The Commodification of Black Music

By Rebekah Glover

Folk & Negro Spirituals

Negro Spirituals were the first markings of commodification. They were expressions through song about Christian religious values and ideas, the experience of prolonged servitude, and they differed drastically from the style of hymns introduced to slaves by Europeans. White Americans were struck and mesmerized with the melodies that Negro Spirituals utilized, and soon began to rob the tradition. They transcribed the spirituals in a condescending fashion, and were not able to capture the same spirit the their creators had imbued into the form. They were rearranged for white ears.

Jubilee Quartets and Gospel

Quartets’ commodification began with the selling of sheet music for artists to use and perform. It also took the form of black artists performing in minstrel shows to gain income. Commodification persisted through use of the radio and film. 

This, in turn, led to touring and widespread commercialization, eventually evolving into traditional gospel. Gospel records, with their upbeat, fast-paced tempos, saw commodification due to the captivation of white audiences, artists, and record companies (similar to Negro Spirituals).


Jazz music became known for its unique, lively sound. Artists such as Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, and Duke Ellington gained tremendous income from their flourishing careers as singers by performing in nightclubs and on television. 

However, white America demonized jazz and, in an effort to make money off of the disagreeable music, white record companies began to put out black jazz records, only with white artists covering them. White artists would also try to make the music their own by copying it. This is what allowed white artists to discredit black artists while, at the same time, make money off of them. 

The Beginning of R&B

R&B emerged during the 40s and 50s, and saw artists such as James Brown and Muddy Waters come to the forefront of the genre. This new era of music saw the establishment of Record Row, located on South Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Despite white musicians continuing to cover Black artist’s songs to make them more agreeable with white artists, this stretch of record companies consisted of majority Black Americans. 

Some of the most notable record companies on record row were Chess and Vee-Jay Records, Chess Records, Constellation Records, One-derful Records. Like other race based entertainment enterprises such as the Negro Baseball leagues and the all black casts of 1940s era ‘Race’ films, they provided music, jobs and opportunity for Black Americans in a segregated society.

Present Day

Today, the commodification of black music is nearly omnipresent. Artists such as Bruno Mars, Iggy Azalea and Justin Timberlake are appropriating Black music genres such as rap, R&B, and funk. Similar to eras past, appropriation and profit from black music, not appreciation of it, is at the forefront of the industry. It is still the victim of a thirsty white and non-black gaze that only benefits its copiers while disenfranchising its creators. 

However, Black musicians have always been able to innovate and build upon themselves. Hopefully, in the near future, we will see young black musicians continue to do so to ensure that Black music thrives.

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