“A Case for Gatekeeping Black Music”

I studied classical music for a few years in college.To no one’s surprise this included a very rigorous and a very white curriculum. While it was standard for all students to familiarize themselves with different European cultures, there was also a quiet urge for us to learn a much bigger and unspoken rule. We learned this rule through our repertoire, our music theory classes, and even the required etiquette of musical performance. No matter what the assignment was, we received the lesson that white musicians cultivated the conditions for the creation of music. Many black students were required to have at least one spiritual in their repertoire, and there were definitely times when non-white musicians were highlighted, but all the Black music always felt like a fun elective, rather than the crucial building blocks in the foundation of music. There was no analysis of the theory behind Black artists. As they taught me more about musical structure and its earliest innovators, I did even more research by myself.

I started my research with the history of Negro spirituals and other early genres from Black Americans, and I talked with other Black fine arts majors about my work. Virtually everyone I talked to within a three-year time span said the exact same thing. They loved the material and techniques that they were learning, but the theory they were required to build upon was almost exclusively based on European and White American artists. Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Hemingway plagued the English majors. The art majors dreaded working on color technique based on French, Spanish, and British classics. It hurt me to hear these complaints, because the root of most western art is in some part of the black experience, especially when it comes to music, and it started with the enslavement of Africans. 

Upon our ancestors being enslaved on American soil, one of the first things to be permanently taken from them was their culture. Their languages, religions, clothing, and many more ways of being were banned with the threat of physical violence that was carried out more often than not. Even with the fear of extreme retaliation, future generations of slaves took the very little that they could remember and created something new by combining their misery with the new religion that they were forced to practice. What we know as Negro spirituals and gospel were not genres of music back then. They were a means of emotional and mental survival. Over time, they became instructions and maps to escape a horrible life of servitude and persistent assault.The tone of all the songs they created would always tell the stories about the complexity of life as a slave, even as they gave birth to other genres.

Life for generations of Black Americans after the abolition of slavery has come with the tradition of oppression under white supremacy,, and for every experience, there’s a genre of music to tell our story. While being limited to manual labor after abolition, sharecroppers and domestic workers in rural America created folk and country music. As a modern rejection to being excluded from classical music, black musicians created jazz, ragtime, pop, rock n’roll, and many other genres, which became crucial to the creation of soul, hip-hop, and R&B. Our brothers and sisters in the Caribbean and Latin America did the exact same with genres such as salsa, merengue, bachata, and many more. In the same vein of white supremacy dominating the fine arts, the music industry has erased these foundations to ensure that the biggest beneficiaries of Black culture are white artists and label executives. For example, in the 1950s when America was still very much segregated, Elvis was carving out his spot as one of the nation’s biggest rock n’ roll stars. As a natural blonde with raw talent, Elvis could have sung any type of music that he wanted, but his producers chose to have him sing what was known as “black music”, or what we know as rock n’ roll. Even though critics were weary of Elvis’ effect on young white Americans, his team knew that he would be popular if they could make a young white rock n’ roll artist who sang with the soul of a black man. Elvis, unlike most black artists, could have performed in any genre that he and his producers pleased, but he embraced “race music”, or “Black music”. A more broad example of white domination of the music industry is the monopoly that parent groups like Sony, Warner, Universal, and EMI hold on the music industry. These companies are almost completely staffed with white people, while the most dominant genres of music produced are rap and R&B, and classically Black genres. Even though more lucrative opportunities are available for Black artists today than when Elvis was popular, the effects of commodifying Black music have mostly benefited the white people involved. 

Even the few black owners of music labels and streaming services have to participate in a similar business model in order to stay relevant. For example, Jay-Z purchased a full streaming service, making it Black owned, but he became largely criticized when it was revealed that his staff was mostly white. Plenty of black artists such as Kelis, Mase, and Lil’ Wayne have accused Black Executives like Birdman and P. Diddy of exploiting and stealing from artists under their labels. The deals that they’ve given these artists have been likened to poverty wages and even slavery. 

Commodification was never the goal of the creation of most black genres. Historically, it was a medium of storytelling, fun, and an outlet to express the pain of marginalization. While it is definitely loved and supported by the Black community, our music is still being packaged and sold back to the public, and we aren’t the main beneficiaries. I believe that Black music should be kept away from all monetization unless the artists are receiving the profits. It should also be solely created for the enjoyment and expression of our community. Every trend of every decade since our arrival in America has told our stories in every melody and every lyric. Today, however, Black artists have become modern-day cultural slaves, leached on by white artists and executives for content creation, and there are no signs that the exploitation and theft will slow down. I believe that in the future, protecting our creativity by restricting access to nonblack people will be the only way to preserve our stories and soul of our community that has inspired so many.

I understand it would be difficult to actually hide our music or any part of our culture from the world, especially when it’s such a popular medium through which many Black people have escaped poverty. I am not charging Black artists to give up their means of survival for a utopian dream. I’m only saying that we should consider what Black art looks like in the future. For instance, when songwriters write for artists, listeners usually attach the writer’s style to the artist. When it comes to black songwriters, this often means they lend their style to nonblack artists who indirectly take credit. Instead, songwriters could be credited as the primary artist just like classical music. This would cause masses of listeners to associate black artists with a wider range of genres that black artists influence such as country, pop, rock, and even K-pop. Another way to protect black music is to support socialized music production. Many black artists sign their lives away to music executives because they don’t have the resources to produce and distribute music on their own. If we contributed funds and resources to music production in the same style as mutual aid, many artists will have an avenue outside of oppressive contracts. We should do whatever is necessary to keep our music and its benefits within our culture. If we don’t, I believe it is very possible for Black artists to be removed from the equation completely. Given the history of white owners and creators stealing material, combined with the ever-changing technology of production and streaming, our music may just become another faceless formula in the books of music history and theory. In order for the heart of our art to survive, gatekeeping may be the only answer.

Kierra Johnson

About Community Movement Builders (159 Articles)
Community Movement Builders (CMB) is a member-based collective of black people dedicated to being a force for creating sustainable self-determining communities through cooperative economic advancement and collective community organizing. Our mission is rooted in Black love and equity. Grassroots Thinking is our newsletter/community blog about our work and movement activity

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