Timeline of African American Music
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Jimi Hendrix at The Isle of Wight Festival, London, England, 1970

Philippe Gras/Alamy Stock Photo
Jimi Hendrix, The Isle of Wight Festival, London, England,1970
Voodoo Chile
Jimi Hendrix
Cult of Personality
Living Colour
The Blues Had A Baby and They Named It Rock and Roll
Muddy Waters
Forgiven
Ben Harper

Themes

  • Political Issues/Activism
  • Racism/Discrimination
  • Black Power/Pride
  • Segregation
  • Cultural Influences
  • Futurism
  • Social Consciousness
  • LGBTQ

Musical Features

  • Riffs
  • Groove
  • Blues Form
  • Vocals
  • Harmony
  • Beat

Instruments

  • Bass
  • Drums
  • Electric Guitar
  • Electric Piano/Synthesizer
  • Guitar
  • Harmonica
  • Organ
  • Piano
  • Strings

By the end of the 1960s, the genre label “rock ‘n’ roll” had changed to “rock,” an outgrowth of changes in musical sound, lyrical content, and the rise of a music-centered counterculture. As rock became distinct from the 1950s and early 1960s rock ‘n’ roll style, it acquired the features defined by Jimi Hendrix on his debut album Are You Experienced? (1967): explosive, fast-paced blues-based riffs, overdriven amplifiers with high gain and treble to achieve guitar feedback (previously avoided by musicians), and the use of wah-wah pedal to distort sound and exaggerate timbral change, especially during solos. “Purple Haze” (1967) and “Voodoo Chile” (1969) also demonstrate these techniques. One of rock’s most influential artists, Hendrix’s guitar style served as a template for numerous artists including Black rock guitarists such as Prince, Lenny Kravitz, Vernon Reid (of Living Colour), Slash (of Guns N’ Roses), Marlo Henderson, Tom Morello (of Rage Against the Machine), Gary Clark, Jr., and Brittany Howard (of the Alabama Shakes) who continue his musical legacy and take inspiration from his defining role in the predominantly white milieu of late sixties rock.

Context and History

Rock music, along with soul and funk, formed the soundtrack of the 1960s, an era whose social activism provided the platform for America’s youth, Black, white, and brown, to rebel against the “evils” of mainstream white middle-class society by way of the Black power, anti-Vietnam War and hippie movements. The British Invasion in 1964, led by the Beatles, the Animals, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks and the Yardbirds, contributed to the explosive popularity of rock. These bands had begun by imitating 1950s American rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues, rural blues, and urban blues, all essentially African American genres. With the exception of Jimi Hendrix and a small handful of others, rock became associated with white British and American musicians, largely because of the categories used by companies (and the medium of radio) to market popular music. (Pop and rock became associated with white artists while rhythm and blues, soul, and funk became the domain of African Americans). Black artists nevertheless created unique hybrid rock styles and influenced the sound of white rock groups through their lead vocals, backup harmonies and instrumental technique.

