Music and Race: a Few Brief Thoughts

(NOTE: the following article does not necessarily reflect the views of KSM Music, or of any of its employees other than the author)

In the past week, it’s been a little difficult to think about music. Frankly, it’s been a little difficult to think about anything. As I write this, on June 4, 2020, protests both violent and peaceful are continuing to break out all over the country in response to the failure of the U.S. judicial system to, among many other things, convict and sentence the police officers responsible for the murder of 46-year-old rapper and musician George Floyd. Hundreds of years of oppression, discrimination and systematic disenfranchisement, which elected officials have often tacitly acknowledged but rarely (if ever) properly addressed, seem to have finally culminated in a collective outcry for justice, and seemingly every sphere of American life is being affected-particularly the music industry and the loose networks of independent labels, venues and musicians who operate in and around it. On Tuesday, many artists and companies observed an industry-wide “blackout”, with Billboard Magazine even delaying its weekly release of pop chart statistics until the day afterwards. Countless bands, labels, media outlets, venues and individuals in the music world and beyond either went silent on social media for the day or used the time to amplify and promote black creators sharing their art and/or experiences.

The platform I have is by no means a big one, but in honor of these tragedies, and in the spirit of combating the attitudes which led to them, today I’d like to similarly eschew my normal M.O. of discussing the finer points of bass guitar, and instead take the opportunity to speak a bit more broadly about the legacy of black artists in modern American music.

Put bluntly, the history of modern music in the United States (and the western world in general) is, by and large, one of pillaging the culture and art of a black underclass and repackaging it for white audiences. In the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, Sun Records founder Sam Phillips famously said that, quote, “If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel, I could make a billion dollars!”. Soon afterwards, Phillips would do just that with his young protege, Elvis Presley. Led Zeppelin’s massively influential oeuvre is rife with songs that are either reinterpretations or blatant copies of songs by other artists, including many black blues musicians. In many cases, the band members have only given any credit to those original artists after lengthy legal disputes. To tie things even more directly to current events, the late 90s Houston hip-hop sound which the late George Floyd played an undeniable role in developing only became commercially viable several years later, after Paul Wall (a white rapper working sounds Floyd and his collaborators created) became a mainstream success and opened the door for black Houston contemporaries like Chamillionaire and Slim Thug. All this, of course, in addition to the frequent discrimination and hostility nearly every black musician to this day has faced in their efforts to make a mark on the music world.

Though, more often than not, the artists themselves treat their black predecessors with appropriate deference, the profiting off of black musical traditions by non-black artists and businessmen runs throughout every musical tradition we cherish, and is still going strong today. While I do maintain that cultural cross-pollination is, in essence, a good and necessary thing (To paraphrase music critic Todd Nathanson, I don’t think white people should only play bluegrass for the rest of eternity), this legacy is one I believe we all ought to remain aware of in our musical endeavors, whether it’s recounting musical history, penning lyrics or, yes, even writing basslines.

Now that I’ve said my two cents, the important caveat to make is that I am a white person, and no matter how much I educate myself on these topics, my perspective will always be somewhat limited. So below, I have listed several related resources I found to be informative and entertaining while researching for this article, for those interested in hearing black musicians speaking about their own experiences with race in their artistic pursuits, or just in getting some other perspectives on the subjects that I couldn’t integrate into my above thoughts. In the next post I’ll return to our regularly scheduled, bass-oriented programming (I have some musings about bass and lo-fi recording technology coming down the pipeline, that should be fun!), but until then, stay safe, stay informed, and stay mindful. Thanks. (massive list of notable women of color who have contributed to the art of guitar and bass guitar) (vlog discussing the creator’s experience with interracial relationships in alt-rock & metal communities) (documentary film covering a concert commemorating the 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles, interspersed with interview segments discussing many facets of the black experience in America) (interview with drummer Matt Zappa, on his time as a gay black man in the Boston hardcore and metal scenes) (list of black punk rock groups from all around the world) (short documentary on the history of black artists in country music) (discussion between several women of color on their experiences in indie/alternative arts) (short overview of notable jazz musicians encountering racially-motivated police brutality)

Leave a Comment