Christopher F. Brown
Prof. Sean Nash
African American Art History
Interpreted through the music of the African Diaspora
Ladies and Gentlemen let me show you the greatest thing your eyes have ever beheld. He was a king, a god in the world he knew. He now comes to civilization merely a captive, a show to gratify your curiosity. Ladies and Gentlemen, behold Kong, the eighth wonder of the world.
The question of rather or not a “black artists” must produce “black art” is as simple and transparent as it is when one scrutinizes it intensely. No matter what type of art an African American, or those that claim to be of African descent produces, it is labeled “Black” first, then after others that are not of African descent adopt, or attempt to mimic the art that was first performed by “blacks” is the “Black” adjective dropped, leaving whatever is left to be labeled art. Before Elvis performed many of the songs that were stolen from black artists that were in obscurity, the music was called: sexual, corrupting, evil, negative, and most of all, black music. It was not until Evils, and other artist that were not homogenous to the culture that spawned said art, came bearing the stolen song and dance and pied piped the masses of America’s non personage of color youth did the music that had been loved and adored by many black and Latino youth be come to be known as rock and roll. Many black authors have their work categorized not by genre but by first being placed in the “African American” section then, if said bookstore is large or liberal enough, the “African American” section is then subdivided into fiction, literature, history, and maybe poetry if they have a copy or two of Maya Angelou or Langston Hughes.
Does a black artist need to produce “art” that is “black?” The initial kneejerk response is that whatever a “Back artist” produces, by its very definition and nature, is
“Back Art,” but is this a true statement. There is, however, another parallel to this train of thought that possess two more vital questions that challenge the previous notions. When artists that are “black” become proficient in art forms that is not considered traditionally “Black” or does not stem from a “Black” or “African” root does the said artist then become less “Black?” Does the said art form that was not previously considered “Black” or having an “African root” then sub divided into a modern form and having a “Black,” “African/Afro,” or “Urban” sub-genre?
Marian Anderson (“Marian Anderson”) and Mattiwilda Dobbs (Trap, Diane) gained world-renowned fame for not only being black female artists in a highly racist time period but performing opera at a highly skilled and professional level. The art form known as opera did not sub divide itself into “Opera” and “Black Opera.” We are now left with the questions, Where Marian Anderson and Matilliwilda Dobbs artists? When they sang opera, by the established definition of “Black Art” being anything that a “Black artist” produces, why did the art known as Opera not divide into a subsection of “Black Opera?” Let us first ask ourselves two questions of the highest importance and attempt to define them; What is “Art” and What is “Black.”
Art, “something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings, : skill acquired by experience, study, or observation, an occupation requiring knowledge or skill, the conscious use of skill and creative imagination” (Art: Definition) Defined this way, even science express properly becomes art. Song and Dance, Painting and Poetry, all obvious artistic expressions of “something created with imagination and skill.” The mistake that most make is limiting that which is known to be and labeled “art” and the expression of it to a closed and fixed definition as the ones previously mentioned. The way a mathematician crafts or figures out a way to solve or create a new formula that the world has been stupefied by is truly art. The way a chemical engineer creates a plastic that is stronger that steel yet more malleable that butter is also art. Art can be, but not is not necessarily limited to, something that is drastically and overtly expensive, and complicated while being highly publicized. Art can be as simple as contemplating a picture of a grain of sand. Art can also be as complex as the architectural blue prints for the city of Venice. Art is more than what the beholder says it to be and, could be, vastly less than what they artist intended.
What is an artist? In simple terms, an artist is the person that produces the Art. An artist might say to you that they are merely a vessel or a conduit, that the muse chooses to express its self through. An artist might say that they they are simply one that fashions and gives form to the art. The head architect or a furniture maker are often not considered by the average populous as artist nor is their work considered art. Their work serves a functional purpose other than aesthetic and they themselves many not abide by the standard stereotypes that have been placed upon the image of their art or them as artists. Although vastly less difficult surrounding a workable definition of, “Art” the label, “Artist” is more ranging than the standard issue, “A person that creates art.”(Artist: Definition)
What is “Black?” In terms of light it is the absence of any of the visible light. (Black: Definition) In terms of color, black is the absorption, the non-reflection, of any of the colors. (Black: Definition) Black is the combination of all the colors. In generalized terms it is also the name given to the people and the decedents of the African slave trade, also known as the African diaspora. Africans that came to the new world in places such as: North America, Cuban, Haiti, The Dominican Republic, Brazil, Jamaica, were all placed under the umbrella of “Black People” not because all of them were actually black in skin color but because they were all black in skin color relation to their European captors. This basic skin color definition of “Black” does not encompass what is meant by “Blackness” which is the question someone is truly asking when someone asks, “What is Black culture?” With these brief and introductory understandings of what is meant by: Art, Artist Black, and Blackness we can began to the task of what is and what makes “Black Art” and also ask, does a “Black Artist” need to produce “Black Art.” We can also ask, “If an artist that is not “Black” produces art that conforms or meets with that which is considered “Black Art” is that “Art” authentic “Black Art”?