Around 1965 when Parliament-Funkadelic pioneer George Clinton saw an unknown guitarist Jimi Hendrix working as a sideman in a New York club (using the name Jimmy James), he said, “We realized that, rock was the new thing, it was loud blues.” Hendrix emerged as a sensation two years later; not only was he playing the blues loudly, he had sped it up and added abstract sound effects. His flamboyant stage style and sonic experimentation modernized elements of blues and early rock ‘n’ roll. As a former backup guitarist for the wildly theatrical and visually shocking Little Richard, Hendrix once said, “I want to do with my guitar what Little Richard does with his voice.” By the end of the 1960s, rock had diverged into several sub-genres, such as blues-rock, folk-rock, country-rock, funk-rock, acid-rock, Latin-rock and progressive rock, the latter incorporating elements from classical music. Between 1967 and 1969, Hendrix (Band of Gypsys), ex-Hendrix drummer Buddy Miles (Buddy Miles Express) and George Clinton (Funkadelic) formed the first well-known all-Black rock bands. Each of these groups forged a signature sound by blending elements across styles, for example Funkadelic (“Maggot Brain,” 1971; “Cosmic Slop,” 1973; “Who Says a Funk Band Can’t Play Rock,” 1978 featuring William “Bootsy” Collins on bass, Bernie Worrell on keyboards, and Tawl Ross and Eddie Hazel on guitars), Band of Gypsys (“Machine Gun,” 1970), and Buddy Miles Express (“Them Changes,” 1970). The band name Funkadelic referenced funk and psychedelic rock, the two primary musical styles that informed the group’s music and that were performed by a range of other Black rock acts such as the Bar-Kays (“Black Rock,” 1971), Betty Davis (“Steppin’ in Her I. Miller Shoes,” 1973), the Isley Brothers (“That Lady,” 1973 and “Fight the Power,” 1975), Labelle (“Wild Horses,” 1971 and “Lady Marmalade,” 1974), Mandrill (“Fencewalk,” 1973), Mother’s Finest (“Piece of the Rock,” 1977), and Rufus featuring Chaka Khan on vocals (“Tell Me Something Good,” 1974 and “Sweet Thing,” 1975). Often categorized as funk and propelled by the prominent bass lines pioneered by James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone’s Larry Graham in the 1960s, these bands also highlighted the electric guitar sound prevalent in hard rock.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, Black rock and Black “alternative” bands formed, including Bad Brains, the BusBoys, 24/7 Spyz, Fishbone, and Living Colour. In addition to these all-Black bands, artists such as Prince (“Dirty Mind,” 1980; “Controversy,” 1981; “1999,” 1982; “Let’s Go Crazy,” 1984) and Lenny Kravitz (“Let Love Rule,” 1989) added their voices to the rock landscape. Also prominent during this period was Tina Turner, who had earned the title Queen of Rock ‘n’ Roll during her years recording and touring with her then husband Ike Turner in the l960s and 1970s (“Proud Mary,” 1969). In 1984, Turner solidified her position in rock as a solo artist with the release of the blockbuster album Private Dancer and the sleek pop-rock hit single “What’s Love Got to Do With It.”

Overall, however, African American artists had limited commercial success in the field of rock during the 1980s and faced difficulty securing recording contracts and accessing radio exposure because of an industry and audience association of rock with white musicians. Black rock guitarist Vernon Reid, music journalist Greg Tate, and artist manager Konda Mason were determined to eradicate these racial barriers and co-founded the Black Rock Coalition in 1985 to support the “maximum development, exposure, and acceptance of Black alternative music.” In the wake of the organization’s efforts, Living Colour received a recording contract and went on to win the first of its four Grammys in 1989: the Best Hard Rock Performance award for the acclaimed “Cult of Personality.” A decade later, Lenny Kravitz, who had released his debut album Let Love Rule in 1989, had gained notoriety and become a rock star, winning four back-to-back Grammy Awards for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance (1998-2001). In the 1990s, several African American rock acts and rock bands featuring African American musicians have gained multiracial fan bases who sustained their careers in rock; these include Ben Harper, The Negro Problem featuring Stew, King’s X featuring Doug Pinnick, Marc Anthony Thompson/Chocolate Genius, Toshi Reagon, The Dirtbombs featuring Mick Collins, and TV on the Radio.

In the 2000s, the music of Black rock musicians continued to develop. Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Brittany Howard’s band Alabama Shakes took home Grammy awards for best alternative music album (for Sound and Color, 2015), and best rock performance and best rock song for “Don’t Wanna Fight” (2015). Stew (born Mark Stewart), working with his songwriting partner Heidi Rodewald, brought the sound of Black rock and roll to Broadway with the musical Passing Strange, winning a Tony Award for best book of a musical and the 2008 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical. The 2003 documentary Afro-Punk by director James Spooner documented the ongoing involvement of African Americans in rock, focusing on Black fans and musicians engaged in various punk rock scenes throughout the United States and exploring the challenges they faced because their musical taste did not seem to match their racial identities. The film brought visibility to a new generation of Black rockers and led to the development of an annual music festival that promoted innovative music by African American artists in Brooklyn, NY, and offshoot events in Atlanta, GA, as well as London, Paris, and Johannesburg.

