The Untold Recent History of Black America: A Primer (Part I: The Music)

I dedicate this series to the late Mrs. Zelma Isaacs of Anniston Alabama. I never got to meet you, Ma’am, but you truly were an amazing woman. I hope I am making you proud!

Today, we will begin covering an often overlooked, rarely acknowledged question: Just what has happened to Black Americans overall since the Civil Rights Era ended? Sure, you see the rise and change of the music, the TV shows, the big name celebrities and “leaders”, and, of course, the single mothers, but if you were to look at the great majority of Afro-American society and culture from circa 1960 to today, what would you see, and how would it be changing? The mainstream never asks this question, and too few intellectuals I have heard or read have tackled it, so since there is a lack of material here, we will make some more now.

First off, I am not going to be speaking specifically here. I will be generalizing, and looking at the trajectory of the majority (and possibly a few significant standout minority groups) of the Black American diaspora in the USA. Secondly, I may make a few philosophical points, but this post is light on statistics besides a few links, because hopefully it will get you, the reader, curious, and will start your mind wandering and inquiring about the validity of this framework. Finally, this is meant to be an overall framework of history; details will be glossed over, and points will be omitted; this is a sort of “Cliff’s notes” if you will.

Shortening of plot aside, there are three main ways to look at this recent time period in Black history, which, in this author’s opinion, will give the overall gist of the matter: Culturally (in terms of output and values), economically (which also covers the legal side of things, as they are tightly intertwined), and via overall family structure (which underpins it all and weaves it all together).

I will be blunt: Black America is dying. America is dying too, I may add, but the darkest-skinned sections of the country are literally committing mass suicide in some cases, and overall degrading in the moral, physical, mental, and communal senses. If America is an overloaded Titanic heading for an iceberg, then Black America is a speedboat loaded with explosives flying 100 miles per hour toward a barrier reef; things are looking to end violently and horrifically. I wish I could say that the bright spots of the culture are outshining all of the dreary despairing chaos, but then I’d be blowing smoke up your rear. This picture just ain’t pretty.

The easiest way to see the decline is to look at the progression of Black cultural output and focus, and how it has changed over the years. When you take a close look, you will notice a marked narrowing and lessening of quality and scope over time. The music is the most noticeable cultural output, as music is arguably the most prominent of all Black American cultural contributions to Americana (and, in this author’s opinion, if it weren’t for Black folks, American music just would not be music…), and it has a very definite pattern. I will have to go back past the 60’s for this one, but the point holds.

Jazz is, in the technical sense, the pinnacle of Black American music. It is one of (if not the) most complex and multifaceted genres of music ever, and uses lots of complex rhythm styles, chords, vocals, and notes in wildly varying patterns. Jazz saw its heyday from about the 1920s to the 1940s, in city clubs and bars, on vibrant, soulful nights. It should be noted that in many cities with large Black populations, Jazz literally was the main glue which closed some of the racial gaps between Blacks and Whites in ways which are not often seen today. For example, witness the Harlem Renaissance.

In the deepest sense, the earlier forms of Black music like Blues and Gospel music are simple (though Gospel becomes more complex as time goes on), yet profound, and have a knack for conveying a lot with a little. Blues rules the roost as the granddaddy of all Black American musical styles, as it is the earliest one and has very strong, clear ties to older, West African (in particular) music styles. Blues dominated Black culture from slavery days all the way into the 1950s, when it began to spawn other, more popular styles. Gospel, however, shared this spotlight and was the moral song of the culture, and in many ways, the song that kept many slaves, sharecroppers, and factory workers going through their racial oppression (the real oppression, not this modern BLM crap). The contributions of these early genres form the roots of most American genres, but their influence is more subtle and longstanding compared with the following genres. A good way to look at it is this: Blues and Gospel form the foundation of the house that is Black American music.

Overall, the cultural peak period of Black American music was undoubtedly the 1960s and 1970s, which saw an explosion in genres, styles, messages, and impact of music. American music in general was very rich and powerful, but the heartbeat of it had to be all of the countless hits, anthems, and timeless music which was produced during that period. Genres like R&B, Soul, Funk, Rap, and Hip-hop (in its infancy in the mid to late 70s) either sprang up or rose to prominence then (and some did both). In terms of rhythm, musical variety, and above all, lyrical content and complexity, that period in Black musical history was a golden age which has yet to (and may never) be topped.

