The Commodification of African American Music
by: Deja Johnson

What is Commodification?

By definition commodification is treating someone or something as nothing more than a commodity. Commodification can be compared to cultural appropriation as both use the culture of minority groups to an advantage. It can be seen throughout African American music history that black music has been used to commodify corporate America through radio stations and record labels. 

African Americans & Music

Music has been a common form of expression in the African American community. During slavery African Americans would sing work songs and gospel music to make time go and of hopes of one day achieving freedom. As time progressed genres like Jazz, Blues, and R&B developed as African Americans sang about their struggle to make it in America. African Americans are also responsible for the creation of Rap and Hip-Hop as through that music artists focused on common problems like poverty, drug epidemics, gang culture, and basic survival as a black person in white America.

Back in the Day

In the late 1800s and early 1900s some of the earliest genres of music in the African American community were work songs, and religious songs which later developed to be gospel, jazz, and blues. Initially slaves were not allowed to sing their music out loud as the colonizers feared rebellion amongst the slaves. Slaves had to sing and worship God in private without being caught. The colonizers then realized that music made the slaves work harder and faster so they let the slaves sing while they worked. The white people saw no value in African American music.


Fast Foward a Bit

After slavery African American music was on the rise. Jazz and Blues developed greatly in the 1930s and 1940s as black artists would perform at Minstrel Shows, but were then mocked by white people who used black face. During the 50s records labels began to form but were mainly owned and managed by white people who refused to sign black artsit.


Record Row

African American artists were not played on the radio in the mid 1900s, because white people could not stand to hear black people on their radios. Record Row was a collaboration of independent record companies. Record Row was located in Chicago  on South Michigan Avenue and gets its name for being a block full of different record companies. Notable companies like Chess Records, Vee-Jay Records, Brunswick, and Curtom Records were all notable companies apart from Record Row. It was responsible for popular black music in the 1950s and the 1970s. Record Row provided the opportunity for black artists to gain exposure and the recognition they deserve. 


Present Day

Although time and technology progressed African Americans today face some of the same struggles their ancestors faced in early America. African Americans still face racial inequality that lead to problems like poverty, lack of education, and broken homes. African Americans are still using music as a form of expression and a way to tell their personal stories of perseverance. However now white people or corporate america sees the value of African American music not because of what is being expressed but how much revenue it brings. Big corporate music record companies are signing more African American artists than they have ever done but use the vulnerability of those artists to make them sign unfair contracts. Those contracts limit artists and take the masters to their music while gaining a huge profit and leaving the artist with nothing.

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