By: Niara Powell
What is commodification?
Commodification is a term that means the act of something becoming something that is intended for exchange or economic value when it was not meant to be that to start. How does this apply to Black music in America? Well, music for African Americans has been a form of expression and a safe space. The way in which African Americans have been able to turn their pain into art and continue to add unique twists to everything they do is something that White people have not been capable of. Because of this, White people have used the blueprint that Black people have laid out and not only have tried to take it as their own, but make profit from something that was never rightfully theirs.
During the time of slavery in America as well as shortly after, African Americans created and sang work songs in order to make it through their day. However, white people have a history of using Black people and our culture for economic gain and these work songs, being one of the few things Black people could posses at the time, was nothing short of a mere commodity to white people. In 1867, the book “Slave Songs of the United States” was published by a white man named William Francis Allen. Playing it off as simply being scholarly and wanted to share with the world something that was never his, he published this book and it is sold until this very day. Who do we think is gaining all of the profit? Certainly not the people who creators of these songs.
Another area of commodification of African American music was seen during the 1950’s with the rise in record companies, especially those known to be on Record Row in Chicago, Illinois. During the time that Record Row was formed, Black music was booming in America. The sounds of Blues, Jazz and Gospel were taking over America and Black artists were at the forefront. Because of this, Record labels started to “follow the money” and so White men began to form record companies such as Chess Records, Vee-Jay, and many more in order to profit off of the popular Black artists and the art that came with it.
Commodification of African American music and culture is something that we still see today. Primarily in the genre of Hip-Hop which started as a way for Black people to shed light as well as cope through their struggles, White people have since exploited this. One case of this could be seen from the lead of the popular 80’s Hip-Hop group, Public Enemy, Chuck D. In 2011 Chuck D. filed for a case against Universal Records for withholding over 75% of the profit that the group was making from their first 5 studio albums. Cases like these are unfortunately not uncommon with Black artists and record labels. Throughout our history of being in America Black people have been exploited, taken advantage of, and used for profits. White people have a history of enjoying our culture and selling it to others but refuse to give credit where credit is due.
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