Following the logic of the definitions that have been established for “Black” and “Art,” “Black Art” would be inferred as that which is considered “Art” and is produced by the people considered “Black.” This surface level definition is very misleading and borderline fallacious, through the exploration and the history of the art forms that have been labeled “Black Music” it can be shown that those that are not considered “Black” can make authentic “Black Music” there by disproving the above definition of what is “Black Art.” Also, through the exploration of the history of the art form labeled “Black Music” It can be shown that artist that are considered “Black” can produce art that is, by the default of them being “Black” is considered “black art” yet, because of their life experiences, their art is not considered authentic “Black Art.”
All music, of every culture, has its roots deeply embedded in the spoken language of that culture. All cultures around the world have their own style of music that originated from that cultures unique way of telling a story. When a culture fashioned and agreed upon a language and its dialects, inflections, and tones, that culture then began to tell stories. Story telling evolved into literature, poetry, and song. The song became a vehicle transmitting: history, emotion, legend, and other cultural necessities that the written or spoken words of the culture did not or could not. When the approximately eleven million black African slaves were brought to the Americas (Thomas) their long and well established traditions of story telling, songs, and culture was brought with them. In places like North America African slaves had their languages prohibited, along with their traditions and other cultural aspects. When the Africans in North America were acceptably westernized having forgotten their original mother tongue and there were no elders that remembered the languages or stories of their ancestors, they adopted the language of their captors. New stories and songs emerged stemming from Americanized African slave experiences yet, stylistically these stories and songs still harkened back to the traditions of many of their African ancestry. Many of the work songs that the slaves sang had the same, "call-and-repose" style that continues in west African tribes today.(Abusua Songs)
The captors of the Africans forced acclimation of European culture upon them, this not only meant European languages but European gods and the worship of those gods. The African slave crafted their style of worship to resemble the style of worship that had gone on for endless ages in Africa, this too was suppressed. Instead of gathering in a circle outside were one might put on a mask or let themselves become possessed by Oshun and was able to perform healings by the power of the goddesses (Took), one was to now be possessed and taken over by the holy ghost/spirit and then performed such miracles, indoors, behind rows of pews. In places like the Caribbean, South America, Mississippi, and Louisiana, slaves had somewhat a gradation of more freedom to express but within strict limits. The slave masters, being new world decedents of the French, Spanish, and some with a dash of Anglo Saxon, called themselves creole (Bernard) as well did the some of the decedents of their slaves. These “creole” slave masters, unlike full blood, protestant, Anglo Saxons were catholic. These catholic slave masters thought that the crude statues and depictions of patron saints such as Saint Christopher or Saint Peter that they forced the slaves to worship were just such. The slaves knew that these so-called crude depictions were the remaining remembrances of their ancestral gods, like Eshu /Legba whom like Saint Christopher and Saint Peter were the patron saints and protectors of travelers and crossroads. (Haitian Vodou- Legba) Instead of singing praise songs to Eshu, one sang to Jesus
The Negro Spiritual/slave songs with their many call and response elements populated the fields and worship shacks along with the enslaved Africans that were becoming Americans of a different sort. The untrained ear of the captors heard these songs as nothing more than tails of woe and misery. The captive Africans knew these songs were much more. Many of these slave songs/work songs, "Negro Spirituals" masked instructions on how to escape the captivity of the plantations.(Song Official Site of Negro Spirituals, antique Gospel Music) These songs, being mostly morose and depressing to the ears of some slave captors, also served to uplift the moral of the slaves relatively. Many of these Negro Spirituals to this date remain regulated to the more traditional black churches, but the musical art forms that rose from them fashioned the musical arts of this new place called The Americas. The musical arts that would spring forth from the North American Negro Spirituals would eventually be heard worldwide and ultimately duplicated, imitated, and even some would be innovated into new forms of art.
