How can we celebrate, in one month, music with roots extending from the call and response messages of slavery, through the empowerment era of the civil rights movement, into the mainstream industry of today? We cannot. Just as we cannot shelve musicians who are veterans of the industry, who as mentors could offer tremendous contributions born of their struggles, triumphs, and lessons. These musicians are wiser, smarter, and eager to share the knowledge they have gained, but don’t share the lifetime adulation afforded by fans of groups like, say, The Rolling Stones, the remaining Beatles, or Barbra Streisand-who all remain tour-attracting superstars well beyond the ages Black stars are considered washed up. Conversely, older artists, who are the Black music originators, while largely ignored, are still around to watch their styles, sounds, and trend setting music borrowed by other cultures in the mainstream.
Many listeners of popular music decry that the music is missing messages and meaning these days. Others claim that culture vultures have taken over vital elements of Black music from blues to jazz, R&B and even Hip Hop. In each era, from the traditional music of Africa that found its way to North America and Europe via the slave trade, to James Brown reminding a generation to be Black and proud-music has held both the message and the means for people to empower themselves. Power could include utilizing the music veterans and their skills to shepherd the seemingly out of control youth in the industry today. Power includes new, young artists making the most of multi-million dollar recording contracts and international exposure to say something to motivate and galvanize this era-as Black music has done for centuries.
It was out of the tumultuous 1960’s and the war torn years of the early 70’s that Black music emerged to raise its fist and stir an entire nation into self-pride and Black power. It was on the tail end of this movement in 1979, that intrepid musicians and industry executives Dyana Williams, Kenny Gamble, and Ed Wright developed the idea to celebrate with a month dedicated to the impact of black music. The trio successfully lobbied former President Jimmy Carter to recognize the world-altering contributions of black music Chaka Fattah, as US-Representative, sponsored House Resolution 509 in 2000, which acknowledges the importance of Black music on the economy.
In 2009, President Barack Obama went a step further when he made June, African American Music Appreciation Month, set to commemorate Black “musicians, composers, singers, and songwriters [who] have made enormous contributions to our culture.” Since its launch, Black Music Month has grown into what actually should be just the beginning of a daily campaign to bring this art form to the forefront as a marker of historic, economic, and social importance. This must be the frame but not the finish of an ongoing recognition that is not swept under the rug, like some veterans of Black music, once the month’s deadline has expired. The messages of our forbearers lead them to roads of freedom, while the messages of Nina Simone or Odetta, James Brown and The Last Poets… all spoke to our souls about what it meant to fight for that freedom-this era’s responsibility is to not sleep on that great torch that has been passed.
For the cultures who have so admired and respected Black music so as to emulate it; there should be an additional amount of ongoing education about what lies within the hearts of the African turned Americans that make the music we all love, and what it will take to preserve those messages for future generations.