June 6, 2018
By William Glanz
Something funny happened in the 39 years since President Jimmy Carter established Black Music Month to recognize the contributions of black musicians and their impact on music.
Hip-hop became America’s most popular music genre.
“African-American Music Month might be an old-fashioned concept at this point,” said Sonny Rollins, a GRAMMY® Award-winning tenor saxophonist and one of the greatest jazz musicians of the 20th century. “There’s so much African-American music all over that it’s not so much a month. It’s the whole 12 months of the year, so in a way [African-American Music Appreciation Month] is sort of an old concept.”
Despite that, it’s important that we don’t forget the role black Americans have played in the evolution of American music – from swing to be-bop to big bands to soul to jazz and hip-hop – and American culture because their impact has been so significant for so long, the 87-year old retired jazz man said from his home in Woodstock, New York.
Lobbying the President
Philadelphia singer-songwriter and GRAMMY® Award winner Kenny Gamble and artist manager Dyana Williams teamed up to lobby President Carter to establish an observance recognizing the contributions of black musicians and their impact on music.
Gamble and Williams found inspiration – and a precedent – in the 1972 decision by President Richard Nixon to declare October Country Music Month.
President Carter held the first Black Music Month event at the White House on June 7, 1979.
For historical context, “Rapper’s Delight,” by Sugarhill Gang, wasn’t released until September 16, 1979. The song made its first appearance on a Billboard chart on October 13, 1979.
President Barack Obama renamed the observance African-American Music Appreciation Month in 2009, but preserved its goal – serving as a vehicle to celebrate the huge imprint of African-Americans on our nation’s music.
About More than Music
With the explosive growth of hip-hop and the ascendant profile of so many black recording artists, is African-American Music Appreciation Month even relevant?
Taj Mahal, the legendary blues singer and songwriter who has won three GRAMMY® Awards during his 50-year career, says the observance does remain relevant.
“I’m very happy there’s a national acknowledgement of the contributions African-American musicians have made,” the bluesman said by phone prior to an afternoon sound check in Hartford, Connecticut, last week.
But there’s more to be done, he said in a gritty voice that gets faster and more impassioned as he becomes more excited.
For instance, music education has generally taken a hit in schools and needs to improve, Mahal said.
As a result, too few people still understand the role black Americans have had on music, nationally and globally, he said.
Which leads him to believe that our national observance should really be a global observance.
“In my mind, it’s a much bigger play,” Mahal said.
Rollins said there’s also more to be done in terms of improving race relations and social justice, and music – despite its limitations – can help people overcome their differences.
“I think African-American music, and jazz in particular, has done a great deal to mollify [race relations],” said Rollins, who made his first recording in 1949. “I don’t know how much we can ask African-American music to change the human dynamic… but I think jazz has done a great deal. I know music has not cured our racial problems, but I think it’s done a fair share of making people see humanity rather than skin color.”
And that’s why African-American Music Appreciation Month is still relevant, nearly 40 years later.