To understand today’s musical landscape, it’s crucial to look to the past. And as we celebrate Black History Month this February, it’s no exaggeration to say that without black musicians and the groundbreaking moments they’ve produced, modern music as we know it simply wouldn’t exist. So let’s take a look back at some of the most important black contributions to music throughout history, and the artists that made them possible.
Billie Holiday’s ‘declaration of war’
Way back in 1939, Billie Holiday took the stage at New York’s Café Society. What came at the end of her set would go down in history as one of the earliest examples of the popular civil rights movement in music. The last song of the night started, drinks service was stopped, and the only light in the club was trained on Holiday’s face as she started to sing ‘Strange Fruit’. The song – dubbed a ‘declaration of war’ by record executive Ahmet Ertegun – painted a picture of the horrific practice of lynching, and forced listeners to question their own morality as silent onlookers. It clearly had an effect, as the civil rights movement began to gain traction in the following years, and ‘Strange Fruit’ was chosen by Time magazine as its song of the century in 1999.
Jimi Hendrix reinvents rock ‘n’ roll
When you’re dealing in absolutes like that, it’s easy to pass them off as hyperbole and over-exaggeration. But in the case of the legendary Jimi Hendrix – it seems there are no words large enough to match his impact. And when he closed his iconic 1967 Monterey Pop Festival set by lighting his guitar on fire and destroying it on stage, he birthed a new era for rock music. Hendrix inspired artists as varied as Miles Davis, Prince and John Frusciante – showing millions for the first time how the guitar could be used as an expression of the artist’s subconscious mind. Hendrix’s impact on not just rock ‘n’ roll – but the history of music as a whole – cannot be understated, and this moment in ’67 is arguably where it all started for his legacy.
Lamar and Glover define Black Excellence in the modern era
2018 was a landmark year for two of the country’s most prominent artists – Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino (AKA Donald Glover). Kendrick took home the Pulitzer Prize for Music, following his work on his fourth studio album ‘Damn’ – an honour that’d never been given to a pop musician before. This achievement marked a major step up in mainstream recognition for black music – but away from the awards glow, unrest remained rife. Childish Gambino’s single ‘This Is America’ shone a spotlight on the ongoing issues on gang violence, police brutality and the very real racial tension that still exists in America today – and his necessary commentary, along with its incredibly impactful music video, propelled Glover to the number one spot for the first time. Here we see, even in today’s climate, social issues in black music are as important as ever – and thankfully, the people championing them are front and centre in the public’s attention.