Music History

What Is African American Music Appreciation Month?

By Hoffman Academy Team

On June 6, 2000, the U.S. House of Representatives passed Resolution 509. This officially named the month of June as African American Music Appreciation Month.

Recognizing the importance of African-American music to global culture and calling on the people of the United States to study, reflect on, and celebrate African-American music.

H. Res. 509

However, AAMAM was in the works for decades before that! In the 1960s, Philadelphia natives Dyana Williams and Kenny Gamble lobbied the White House for a month recognizing the contributions of African Americans to the music of the United States. They believed that a month should be dedicated to the legacy of African American music. Their efforts paid off. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter set June as Black Music Month. In 2009, President Barack Obama officially renamed it African American Music Appreciation Month.

This June, read on to learn and appreciate a little bit of the legacy of African American singers, song-writers, composers, and musicians. These contributions span the history of spirituals that informed the creation of gospel music, to the blues scale that built jazz and rock and roll, to today’s pop and hip hop music. They include the symphonies, operas, choral music, and musical theater pieces written by African Americans. Amidst injustice, these works celebrate faith and individuality and community. 

Why Celebrate African American Music?

African American music helped shape American history. Beyond influencing the music we hear today, African American music influenced historical turning points from the end of slavery to the Civil Rights movement. Spirituals sung by enslaved African Americans linked them rhythmically and melodically to their homelands in Africa. A key form of communication, spirituals helped enslaved persons to survive through passing along hope and social information. The genre of gospel music, with call-and response refrains – grew from spirituals. 

Jazz and rock music have deep roots in the African American community. The blues scale and unique chord progressions formed by African American musicians were borrowed by jazz and rock ‘n’ roll musicians. By the 1920’s, African American musicians performed and sold their music on “race records” – which became “rhythm and blues” by 1949. Primarily marketed to other African Americans, white musicians sometimes co-opted the unique chords and rhythm on the records, stealing them to write their own country or rock hits. Throughout the 20th century, these genres changed the cultural landscape. Without African-American musicians, singers from Elvis to the Beatles would not have written their hit songs. 

When tragedies hit the nation, music brought people comfort, hope, and a way to express difficult emotions.African Americans faced struggles, segregation – even loss of life –  to perform music and share their voices and perspectives. Their protest songs also changed the minds and hearts of people around them, making it an important part of the Civil Rights movement.

A Very Brief Guide to the History of Black Music

The African American experience of music – and its history – lies in context to the society around them. In an American context, where slavery arrived on the shores of the continent  in 1619, the history of music begins in African spirituals and work songs sung by enslaved persons. Embedded in these pieces are complex polyrhythms, with two-against-three and dotted notes, and the blues scale. Lyrically powerful, with specific imagery, this music  helped people continue musical traditions from their home continent and resist their situation. From this time periods comes the practice of the blues scale, as well as the invention of the banjo.

There were Black Classical musicians, too. Although not an American, in eighteenth-century France, Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier St. George, composed symphonies and operas. He was also a master at the art of fencing and swordplay! Take a moment to listen to his Symphony 2. Later, during the 1800’s, British composer Samuel Coleridge Taylor became a composer and a conductor. Ultimately moving to New York City in the early 1900’s, his music was compared to Mahler. 

Next came ragtime, which brought recognition to musicians like Scott Joplin. Noted for syncopated “ragged” rhythms, you can learn more about ragtime in this article “The History of Ragtime.”  A style of music born in St. Louis, Missouri, ragtime went on to inspire European composers like Debussy and Stravinsky.

The rise of jazz in the 1920s brought a daring art form that encouraged social change.  Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and more pushed social and cultural boundaries with their jazz music. Today beloved greats, they overcame segregationist policies to perform their music in venues where they faced discrimination. 

The beats and sounds of these genres then influenced rock, soul, gospel, swing, be-bop, boogie-woogie, and so many more! Many famous rock artists, including the Rolling Stones and the Beatles, credit the Blues and jazz as major influences. Several of Elvis Presley’s songs were stolen from Black artists. In more recent decades, funk, motown, and hip-hop gained popularity, bringing with them new styles of dance and song.

A Month of Music

Hoffman Academy is joining the celebration with five special blog posts! We’ll highlight a few of the many influential African Americans who shaped American music. This is by no means a complete list and we plan to add more as time goes on.

  • Classical Creators: Black musicians in the Classical realm, including Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, Scott Joplin, William Grant Still, Audra McDonald–and more!
  • Blues & Jazz Geniuses: The rise of jazz. Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry, and Ella Fitzgerald
  • Funk & Motown Masters: Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, and Martha & the Vandellas
  • Rock and Roll Royalty: Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Jimi Hendrix, Tina Turner, and Prince
  • Pop Stars: Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin, Alicia Keys, and Beyoncé

Check out our Spotify playlist featuring hits from these artists and others. Be sure to come back next week for more of African American Music Appreciation Month with Hoffman Academy!

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