History Worth Knowing: Here Are 10 Facts About Black Music History

by Ricardo Johnson

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Posted 12 hours ago

Ella Fitzgerald was the first Black artist to win a Grammy in 1958.

I'm celebrating my favorite Black artists this month — streaming and repurchasing their singles and projects.

Why? Because it's Black music appreciation month!

The Recording Academy/ GRAMMYS / Via giphy.com

I took a deep dive into Black Music's history in honor of this month-long celebration and the artists that shaped the industry. Here are ten brief facts.

1. The origin of Black music is traced back to slavery. Spirituals were one of the earliest forms of musical expression (1619–1865).

PBS Digital Studios / Via giphy.com

During the inhumane times of slavery, enslaved people were forbidden to speak their native languages, as owners feared they would plan and share escape routes or seek revenge and rebel. So to communicate their feelings, whether it was sorrow or hope, they began singing and creating songs that were passed down to many generations. These songs were referred to as spirituals. There were songs of freedom and survival, influenced by African and religious traditions. Many say that Gospel music is a genre that comes from Spirituals.

2. Blues music was created post-slavery (the 1860s, Deep South).

American rhythm and blues singer Margie Hendrix

Evening Standard / Getty Images

In the 1860s, a musical genre took life in the south by storm: Blues. African-Americans created this new form of sound, taking inspiration from both work songs and spirituals. Blues rapidly spread across the United States, becoming the genre characterized by call and response patterns, a specific 12-bar chord progression, etc. It's the originator of the groove pattern and has many sub-genres such as the Chicago Blues, Country, Delta, West Coast, Electric, and more.

3. George W. Johnson was the first African-American to record commercially (1890).

Although many songs were created before his birth, George Washington Johnson was the first African-American to record his music commercially. As a child, he learned how to read and write, which contributed to his musical abilities, although it was illegal for Black children to learn in Virginia during this time. After moving to New York City in his twenties, it wasn't long before Johnson made a living through his passion. He connected with phonograph distributors between January and May 1890 who recorded his whistling on cylinders. He went on to record songs like The Laughing Song, Listen To The Mocking Bird, and Carving the Duck.

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Berliner Gramophone / Via youtube.com

Although many songs were created before his birth, George Washington Johnson was the first African-American to record his music commercially. As a child, he learned how to read and write, which contributed to his musical abilities, although it was illegal for Black children to learn in Virginia during this time. After moving to New York City in his twenties, it wasn't long before Johnson made a living through his passion. He connected with phonograph distributors between January and May 1890 who recorded his whistling on cylinders. He went on to record songs like "The Laughing Song," "Listen To The Mocking Bird," and "Carving the Duck."

4. Although jazz music first appeared around the 1890s, it rose to popularity with blues as the ragtime musical style began to slow down (1900–1945).

Since blues music was the first genre created post-slavery, its influences can be found in jazz. Ragtime also heavily influenced this genre. Although Ragtime music was still around, it began to faint during this time as blues and jazz were in rotation a lot. Jazz music is said to have first started in New Orleans communities, which is why New Orleans jazz is one of the most popular styles in the genre. It became popular music, and many other cultures began to add their twist to the sound. 

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Edwin H. Morris Company, Inc / Via youtube.com

Since blues music was the first genre created post-slavery, its influences can be found in jazz. Ragtime also heavily influenced this genre. Although Ragtime music was still around, it began to faint during this time as blues and jazz were in rotation a lot. Jazz music is said to have first started in New Orleans communities, which is why New Orleans jazz is one of the most popular styles in the genre. It became popular music, and many other cultures began to add their twist to the sound. 

5. Tommy Edwards was the first Black artist to hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 (1958).

With so much fantastic talent, and songs by Black artists flowing into the music industry, Tommy Edwards made history as the first African-American artist to hit number one on Billboard's Hot 100 list with It's All In The Game. The song is his most famous and can still be heard worldwide today. He recorded it in 1958, selling over 3.5 million copies worldwide, and it topped the charts in the United Kingdom.

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UMG/Wise Music Group / Via youtube.com

With so much fantastic talent, and songs by Black artists flowing into the music industry, Tommy Edwards made history as the first African-American artist to hit number one on Billboard's Hot 100 list with "It's All In The Game." The song is his most famous and can still be heard worldwide today. He recorded it in 1958, selling over 3.5 million copies worldwide, and it topped the charts in the United Kingdom.

6. Ella Fitzgerald was the first Black artist to win a Grammy (1958).

Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald

Hum Images / HUM Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Known as the "First Lady of Song," Ella Fitzgerald was an American jazz singer whose rendition of "A- Tisket, A-Tisket" made her a global star. She was the first Black artist to win a Grammy in the first year of the Grammy Awards, and her band leader, Count Basie, also won an award. Fitzgerald went on to win several more Grammys and other mentions of honor. 

7. Miles Davis's album, Kind of Blue, challenged creativity in jazz, which impacted the music industry (1959).

Before My Kind of Blue, jazz music followed specific scales, ones that made being creative a bit difficult. Known for being innovative, Davis wanted to challenge this norm and focus on modes instead of scales. He enlisted Bill Evans, a well-known pianist, to push boundaries and create modal jazz. The response to this new style was incredible as My Kind of Blue is referenced as the greatest jazz album in history. It also influenced the styles of many genres and artists to come. 

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Columbia / Via youtube.com

Before My Kind of Blue, jazz music followed specific scales, ones that made being creative a bit difficult. Known for being innovative, Davis wanted to challenge this norm and focus on modes instead of scales. He enlisted Bill Evans, a well-known pianist, to push boundaries and create modal jazz. The response to this new style was incredible as My Kind of Blue is referenced as the greatest jazz album in history. It also influenced the styles of many genres and artists to come. 

8. Rock and roll, house, reggae, hip-hop, RB, and more genres originated from Black musical styles (1950s–now).

Vevo / Via giphy.com

After expressing themselves through blues, jazz, and ragtime, more genres of music began to emerge. In the late 1950s, genres like pop and rock and roll began to hit radio airwaves. More genres like reggae, house, hip-hop, and RB started to take off, making Black music diverse and making it easier for artists to express themselves through sounds that connected with them and their fans.

9. Hip-hop created a voice for Black people in poverty and the conditions of Black lives (1970–now).

Hiphop starter, Dj Kool Herc at the Source Awards

Al Pereira / Getty Images

Although some people can hear hip-hop styles in doo-wop music (1940–1950), structure-wise, the genre started in New York City's Bronx neighborhood. It gave Black people in poor communities a voice, a way to be heard, as prior, many felt like their cries for better conditions were unheard. Jamaican DJ, DJ Kool Herc, is one of the earliest hip-hop DJs and artists. Artists like Tupac also became the people's voice through his music and informational interviews. 

10. New Black music genres like drill and trap are becoming global genres (Early 2010s–now).

2 Chainz / Via giphy.com

New musical genres like trap, originating in Atlanta, and drill, created in Chicago (but influenced by British grime), are heard worldwide. There are also sub-RB, soul, and pop genres on the rise.

Black music is constantly evolving, and the artists who paved the way and the ones now deserve appreciation for shaping the music industry.

Which genre or Black artist impacted your life the most? I'd love to know!