The Commodification of African American Music

What is commodification?

The commodification of music is generally characterized by the need or desire to capitalize and turn a profit. African American music in particular has historically been commodified from cultural expressions to trends and objects to appropriate. 

Antebellum (1600s-early 1800s)

For African Americans, enslavement was the catalyst for many musical traditions to come, notably folk music and Negro spirituals. Music was not only a form of cultural expression; it was sometimes necessary for mental and emotional survival. The songs sung by our ancestors were personal and specific to the struggle for the liberation of African descendants. This period of our history set the precedent for oppressors being able to profit from the pain of the oppressed. Beginning in the 1800s, African American songs were published and distributed by white abolitionists. At a time when Black people are not even considered citizens, it is deplorable to know that our plight and vulnerabilities were on display and on sale for everyone to “enjoy.” Overall, this set the tone for the commodification of our music.

Postbellum (1800s-early 1900s)

Jubilee Quartets, ragtime, gospel, and blues are key examples of the music genres born out of enslavement. Commodification during this period begins to take on a new form as African American music and art become staples of entertainment for white people. Specifically, minstrel jubilee quartets during the 1870s were considered “highly desirable” to satisfy the popular waves of the time. Performing for white entertainment is not only a prime example of commodification, it reminds us that nothing we’ve had in our cultural spaces has been safe from capitalization and appropriation. The first recordings of quartets occurred in 1891, making way for the inevitable notion of music production. The popularization of these quartets certainly facilitated the spread of music in different communities, but at what cost?

1900s

The 1900s are marked by the rise of jazz and its establishment as a significant element of originality and creativity in African American music. Again, we cannot have African American music without commodification. With growing use of the radio, many jazz bands of this time were competing for radio broadcast opportunities. Public and media engagements were the primary sources of money for these bands. Even having creative direction and control over our music did not take away from the reality of being forced to commodify our sounds in order to survive.

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