– by Mocha Carter, Native New Yorker, music lover, singer, songwriter and blogger.
Editor’s Note: This story is part of our Many Shades of Black series. Here we take a look at race through the lens of music.
What is “Black music?” Is there such a thing? What essential characteristics give music a colour? As a lover of all music genres, I want to believe that music is universal and with websites like Nycrophone.com, a soul music blog created by two white men, that showcases the talents of singers from many different ethnic backgrounds, it’s easy to think the colour lines of music are blurred. But let’s be honest; there are certain elements that make some music “black,” and no matter how many artists of other ethnic backgrounds create music with the same sound, it will always be considered “Black music.”
In the eighties when Rick Astley, or Michael Mcdonald, even Michael Bolton played on the radio, there was never a thought of their colour because we KNEW those soulful, raspy voices belonged to black men. Imagine the surprise when they performed on Soul Train or their video played on MTV or a cassette was purchased and they were white!
There is an undeniable feel, beginning with the old negro spirituals sung by slaves, “Go Down, Moses, When Israel was in Egypt’s land, Let my people go; Oppressed so hard they could not stand, Let my people go” to the rap music of today:
Look shorty in the eye, told me it was no rules. Went to speak but was like never mind. Let my mind just sneak back to a better time. When I was his age and if he’s ever mine. Thinking he would only think back to this and never find better times to think back to when it comes…
There is a certain level of pain, a bearing of the soul, a story of oppression present in the voices, in the words, in the drum sequences that are reminiscent of those played in tribes in the countries of Africa centuries ago, all of which make it “Black music.” We want to be politically correct and give everyone a place at the table, saying that all music is for everyone, but the reality is that there is a tone, a feel, a sound that sets it apart from others and makes it, “Black music.”
I brought the topic to a panel for discussion and while many agreed that music is universal, one particular comment resonated. Panelist Lorenzo Portor said:
Jazz in all of it’s incarnations, Gospel (specifically that old sweaty, southern stuff), Blues, Rock, R&B, Rap: “Black” music. Not only did those music genres begin in the churches, homes, bars and clubs of Black people, but when record companies AND music stations categorized them as “race music,” it was clearly to distinguish it from white musicians while profiting from it’s growing popularity.
How ironic that the same people who wanted to distinguish themselves from Black music by labeling it such are now creating music with the same sound. So it’s not surprising that the blurring of musical colour lines is now met with resistance.
Because it’s “Black music” there was outrage when a few months ago, the top spots on the R&B charts were taken by white men. Because it’s “Black music” there was indignation when Macklemore took an award for best rapper. Because it’s music that relays the Black experience people are up in arms about Iggy Azalea, not because these artists aren’t talented but because our community feels they are taking what belongs to us, something that wasn’t wanted before. During the panel Lorenzo Porter continued by saying, “… know what’s yours, claim it. Respect it. Keep it.”
We’ve been stripped of our language, our culture, our very identities, the least we can do is hold onto our music, a medium that expresses where we’ve been as Black people and where we are today.