After emancipation, some of the now African Americans traveled North, some West looking looking for a new life in a new place with new opportunities that were not afforded to their parents or grandparents, while some stayed in the South.(Davis) The new generation of African Americans not having any of their own memoirs of slavery, but still having to endure the hardships of segregation and racism, had their own stories. These new stories expressed an enjoyed freedom unheard of by their parents and grandparents and unlike their parents and grandparents whom sought comfort and solace in the lord and negro spirituals, this new generation had a new expression, a new art from, a new way to tell their story, and they called it the Blues.
The Blues was an expression of sorrow and joy outside the religious context, outside the context of bondage and having a master that enveloped the Negro Spirituals. The blues were played in places called, "Juke Joints" with the word "Juke" being a creole word for, dancing, drinking, gambling and anything else that was supposedly not morally upright and good standing.(Juke: definition) These dancing, drinking, gambling and anything else houses were secular sanctuaries for African Americans where, after a long days work that had been coupled with daily shots of racism, discrimination, sociopolitical and economic oppression one could fully relax and explore what it meant to be a person, what it meant to be an free person of color in this place called America. In the Juke Joints black men were not subject to being called, “boy” and if they were they could respond accordingly. In the Juke Joint black women were freer to express themselves without the fear of being raped and also have their personhood, their womanhood, at least acknowledged; they were not the help, the maid, the cook, they were women, not a function and they had names and could be sexual, and show said sexuality. In the Juke Joint, a sin was not what it was as in the church. There was no master in the Juke Joint except for one’s self. In the Juke Joint, black men and women could be, men and women without fear. In the Juke Joint Black men and women could express themselves without coding the language, curtailing the beats, or molding the melody to conform to a strict religious dogma.
The guitar players, drummers, singers, and other members of the band would play one set of songs, typically handed down Negro spirituals that had not changed since the times of slavery, on Sunday morning, but when Friday and Saturday night arrived they played the music they truly loved, the Blues. Inside the Juke Joints the Black artist, some for the very first time, not only felt a sense of expressional freedom that was not tolerated in the black church or accepted by non-black America as a whole. The newfound expressional freedom led the black blues artist to cultivate their craft, which lead to regional differences like Traditional county blues: a general term that describes the rural blues of the Mississippi Delta, the Piedmont and other rural locales; and Louisiana blues characterized by a swampy guitar or harmonica sound with lots of echo. (Koop)
With the advent of the Blues and the Juke Joint came admiration for the musical style that was sometimes depressing in its story telling but was very much loved and reflected the artistic expression and outpouring of a people that had been, and still were, severely oppressed yet managed to find a way to smile, laugh, and sing. America and its people that were not of color that also claimed to survive hardships of life and were not rich and wealthy yet found a way to survive and thrive, took a liking to this Blues music. Even though Jim Crow laws and segregation still kept blacks and white apart in the vast majority of places in America (Weingroff), many whites and others not from the south encountered the Blues as they encountered African Americans that were leaving the South and brought the Art form with them. (The Second Great Migration)
It was not only Northern and Eastern Americans that encountered this new art from that was sweeping America called the blues but when world war one happened more than 350,000 and then world war two over 700,000 African American men served in the segregated united states armed services. (Harris) Many of these men were also Blues artist and these musicians took their instruments and records with them. Some outfits were banned from playing live music, but could still play their records and those records were blues records. The Blues was now implanted in other cultures across the world like seeds in new fertile soil. The Blues and the tales of the Juke Joints back home became legendary. American soldiers, especially African American soldiers deployed abroad would congregate amongst themselves and in places where the people were friendly to American and African American troops and listen to the blues giving, them a sense of home. The Iconic Blues legend B.B. King cultivated his blues style by taking the best elements from other blues artist that he encounter and formed such a unique sound that he is synonymous with the art known as the blues. (B.B. King Biography) B.B. King and his famous guitar Lucile would lay the foundation for the next great art from that would come and revolutionize the musical art world.
