I am a firm believer in understanding the historical context of the how and why of certain norms of the art we study. This is especially true when studying music coming out of the Americas. Although we are made aware of the African influence on today’s genres that white artists dominate, we are not fully aware of how certain genres went from being black art to somehow white art. I would argue that the ambiguity around who takes the credit, further allows the history of black art, in this case, music, to be ignored and erased. In particular, country/bluegrass genres.
The erasure of black music history is seen within the banjo, which was an instrument that originates from the Caribbean. The banjo contains materials and memories rooted in Africa that were brought by enslaved Africans. For years, the banjo was known as a black instrument used to play black music.
Around the 1830s, the shift from it being a part of black art to white art began to take place. The banjo became popular in the white world through the blackface minstrel shows. Due to these shows aiming to mock black people and their culture, the banjo was one of the elements that they used in order to mock the culture. Unfortunately, this was the first time this instrument became “global,” and this was its first American cultural exposition. Through this being America’s first view of the banjo on a stage, it became associated with white people.
The pattern of black instruments and black art forms being stolen and exploited did not end with the banjo, it is something that reoccurs throughout American history. In order for black people and black artists to reclaim our history, it is key to take a further look at instruments and genres and the truth behind them.