Musical Features/Performance Style

In the initial stages, most rock groups stayed largely within the confines of earlier rock ‘n’ roll. Its most notable trait was a strong backbeat, a pronounced rhythm built around the bass guitar and drums. The core instruments of most rock bands included electric guitars and basses, keyboard instruments such as piano and Hammond B3 organ, and drums, all of which were associated with the rhythm and blues tradition. Vocal harmonies and expressive lead vocals helped define a band, and the most successful often had a strong singer up front. Black musicians also extended the parameters of Hendrix’s style by fusing elements from diverse Black musical genres. In the 1970s, Buddy Miles, Sly and the Family Stone and Prince blended soul’s vocal style, funk’s rhythmic grooves, and R&B’s horns riffs with the technologies and blues foundation of rock. This in turn laid the groundwork for the eclectic 1980s fusion band Fishbone (“Ugly,” 1985; “Freddie’s Dead,” 1988; and “Everyday Sunshine,” 1991) and Living Colour (“Cult of Personality,” and “Time’s Up,” 1990) applied free jazz techniques to a hard rock sound while rapper Ice-T combined heavy metal with rap in the band Body Count (“Cop Killer,” 1992).

Growing out of a jazz fusion band, Bad Brains helped develop hardcore punk as a genre in the 1980s by blending hard rock ‘n’ roll with blistering tempos, rapid-fire lyrics, and precision playing; their 1980 record “Pay to Cum” is widely acknowledged to be the first hardcore single. Bad Brains also incorporated reggae sound, rhythms, and themes into their music (“I Against I,” 1986). Similar fusions occurred in other bands. Tracy Chapman tapped into folk and singer-songwriter traditions, following the path of African American musicians such as Richie Havens, the first artist to take the stage at Woodstock, and Garland Jeffreys (“Wild in the Streets,” 1973). Chapman wrote lyrics and music, sang, and accompanied herself on acoustic guitar. The stripped down music, her sonorous alto singing voice, and socially conscious lyrics propelled the success of her 1988 self-titled debut album; Tracy Chapman featured two Top 10 singles—“Fast Car” and “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution”—and earned her three Grammy awards, including Best New Artist in 1988.

Country-rock bands used violins and the pedal steel guitars common to country music; folk-rock featured acoustic guitars up front; blues-rock used harmonicas; progressive-rock bands took from jazz and classical. These practices began occurring with greater frequency in the 1990s and continued into the 21st century. Blues-based guitarists Gary Clark, Jr. (Blak and Blu, 2012) and Fantastic Negrito (The Last Days of Oakland, 2016) fuse blues, rock, and soul in their compositions. Singer-songwriter Tamar-kali draws on post-punk, metal, and ambient aesthetics (“Boot,” 2006). The eclectic sound of TV on the Radio draws inspiration from multiple sources. The group’s Dear Science (2008) reformulated and fused many diverse styles, assisted by the use of synthesizers and digital technologies to reference past traditions and to create abstract sounds. Such musical productions continue to add new layers of Black identity to the tradition of rock in African American popular music.

Lyrics

Rock lyrics cover a range of topics related to the human experience: romantic relationships, sex, religion, emotions, mysticism and philosophy, the drug experience, humor, youth and aging, and sociopolitical commentaries about modern society (war, issues of class and race) and about rock. Black musicians also reference the source for the genre as heard in Muddy Waters’s “The Blues Had a Baby and They Named It Rock and Roll” and in the BusBoys’ musical quotes of the Mississippi Delta style in “Rockin’ and Rollin’ in Lodi.”

Muddy Waters
Jimi Hendrix
George Clinton
Fishbone
Living Colour
Lenny Kravitz
Prince
Ben Harper
The BusBoys
Stew & The Negro Problem
Brittany Howard/Alabama Shakes
Tina Turner
Muddy Waters

Bibliography

  1. Hamilton, Jack. Just around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016.
  2. Henderson, David. ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky: Jimi Hendrix VooDoo Child. Atria Books; expanded edition 2006 [1978].
  3. Mahon, Maureen. Right to Rock: The Black Rock Coalition and the Cultural Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.
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The Timeline of African American Music by Portia K. Maultsby, Ph.D. presents the remarkable diversity of African American music, revealing the unique characteristics of each genre and style, from the earliest folk traditions to present-day popular music.

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Jessye Norman

Carnegie Hall’s interactive Timeline of African American Music is dedicated to the loving memory of the late soprano and recitalist Jessye Norman.

© 2008 Richard Termine

Special thanks to Dr. Portia K. Maultsby and to the Advisory Scholars for their commitment and thought-provoking contributions to this resource.

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The Timeline of African American Music has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Democracy demands wisdom. The project is also supported in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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