This period was also the beginning of government regulation and red tape increasing in America, as there was a regulatory explosion in the ’70s (which, among other things, ended the muscle car era), and manufacturing in the country was arguably at a high point before then. More specifically, Detroit was booming then, manufacturing-wise, and, in the Black sphere, Motown-wise. This segment of musical output may well be the pinnacle of it all in many ways, from production to content to music structure.

The 1980s and 1990s were also good decades for Black musical output, but there is a noticeable decline in musical quality and content. As Soul, R&B, and Funk, among others, gave way to more modern, electric, and synthesized sounds, lyrics become more vulgar overall (largely due to the rise of Gangsta Rap and Rap/Hip-hop in general in the late 1980s to 1990s) and more sexually explicit (though this trend tracks through the 1980s, particularly in R&B), though they do, in general, continue to cover deeper and wider ranges of topics, and creatively cover the common themes of love, lust, and money.

The 1990s and early 2000s mark a clifftop (but not a high point) of overall Black musical output. By now, Rap/Hip-hop and R&B are the main genres of music, and Rap/Hip-hop has become a dominant influence, leading with ever more vulgar and superficial song and video content. Gospel is (and to this day remains) in the mix, but culturally, its cultural influence has hollowed. The saving grace of all this is that overall rap music production is still fairly good quality, and though it is usually vulgar, it is not hard to find solid, profound points being made in the music. If we look only at Rap/Hip-hop, the  1990s can be seen as a golden age, with some over-spill into the early 2000s. Of note is that the small peak (and subsequent drop-off) in quality of Black musical output in the 1990s to 2000s compares loosely to how the stock market did in those years.

There is no official consensus of when Black musical quality dropped off markedly in the 2000s, but there is no doubt that it did. I will put it this way: Compare a sample of the music made circa 2003 to that produced circa 2009. There will, no doubt, be a difference. Personally, I cite 2004-2005 as being the last years where you could turn on the radio and hear some good (sometimes vulgar) yet somewhat moving music to jam to. Originality overall seems to fade, techniques are recycled, creative songs get less and less airplay, and the Internet and changes in the music industry overall begin to create this commonly known scenario: There is “mainstream” and “underground” music (and not just in the Hip-hop/Rap genre), and the mainstream music is increasingly dry, repetitive, and lacks the raw, authentic feel that had characterized much of Black America’s music in years past. Even the underground is not free from this trend.

By the mid-to late 2000s and into the present day, Black music overall gains its modern profile: Dominated by a Rap/Hip-hop genre which fuels violence and criminal behavior, glorifies sexual promiscuity and all manner of degeneracy, is demeaning to Black women (though sadly, also descriptive of more than a few…), is extremely vulgar, and overall lacks the talent and creativity it once had. Modern R&B and its subgenres are less about violence and more about a crooning, sorrowful cry for love that generally goes unanswered, and a less vulgar yet very overpowering drive for sexual expression. At this point, genres like soul, jazz, blues, Gospel, and, to a slight extent, Reggae (its influence has slowly crept in during the late 1990s and early 2000s), all have some impact, but it is marginal.

Again, talent is still out there, and there still are wonderfully creative and original and powerful artists who still make their music resonate with the listener (my all-time favorite in this regard: Erykah Badu, as she has a wildly unique and freewheeling set of styles and vocals that I doubt anyone will ever be able to replicate), but they are increasingly (a) not heard on the radio and (b) hard to find in the underground. Overall, the quality of Black music now is a mere shell of its former prestige and impact. Sadly this looks to be the trend, until a new age of musical composition comes.

Of note in all this is that the drop in musical quality overall and the crash of the stock market are eerily close together…and eerily tied together as well. When you look at how Black Americans’ wealth took a major blow in the crash, and, like America’s economy, has yet to recover, it tracks even more closely. I doubt this is coincidental.

I will have to pause here and pick up later with more on the cultural decline overall and not just the musical part of it. Much more to come in this series. Until then, peace out, holmes.


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