The Appropriation of Barbershop Quartets

What Are They?

Barbershop community quartets are a unique rendition of jubilee and gospel quartets. Barbershop quartets embodied what it meant to be black and talented in America during the jubilee period when all odds were against you. They originated around the 1880’s in black community barbershops. Men waiting to get their haircuts would sing and harmonize just as music rolls through the black barbershops we hear today on radios. Because they were sung in barbershops, the early quartets were not accompanied by instruments. These quartets produced a one of a kind ringing harmony created with the mingling of one low voice and three higher voices. The higher voices carry the melody. They would sing all genres of music from secular to gospel to spirituals, and folk music. As these quartets evolved and established, they began giving headlined performances.

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The Appropriation

Barbershop community quartets had a unique sound with distinct idiosyncrasies. Because there was no sound like the barbershop quartet, it made it especially easy to imitate and emulate. Whites would use this aspect of black culture to humiliate blacks in barbershop quartets in minstrel shows. Eventually once minstrel shows phased out, whites began to formulate quartet groups. They recorded the tunes originally sung by black barbershop quartets infused with a bit of their culture claiming it as their own. Nowadays we as Americans believe that barbershop quartets are only associated with white culture due to media, which is indeed not true. This is yet another example of how our culture is appropriated for the benefit of the white man with no due credit or appreciation to us for designing it. To the left you will find an early black barbershop quartet as well as an early white barbershop quartet for comparison purposes.

Reclaiming What Is Ours

Currently the barbershop tradition is still primarily carried by whites, but the black community is trying to promote the involvement of blacks in these quartets. Modern black barbershop quartets such as HALO-a women’s barbershop quartet group-are also using their singing platform to combat contemporary racism against African Americans. They feel that reclaiming what was appropriated will not only perpetuate this tradition throughout the black community, but also serve as a catalyst for racial equality.

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