African American artists having been exposed to a wider plethora of experiences and other cultures both intercontinentally and internationally began to concentrate the art form that was called the Blues making it highly refined. The Blues had grown and was fathering other Black, American, Art forms, two of which would be come to be called Jazz, Rock & Roll, and R&B. The golden age of Jazz coincided with prohibition (Pick) but historians have agreed that the art form that came to be known as Jazz began nearly thirty years earlier. (Weinstock) As the waves of disenfranchised southern blacks continued to move to parts East, West, and North (Davis) they again brought with them the changing blues and now, this new art form, this highly improvisational thing called Jazz. On the east coast, and the mid-west the southern Juke Joints were replaced by the speakeasies and instead of the Blues being played, it was Jazz that reigned. (Pick) Also, unlike the relative freedom that was enjoyed in the Juke Joints, the fear of being raided was ever present in the speakeasy and formatted how business was conducted. (A., Ceyana) The melodies and tones were smoother, at times, and usually more improvisational than the Blues. The guitar ruled the Blues and subsequently Rock & Roll but this new art form, this thing called Jazz had an aristocracy of horns and pianos, brass and wind instruments, and unlike the female Blues artist that was considered raunchy and undesirable by the larger non-African American populace, the female Jazz artist was seen as seductive and alluring and even though most were African American, an object of desire by all ethnicities. The female Jazz artists were often pioneers of this new art form. Blanche Calloway whom was one of the first Jazz singers to gain notoriety, whom would be severely over shadowed in history by the fame of her brother Cab Calloway, was also one of the first African American and female jazz bandleaders and of an all-male band as well. (The Calloway Family Legacy: Blanche)
The time before the great depression this African American art form known as Jazz had been exposed to the entirety of American culture and America fell in love with Jazz. Early Jazz artist in New York played the unique and undeniable art form with all their hearts, instructing white, Latino, and other admires that would eventually turn into artists themselves, how to play giving rise to art forms swing and big band. With new technology such as movies, the picture camera, the black art know as Jazz spread to the ends of the earth, influencing countries and cultures to form their own form of Jazz. It also showed an image of African Americans that were not the beasts of burden of slavery but were now these magnificent entertainers and like all good curiosity shows, Paris, London, and other parts abroad wanted their own authentic Negro(s) to perform this authentic American Negro music called Jazz. Artists such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Billy Holiday became household and worldwide Jazz names. One of the many non-black Jazz musicians to begin to perform this Jazz music was Bix Beiderbecke. He was never classically trained in music but learned to play by listening. His parents did not want him playing this music and because he was white it was assumed that everything he did was imitation so he consistently had to develop and cultivate a unique style that was his own. (Leon‘Bix’Beiderbecke)
While Jazz, R&B, and the Blues were sweeping the world In the Caribbean something else had occurred. Much like the catholic slave counterparts of Louisiana and Mississippi, these Caribbean slaves hid their ancestral gods behind a mask of catholic Christianity. Slaves in the Caribbean were allowed to dance and play instruments, all for the entertainment of their captors. Instead of Negro Spirituals, slaves of the Caribbean developed a musical art forms called mento(Garnice), and calypso.(History of Calypso) which told the same stories of oppression and woe but in an entertaining way but was also coded like Negro spirituals. Unlike the Negro spirituals that only told of escape, these mento and calypso songs told of revolt and uprising. Fast forward a century or two and when the art forms know as R&B and the Blues reached the shores of the Jamaica it mingled with another Black musical art form known as Ska (The Beginnings: Soundsystems, Ska, and Rock Steady) and much like Rock & Roll, Rocksteady was born. As Rock & Roll took over America, Rock Steady, along with the politics, oppression, and self-awareness of the 50's and 60's the Jamaican Island birthed the art form known as Reggae.
When Rock & Roll separated itself from the blues, R&B, and Jazz it was perform by only a few local musicians that dared to do so openly. The crowds were typically small and comprised mostly all black youth. Just as Jazz had, this black thing known as Rock & Roll appealed to those that were not black. Just as Jazz had been, Rock and Roll music was given many adjectives before it was called Rock & Roll, like: Negro music, black music, race music, devil music, and the most offensive, nigger music. Rock music appealed to a younger generation as had Jazz did to those whom parents had grew up listening to the blues. Rock & Roll became the art form that spoke for a generation and replaced the Jazz, blues, and some of the R&B albums in the Jukeboxes worldwide. What really made Rock & Roll grab hold of the international scene was not only live radio, allowing it to be heard by anyone that could afford a radio, but also the new thing called the television. This time in history was the first time that the artist, the black musical artists, was not just a name attached to a voice on a record or heard through a speaker. The image of the black artist that was not shucking and jiving or being some other caricature of what people assumed black people to be could now be seen as well as heard. The black artist was no longer separated from their art from. In the still highly racial climate of the 50's some record companies found ways around this realization.
