The Commodification of African American Music

By Briaja Gilbert

African American Music has transformed and expanded in many ways since our ancestors were brought to this country. Music has been used as an outlet for some black people and a way to make money for others.  Each genre is influenced by the other and if you take a look at the creator of these genres you’ll see an African American. African American music is the blueprint of all music America. Commodification can also be described as a transformation and Black music is the most unique and generational transformation we have seen.

1800s- Early 20th Century

Starting At The Beginning

African american music started with slavery. At this time the slaves sung negro spirituals. A spiritual is a type of religious folksong that is most closely associated with the enslavement of African people in the American South. The songs proliferated in the last few decades of the eighteenth century leading up to the abolishment of legalized slavery in the 1860s. Composers who wrote spirituals after slavery times typically had choirs sing them. This time brought about Jubilee Quartets such as the Fisk Jubilee Singers.

The Blues

The blues emerged from the oppressed, economically disadvantaged African-American communities in the rural southern states of America in the years following the American Civil War (1861–1865). Blues singers were descendants of slaves and elements of their music reach back to African origins. Singers were starting to sing solo instead of in groups at this time. Brass instruments and the saxophone were used often in this form of music. Notable performers include William Christopher Handy who is the father of blues and B. B. King.

During the Blues era, women were at the forefront of the movement. Like others have done in previous genres, African American women in Blues chose to use this outlet as a source of expression. Women join together to celebrate freedom, independence, and sexual realities. Musical expression was high and people were thrilled about the future and what it may hold.


Ragtime, propulsively syncopated musical style, one forerunner of jazz and the predominant style of American popular music from about 1899 to 1917. It was influenced by minstrel-show songs, African American banjo styles, and syncopated (off-beat) dance rhythms of the cakewalk, and also elements of European music.


Ragtime was the foundation for Jazz music Jazz music is a broad style of music characterized by complex harmony, syncopated rhythms, and a heavy emphasis on improvisation.  This genre was seen as a more upbeat version of genre. Jazz was rooted in various cities such as New Orleans, Harlem, and Chicago. In this post, we will be focusing on jazz in the 1930s to the 1940s.

Late 20th Century - Early 21st Century

The First Wave of R&B

Black people weren’t making money for their music and plenty of their songs were being replicated by white artists. Black artists such as Chuck Berry were taking over Rock & Roll, but was slowly being pushed away by copycats and lack of credit. That was until R&B came along. Rhythm & Blues was another huge example of the commodification of African American Music. Theis genre was enjoyable by all races and showcased music by black artist that white artist could not really copy, but can enjoy. In the 1960s record labels such as Motown records began to arise. This was the birth of artists like Etta James, Stevie Wonder, Jackie Wilson, and The Supremes. This time brought out legendary festivals that have been documented in movies such as Summer of Soul.


Disco music was seen as a way to embrace sexuality.In the 1980s we also saw a rise of techno music. This music was played in dance clubs and contained upbeat electric instruments. Majority of the songs were fast tempo and produced a feeling of joy. Notable artists for this genre include Diana Ross, Chaka Khan, Village People, and Sister Sledge.

Hip Hop

The 90s brought about a new genre that was mostly male dominated. Hip- Hop has seven elements which are DJing and turntablism, MCing/rapping, breakdancing, graffiti art and beatboxing. Protest and resistance have been common elements of the music, evoking the fight for racial equality and communicating anger at socio-economic conditions that shaped the lives of many Black people. During the early 2000s we saw rap become more violent as lyrics began to be gang related or just full of angry words. The infamous east vs, west coast hip hop drama led to the death of some artists, but it was an influential time for today’s rappers.


African American artists were not typically recognized in the pop genre. However, artists like Micheal Jackson broke that sterotype.Pop music is eclectic, often borrowing elements from urban, dance, rock, Latin, country, and other styles. Songs are typically short to medium-length with repeated choruses, melodic tunes, and hooks. Electric instruments are commonly used in this genre. Some artists that are notable in the pop genre include Whitney Houston & Prince.

Today's Music

Many artists today have been said to be influenced by previous generation of black music. Kirk Franklin has been making gospel hits which was once influenced by neggro spirituals. Today’s rappers such as J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar have been seen as main names in the hip hop industry and were influenced by the lyricists that came before them. Lil Nas X has been active in Pop, country, Rock, and hip hop since he has stepped on the scene. R&B is still dominated by black musicians and is one of the most awarded genres today. Today’s music includes a lot of sampled beats and songs from the 1920s-1990s. Some hip hop artists have even sampled negro spirituals in their songs. The commodification of african american music is one like no other !

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