– Kristi Capel, Fox News anchor, referring to a performance by the Italian-American artist Lady Gaga (2015)
As becomes obvious when you look at the history of modern music (explored in previous articles from this series), racism forms the bedrock of music as we know it now. The loathsome “triangle” slave trade forced people from West and Central Africa together with European colonists (some of whom owned slaves, many of whom did not), along with the Scottish, Irish, and English convicts who were shipped over to work England’s North American colonies. Mingled with the various musical traditions of the Native Americans who were also enslaved – and practically exterminated – throughout the Americas, these cultural traditions formed the roots of jazz, American folk, gospel, mariachi and, of course, the blues… as well as the many forms of music that flowed from them (rock, country, reggae, salsa, hip-hop, and so forth). These American styles, in turn, influenced European Classical composers like Copeland, Joplin, Gershwin, and Bernstein, incidentally shaping the operatic arts into Broadway musicals, Bollywood, and the dreaded “concept album.”
Race-based “colonialism” in Asia during the 1800s also added interplays between the European Classical school and various musical traditions of Chinese, Indian, and Japanese music – a combination that eventually influenced artists as disparate as Tan Dun, The Beatles, and Shinjuku Thief. Although Middle Eastern musicology has inspired (and often shaped) European music since ancient Egypt, infusions of “orientalism” during the 1800s and 1900s brought strong Turkish, Persian, Indian, and Arabian flavors to the European and American styles. The results can still be heard in nightclubs, yoga studios, and concert halls worldwide.
Now, by “racism,” I’m referring to the systemic political and social structures that elevate one ethnic culture at the expense of all others. Although the more generalized meaning of “racism” as ethnic prejudice influences the flow of modern music too, it is the legal strictures and race-based institutions that have the most decisive impact upon the direction of music since the early 1800s. For although anyone can appreciate the artistry of music from a given artist or culture, the form of music as we know it now has been forged by slavery, genocide, ethnic laws, and the mindsets behind each loathsome institution involved.
This racism cuts deeper than skin color. Until the 20th century (and, sadly, in some regions even now), the idea that humanity is divided into distinct racial “species” was considered a scientific, theological, and governmental law. This idea included divisions not only of skin color, but of nationality and even social class. Light-skinned Scots and Irish, for example, were considered as “subhuman” by their English masters as were Africans or Native Americans… sometimes more so. Even lower-class Europeans were regarded as genetically inferior to the refined aristocracy, an idea embodied by the “well-bred gentleman” and “inbred redneck” stereotypes common in most cultures. Racism isn’t just a white man’s game, either. Until very recently, the “high” musical traditions of the aristocracy and the “low” traditions of their social inferiors were kept rigidly separated, throughout almost every global culture, in order to save the “purity” of the upper classes from contamination by the “mongrels” underneath.
This idea’s still alive and well, as any hip-hop fan can attest; the pages of David Tame’s book The Secret Power of Music, published in 1984, are saturated with it. “A sign of the future, then?” Tame writes while deploring the effects of African elements on the European Classical tradition: “Western music improved and evolved in our time from Bach, Beethoven and Wagner – to the jungle beat!” Tame actually predicts the destruction of all human civilization on earth through the influence of Jazz and Blues. The irony of his reverence for Wagner, whose music literally inspired the Holocaust, eludes Tame… and to this day, he’s not alone in that regard, as evidenced by a certain Fox News anchor whose remarks in early 2015 echoed the old warnings about “race music” and its supposed degenerate effects.
The music industry, too, was founded largely upon racial discrimination – not only against African-Americans but also against the Celtic and Germanic “hicks” of Appalachia. Their cultural music, too, has been (and often still is) regarded as “hillbilly trash,” unsuitable for a truly “sophisticated” listener. Originally created to preserve and disseminate European symphonies, early recording technology was too bulky and expensive to be “wasted” on lower-caste musicians.
Eventually, though, a combination of anthropological research into Black and Appalachian America, together with appeals to the vast so-called Negro audience, led to pioneering folk, gospel, and blues recordings in the 1920s and ’30s. Even then, however, most record albums (and nearly all radio airtime) were reserved for upper-class white artists, who frequently released watered-down versions of music originated by Black and Appalachian musicians. Giving rise to big band and the jazz-crooner styles, these recordings, in turn, inspired anyone who could afford a radio, a record player, or a visit to the movies.
Meanwhile, canny broadcasters, artists and producers founded record labels and radio stations specializing in music for Black and working-class white audiences. Segregated from the mainstream not only by custom but often by law, this “race music” flourished in poor, bohemian and oppressed communities throughout Europe, the Americas and parts of Asia. It jazzed film soundtracks, rocked speakeasies, and jitterbugged through airwaves and alleyways between the two World Wars. As authentic blues, folk, country, jazz, and other musical forms reached wider audiences, those audiences – and their musicians – responded. In the early 1950s, the walls between “race music” and the “respectable” varieties began shaking, then breaking, then exploding. Despite often-violent crackdowns, the 1960s featured a revolution of ethnic musicality unprecedented in history and unseen, really, ever since… a revolution spurred, in part, by the growing popularity of Black-rooted music among young white Americans and Europeans, and the market-savvy appeal that labels like Motown and Stax made toward those white audiences while producing slick variations on traditionally Black-dominated styles of music.
