such as Kurtis Blow and Run-DMC.


In the 1980s, Michael Jackson had record-breaking success with his albums Off the WallBad, and Thriller – the latter remaining the best-selling album of all time – transforming popular music and uniting races, ages and genders, and would eventually lead to successful crossover black solo artists, including Prince, Lionel Richie, Luther Vandross, Tina Turner, Whitney Houston, and Janet Jackson. Pop and dance-soul of this era inspired new jack swing by the end of the decade.

Hip-hop spread across the country and diversified. Techno, Dance, Miami bass, post-disco, Chicago house, Los Angeles hardcore and Washington, D.C. Go-go developed during this period, with only Miami bass achieving mainstream success. But, before long, Miami bass was relegated primarily to the Southeastern US, while Chicago house had made strong headways on college campuses and dance arenas (i.e. the warehouse sound, the rave). The DC go-go sound of Miami bass was essentially a regional sound that did not garner much mass appeal. Chicago house sound had expanded into the Detroit music environment and mutated into more electronic and industrial sounds creating Detroit techno, acid, jungle. Mating these experimental, usually DJ-oriented, sounds with the prevalence of the multi-ethnic New York City disco sound from the 1970s and 1980s created a brand of music that was most appreciated in the huge discothèques that are located in cities like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Boston, etc. Eventually, European audiences embraced this kind of electronic dance music with more enthusiasm than their North American counterparts. These variable sounds let the listeners prioritize their exposure to new music and rhythms while enjoying a gigantic dancing experience.

In the later half of the decade, from about 1986, rap took off into the mainstream with Run-D.M.C.’s Raising Hell, and the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill, the latter becoming the first rap album to enter No.1 Spot on the Billboard 200 and helping break down the doors for white performers to do rap. Both of these groups mixed rap and rock together, which appealed to rock and rap audiences. Hip-hop took off from its roots and the golden age hip hop flourished, with artists such as Eric B. & Rakim, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Queen Latifah, Big Daddy Kane, and Salt-N-Pepa. Hip Hop became popular in America until the late 1990s, when it went worldwide. The golden age scene would die out by the early 1990s as gangsta rap and g-funk took over, with west-coast artists Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Warren G and Ice Cube, east-coast artists Notorious B.I.G., Wu-Tang Clan, and Mobb Deep, and the sounds of urban black male bravado, compassion, and social awareness best represented by the rapper Tupac Shakur.

While heavy metal music was almost exclusively created by white performers in the 1970s and 1980s, there were a few exceptions. In 1988, all-black heavy metal band Living Colour achieved mainstream success with their début album Vivid, peaking at #6 on the Billboard 200, thanks to their Top 20 single “Cult of Personality”. The band’s music contained lyrics that attack what they perceived as the Eurocentrism and racism of America. A decade later, more black artists like Lenny Kravitz, Body Count, Ben Harper, and countless others would start playing rock again.

1990s, 2000s, and 2010s

Contemporary R&B, as in the post-disco version of soul music, remained popular throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Male vocal groups in the style of soul groups such as The Temptations and The O’Jays were particularly popular, including New Edition, Boyz II Men, Jodeci, Dru Hill, Blackstreet, and Jagged Edge. Girl groups, including TLC, Destiny’s Child, SWV and En Vogue, were also highly successful.

Singer-songwriters such as R. Kelly, Mariah Carey, Montell Jordan, D’Angelo, Aaliyah and Raphael Saadiq of Tony! Toni! Toné! were also significantly popular during the 1990s, and artists including Mary J. Blige, Faith Evans, and BLACKstreet popularized a fusion blend known as hip-hop soul. The neo soul movement of the 1990s looked back on more classical soul influences and was popularized in the late 1990s/early 2000s by such artists as D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Maxwell, Lauryn Hill, India.Arie, Alicia Keys, Jill Scott, Angie Stone, Bilal and Musiq Soulchild. According to one music writer, D’Angelo’s critically acclaimed album Voodoo (2000) “represents African American music at a crossroads … To simply call [it] neo-classical soul … would be [to] ignore the elements of vaudeville jazz, Memphis horns, ragtime blues, funk and bass grooves, not to mention hip-hop, that slip out of every pore of these haunted songs.” Blue-eyed soul is an influence of African-American music performed by white artists, including Michael McDonald, Christina Aguilera, Amy Winehouse, Robin Thicke, Michael Bolton, Jon B., Lisa Stansfield, Teena Marie, Justin Timberlake, Joss Stone, George Michael, and Anastacia.

By the first decade of the 21st century, R&B had shifted towards an emphasis on solo artists with pop appeal, with Usher, Rihanna, and Beyoncé being the most prominent examples. Furthermore, the music was accompanied by aesthetically creative and unique music videos. Examples of these types of music videos include but are not limited to: Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love”, Rihanna’s “Pon de Replay”, and Usher’s “Caught Up”. These music videos helped R&B become more profitable and more popular than it had been in the 1990s. The line between hip-hop and R&B and pop was significantly blurred by producers such as Timbaland and Lil Jon and artists such as Missy Elliott, T-Pain, Nelly, Akon and OutKast.

“Urban music” and “urban radio” are largely race-neutral today, terms that are synonymous with hip hop and R&B and the associated hip-hop culture that originated in New York City. The term also reflects the fact that they are popular in urban areas, both within black population centers and among the general population (especially younger audiences).

Edward Ray at Capitol Records

Edward Ray at Capitol Records

The hip-hop movement has become increasingly mainstream as the music industry has taken control of it. Essentially, “from the moment ‘Rapper’s Delight’ went platinum, hiphop the folk culture became hiphop the American entertainment-industry sideshow.”

In June 2009, Michael Jackson died unexpectedly from a cardiac arrest, triggering a global outpouring of grief. Within a year of his death, his estate had generated $1.4 billion in revenues. A documentary film consisting of rehearsal footage for Jackson’s scheduled This Is It tour, entitled Michael Jackson’s This Is It, was released on October 28, 2009, and became the highest-grossing concert film in history.

In 2013, no African-American musician had a Billboard Hot 100 number one. This was the first time there was no number one in a year by an African American in the chart’s 55-year history.

Plans for a Smithsonian-affiliated Museum of African-American music to be built in Newark, New Jersey, and an R&B museum/hall of fame have been discussed.

African-American music styles

  • Country music
  • Barbershop music
  • Blues
  • Bebop
  • Boogie woogie
  • Delta Blues
  • Disco
  • Doo-wop
  • Electro
  • Funk
  • Go-go
  • Gospel music
  • Groove
  • Hip hop
  • House music
  • Jazz
  • Jug band music
  • Negro spirituals/Spiritual
  • Neo soul
  • New jack swing
  • Quiet storm
  • Ragtime
  • Contemporary R&B
  • Reggae
  • Rhythm and blues
  • Rock & roll
  • Skiffle
  • Soul music
  • Southern rap
  • Swing
  • Techno
  • Trap music
  • PBR&B
  • Zydeco

Economic impact

Record stores played a vital role in African-American communities for many decades. In the 1960s and 1970s, between 500 and 1,000 black-owned record stores operated in the American South, and probably twice as many in the United States as a whole. African-American entrepreneurs embraced record stores as key vehicles for economic empowerment and critical public spaces for black consumers at a time that many black-owned businesses were closing amid desegregation. In addition, countless African Americans have earned livings as musical performers, club owners, radio deejays, concert promoters, and record label owners.

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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