The Commodification of African American Music

By Nichele Washington

Commodification can be defined as the transformation of things that exist outside of the market into sellable goods. While this process is not unknown to the American economy, it can be difficult to understand the concept and its manifestations. Unfortunately, Black culture—specifically Black sound/music—has historically been the best example.

With roots reaching across the sea and back to Africa, Black music is composed of unique and complex sounds that express what it means to experience discrimination, racism, racial pride, community, fear, love, and more. Being oppressed within the United States meant that for Black people, neither their sound nor their music was able to elicit financial gain. However, throughout history, white Americans, have found ways to capture, market, and sell Black music/sound in ways that would bring monetary success not its originators, but to white artists.

Commodification during the time period of slavery

During the time period of enslavement, African Americans often sang songs and produced rhythmic sounds as pastimes, a way to praise, and a way to re-establish their humanity. Being composed of many West African characteristics such as call and response and the banjo, Black music during this time period was eventually defined as Folk, Ring Shout, and Negro Spirituals. However, being enslaved meant that this music was solely for the spiritual nourishment of African Americans and not intended to be commodified. This happened anyways in 1867 when a group of white, Northern abolitionists published the first compilation of 100 African American songs entitled Slave Songs of the United States. This is Black music's first encounter with commodification as the songbook was distributed and sold by white persons. It is also safe to assume that the profits made from the commodification of this African American music were not given to the enslaved African Americans but was instead kept by the white, northern abolitionists.

The compilation of African American music entitled Slave Songs of the United States consisted of songs such as "Michael Row the Boat Ashore" and Bosom of Abraham".

John Hammond can be credited as organizing the second ever Spiritual to Swing concert!

Commodification during the 1800s-early 20th century

Eventually, Negro Spirituals gave way to several new genres of African American music including Jubilee Quartets, Gospel, and Ragtime. Composed of four-part harmonies and made up primarily of Black men, Jubilee Quartets provided a more "polished" sound while Gospel and Ragtime adopted an upbeat, fast paced tempo that eventually caught the attention of white record companies, artists, and audiences. During this time period, commodification took the form of selling sheet music for other bands/artists to perform as well as performing live or in minstrel shows for compensation. Jubilee Quartets were also able to make money by performing on the radio, in films, and in movies. Further into the 20th century, John Hammond's Spiritual to Swing concerts would also prove to be a form of commodification as these concerts were ways to raise and make money. Famous Ragtime composer and pianist Scott Joplin even commodified his own music when he began selling sheet music for his songs like" The Entertainer". Joplin was so successful at commodifying his music, that he made 1 million dollars.

Commodification during the 1900s

Following Ragtime and classical Black music, Jazz rose to prominence for its unique timbre and sound. Black artists such as Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington were able to make money from the jazz music they produced by performing in clubs like savoy as well as performing in live and televised performances. Though jazz became sensationally popular throughout the entire United States, the music was demonized by white audiences and listeners. In an attempt to further commodify Black music so that it would be palatable (and therefore profitable) to white audiences, white record companies and even the Savoy club began recording covers of Black jazz songs with white artists. Though Black jazz artists were able to make money from the records sold to the Black community, white artists who covered Black jazz songs made significantly more money because there were more white individuals who could afford to buy the records than there were Black individuals. Blues artists also suffered a similar fate, however, W.C. Handy proved to be one of the few exceptions, Reproducing and selling hundreds of thousands of his sheet music, W.C. Handy was able to generate wealth for himself despite white American commodification of his music.

Despite attempts to cover Black jazz music, many white artists failed to accurately replicate Black sound, syncopation, and rhythm. Eventually, record companies like Motown began to record Black artists and distribute their music to both Black and white audiences. During this time period, many Black artists "passed over" meaning their music was successfully adopted by and sold to white listeners.

Elvis Presley not only appropriated the sound and style of Chuck Berry's music, but for years he would be falsely acclaimed as the "Father of Rock N' Roll". While Berry's music was looked down upon by white parents, Elvis's covers of the very same songs were eagerly welcomed.

Commodification Today

In contemporary American society, commodification of Black music still persists. In R&B, Black artists like Chuck Berry (the self proclaimed King of Rock n' Roll whose sound was appropriated by Elvis Presley) and the Duke of Earl were able to sell records of their music, play their songs on the radio, and promote their songs in clubs with the help of major record companies including Chess and Vee-Jay records. Much like jazz, white artists demonized, criminalized, and reprimanded Black production of R&B music because the music was seen as "destructive to white youth." However, in this particular instance, white commodification of African American music was not initially successful as white youth rejected white covers of Black R&B and found ways to listen to the original artists. Eventually, white radio show hosts, shows, companies, and more were forced to play Black artists and their original songs which allowed these artists to reach wider audiences and make more money.

Because of the rise in collective social consciousness, white commodification of Black music has been increasingly called out by Black listeners, producers, and even artists. From singers like Iggy Azalea, Eminem, and Justin Timberlake to genres like Rap and Pop, Black individuals have begun to make it publicly clear when a white artist attempts to appropriate Black sound and makes a larger profits because of it. Appropriation and commodification of Black culture occurs outside the realm of music as well, however, one fact remains true—the uniqueness of Blackness and the rawness of Black expression can seldom be imitated.

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