By the late 1960s, the musical and cultural miscegenation had helped to undermine the social boundaries between ethnic groups. Ethnic cultures – through a combination of genuine fondness, savvy marketing, and cultural appropriation – wound up intertwined with the straight-laced “white mainstream”; language, fashion, art, dance… all of them transformed through a shared musical touchstone. What had up until then seemed “disreputable” became commonplace, at least in the U.S. and Western Europe. Listening to the same American pop-music radio station for roughly an hour around 1970 could expose the listener to Carlos Santana, the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Sonny and Cher, the Temptations, Janis Joplin, Johnny Cash, Simon & Garfunkel, Chicago Transit Authority, and other artists who could not have even sat next to one another on a Tennessee bus a decade earlier. Speaking personally as a child who grew up during the late ’60s and early ’70s, I could not tell “black” music from “white” music. For a brief period, it was all just MUSIC. A white kid could watch Soul Train, and a Black kid could groove to Zeppelin. Everything wasn’t peace and love, of course, no matter how much folks might wish it to be. The lily-white foundations of popular culture, however, were certainly “colored” by the experience.
Don’t they know Rock’s just for whites?
Don’t they know the rules?
– Body Count, “There Goes the Neighborhood”
After Vietnam, however, the music industry and its audience began regrouping along class and racial lines. Rock – ignited and invigorated by Black artists like Bo Diddly and Jimi Hendrix – became “white-boy music”… so much so that later artists like Living Color, Fishbone, the Specials, and Body Count met resistance from both sides of the black-white divide. Radio stations, promoters, and record merchants dove behind labels like soul, pop, and country-western, to the extent that a visitor to a 1980s record store might find only two or three Black artists outside the sections devoted to jazz and soul/ rap/ R&B… and few, if any, European, Asian or Latin-American artists outside of the dreaded “International Music” section. Once again, the disreputable underclasses featured more ethnic integration than the cultural mainstreams; punk and reggae, for example, shared more space in 1970s London dives than soul and rock shared in 1970s Detroit living rooms. Hip-hop shook its fist from New York streets, but was utterly invisible (along with Black musicians other than Michael Jackson) on TV until the late 1980s.
(Hell, even Michael Jackson proved to be a hard sell; according to the book I Want My MTV, by Craig Marks and Ted Tannenbaum, the war to get Jackson’s videos on the rock-centric music channel were nasty enough to leave bad feelings between the participants several decades later.)
In yet another cultural irony, the primary mixing ground of racial musicianship throughout the 1970s occurred in space maintained by the despised and often illegal gay subculture: the discotheques. Fired by Dionysian blends of sex, drugs, dance and masquerade, Disco culture hit the mainstream in the mid-70s, blasting through the bland backwash of post-‘60s popular music. Within the next two decades, punk, techno and hip-hop (all of which also rose from oppressed ethnicities) would have similar effects. Even so, most popular music between the early ‘70s and early ‘90s was again segregated by class and color. To an extent, it often still is.
Despite labels like Def Jam, festivals like Lollapalooza, artists like Gorillaz, and subgenres like Death Metal, the music industry in 2015 remains stubbornly shaped by racial divisions. While hip-hop has essentially replaced rock as the dominant force in popular culture – in large part because it resonates with oppressed people everywhere – it’s still rare to see Black kids in Goth gear, or Asian agents scoping out bars bands on a Cheyenne reservation. Even now, mixed-race bands are literal minorities, and artists beyond the American black-white polarity are virtually unheard beyond the “Latin,” New Age, techno, and world-music ghettos. Euro-ethnic artists still record faux-soul and white hip-hop tracks to great success, and the most successful artist in South America still had to learn English, dye her hair, and dumb her lyrics down before breaking big on the global stage… and the fact that Your Humble Demi-White-Boy Author really enjoys Joss Stone, Macklemore, and Shakira doesn’t mitigate my frustration with an often-segregated and culturally disrespectful scene.
If nothing else (he says, dumping objectivity in the corner where it probably belongs), my knowledge about the racist history popular music doesn’t keep me from getting stuck in my own cultural comfort zones. Although my formative musical years included doo-wop, Motown, and blues (thank you, Dad!), ’70s soul, and bits of ska, it took me decades to hear rap as anything more than pissed-off assholes shouting obscenities – and I’m ashamed it took so long. While it annoyed me that the record chain I worked for during 1989 had ghettoized all Black artists save Hendrix, Michael Jackson, and Tracy Chapman under “jazz” and “R&B,” it still took me over a decade to realize how deeply I’d accepted that false division myself.
Nor am I alone in that regard; working in the Barnes & Noble music department for six years in three radically differently locations, I saw most people, regardless of ethnicity, refusing to look or listen beyond their cultural comfort zones. And then there was the Black co-worker my the post-college moving-company job who – while a bunch of us grooved on a Hendrix tape – angrily told us to “turn that white-boy shit off!” “Dude,” we told him, “Hendrix was Black.” “Well,” he replied, “he plays like a white boy.”
Yeah, we’ve certainly made progress, but I guess we still have a long way to go.
This article is the eighth part of a series of excerpts from my book-in-progress POWERCHORDS: MYSTIC RHYTHMS. All rights retained by the author. (c) 2014 Satyros Phil Brucato. Linking with attribution explicitly permitted. Reproduction or republishing without attribution by any party other than the Author, without written permission, is explicitly prohibited. Thanks!
The rest of this series can be found HERE.