“Black people made rock and roll” is a line from hip-hop artist Lizzo’s latest single “Rumors” featuring Cardi B. What exactly is Lizzo getting at in her lyrics?
Black people have been deliberately and systematically erased from the history of rock and roll. Rock and roll, though seemingly “white-dominated,” was indisputably pioneered by Black artists. Ever heard Elvis Presley referred to as the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll”? What many people don’t know is that plenty of his early popular hits were written and performed by Black artists first. One of Elvis’ most popular songs, “Hound Dog,” was originally performed by Black blues singer Big Mama Thornton, and countless of his other hit songs were written by Black songwriter Otis Blackwell.
Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” is one of many examples in which the music industry promoted white artists and sidelined Black artists. In the decades following, other white rock artists such as The Beatles and Led Zeppelin became the faces of early rock, despite also growing their fame off of the music and lyrics of Black musicians.
The extent to which Black people have advanced the rock genre is evident in the debut of the Rock Hall of Fame in 1986. 60% of inductees that year were African American, including artists such as Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Ray Charles and Little Richard.
However, rock isn’t the only genre that has origins in Black music. Every lyric and chord we hear from popular American songs today has distinct influences and origins from Black musicians. This is because all American music has foundations in jazz and blues — genres that are intrinsic to Black culture because they were born out of enslavement and racial segregation. With music being so integral to our society and culture, it’s important to recognize the historical roots of our music because it’s often systematically misplaced.
African American hymns and gospels during the period of enslavement paved the way for the later genres of jazz and blues. With slave masters forcing enslaved African Americans to convert to Christianity, the hymns and gospels emerged as a combination of African and European-Christian culture. Music was not only a pastime for enslaved people, but a necessity for physical and spiritual survival. Gospels were used as an outlet to express sorrow and feelings of oppression; music continued to serve this role for Black people through segregation.
Throughout the mid-20th century, jazz and blues offered black people an escape from horrors of racism and Jim Crow laws. Both genres were incredibly diverse and dynamic, with blues specifically recognized for its accessibility regardless of socio-economic status. Jazz originated in New Orleans as a fusion of African and Creole culture and similarly offered an outlet for Black cultural expression and recognition. However, even with well-received Black jazz artists like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Ella Ftizgerald, white jazz musicians like Frank Sinatra and Bill Evans gained popularity because they presented jazz in a more palatable way to white audiences.
American music cannot be imagined without acknowledging the influences of Black musicians. Today, Black Artists from pop to hip-hop, ranging from Lizzo to Kendrick Lamar, are being recognized and celebrated. Like many of the Black musicians before them, music continues to serve as an outlet for the expression of Black culture and struggle. With the history of Black music often appropriated and capitalized upon, disagreements arise around the acceptability of white artists like Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande using “Black slang” or if white rap artists like Post Malone have the potential to “white-wash” rap.
While there is no need to boycott your favorite white artists, it’s still important to honor the roots of the music you’re listening to. White and Black musicians alike have influenced American music, but the difference is that many Black musicians were overlooked for their central contributions. You will find that music is far from the only example in which this is the case.
Erika Cao is an Opinion Intern for the fall 2021 quarter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.