The commodification of black music

By: Amaya Thompson

During slavery, African American music evolved from traditional African music to a style exclusive to the American continent. As the United States’ music industry grew to become the most prominent in the world, white musicians and executives co-opted and appropriated African American music under a system of white despotism in order to create an American musical culture that made a profit without providing financial or cultural return to African Americans. Minstrel shows are one of the earliest and most obvious examples of appropriation and monetization of African American culture. Minstrel shows was a popular kind of entertainment in which white Americans used blackface to caricature, insult, and demean African American music and dancing.

Blues and jazz music originated concurrently in the early 1900s. Both genres of art were developed by African Americans during a period when Jim Crow laws were still in existence. The climate of legal racism and segregation in the South cemented white people’s cultural hegemony in the United States. Jazz and blues were used by African Americans to build a type of cultural resistance that opposed this prevalent culture. Paul Whiteman, a white jazz musician, was dubbed the “King of Jazz” in the 1920s and made a million dollars in a single year. This is a striking example of how America’s music business hijacked and benefited from a totally Black art form without compensating Black musicians.

In order for African American musicians to attain broad success, white society in America refused to let go of the racial caricatures represented in minstrelsy. Hip-hop/rap is the finest example of this. When gangsta rap first emerged in the 1990s, its primary audience was suburban white teenagers. Nonetheless, gangsta rap contributed to white society’s discriminatory preconceptions of African Americans such as “aggressive,” “lazy,” and “hypersexual.” Rap’s white appeal stemmed from its recall of an age-old vision of Blackness: a foreign, sexually charged, and criminal underworld against which white society’s norms are set. While the majority of notable hip-hop/rap musicians are Black, white artists in the same genre copied the culture and more easily broke into the mainstream music business while talking about criminal and abusive conduct that white society stereotyped as African Americans.

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