When record companies did not want to show artists like little Richard they chose artists like bill Haley and the comets. Instead of showing and giving credit to artist, black artists, like Ike turner and the kings of rhythm or chuck berry as creators, record companies found and displayed performers, entertainers, like Elvis. Elvis, whom not only learned the black art form known as rock and roll directly from black people but crafted his style after the image of black rock and roll artists of the day. (Farley) Evils himself even said, "'The colored folks been singing it and playing it just like I'm doing now, man, for more years than I know," Elvis told reporters in 1956. "I got it from them. Down in Tupelo, Mississippi, I used to hear old Arthur Crudup bang his box the way I do now, and I said if I ever got to the place where I could feel all old Arthur felt, I'd be a music man like nobody ever saw."' (Farley) Elvis went as far as to cover songs from black musicians and never give them any credit or royalties. The most famous example of this is the song that comes to mind when most people think of him, Hound Dog. The song Hound dog was originally recorded by Wille Mae "Big Mama" Thorton in 1953 and she was only paid $500. When Elvis covered the song in 1956, with out Thorton's permission it was a international hit that made millions one of the first songs to ever make that much money and Thorton received no compensation. (Driesbach) The Black art form known as Rock & Roll was being stolen right out from African American culture and Elvis was just one of the biggest perpetrators. Artists that were homogeneous to art form and culture of Rock & Roll were being depicted as foreign and not authentic to and of their own art. History remembers Elvis as the King of Rock & Roll when he stole his style from other lesser known black Rock and Roll artists and songs from lesser known, black blues artists, to only put a different spin on them that made him millions. He could be said to be not the King of Rock and Roll but in truth he is the thief of Rock and Roll. Elvis could be said to be the prime example of how non black entertainers could and in the future would mimic the characterizes of black artists and black art and repackage it into something that was acceptable to the masses of the non black youth of America and the world. This would later become to be known as Pop music.
The following 53 years after 1950 saw an explosion of musical artistically expression. While Rock and Roll moved away from its jazz and blues roots, it fathered doo wap, British rock, pop music, heavy metal, and punk rock.("Rock Music Timeline - 50 years of rock & roll history with photos.") R&B went through a process of reclamation by the African American community. In the late 50's R&B birthed the art form that came to be known as soul music. The vast majority of artists that crafted this soul music were apart of two record labels that dominated the industry, Motown Records (The story of Motown Records) and Atlantic Records (Greenfield) eventually Atlantic records would hop on the British pop and new rock band wagon but not before elevating artist like Aretha Franklin and Etta James to royal and iconic status. (greenfield) Motown was the home of a artistic movement, so much so that this record label gave its name to the very sound of the music, the art, it produced. The "Motown sound" was so identifiable, so synonymous with the African American community that if it was not Motown it pretty much was left to obscurity and forgotten. (The Story of Motown Records) The cultivation of soul music brought about funk, disco, hip hop, and rap.
The 60's, 70's, and 80's in America were a time of extreme political, social, technological, and financial change. The disenfranchised and oppressed populace of America were no longer asking for fair treatment and rights in the society, they were demanding fair treatment and rights otherwise America would suffer the consequences. Science had sent animals, machines, and people into outer space and at the same time developed chemical weapons and drugs unlike any the world had ever known. All of the newness of this era was reflected in the music of the times. Marvin Gaye’s song, "what's going on" spoke of war, drugs, and struggle in the black community amongst other things (DeMain). Gil Scott-Heron became the most identifiable voice of the political movement (Wilkinson) as well as James Brown. James Brown's song, "Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud" was a funk/soul song that became one of the anthems for the black civil rights movement (Weinger) amongst the black youth on the east and especially the west coast while the older generation and the youth of the south involved in the movement refashioned negro spirituals and birthed, "we shall overcome."These two artistic expressions in the medium of music represented the two main attitudes of the movement. One attitude was proud to be black, would not back down, and would not turn the other cheek. One attitude was also proud to be black, but would turn the other cheek and saw violence and aggression in any way as counter productive. "Bad Girls" by Donna Summers was and is one of the most recognizable disco songs of all time and is a commentary on prostitutes and their exploits(“Bad Girls by Donna Summers”).
James Brown, George Clinton, Rick James and the Gap Band were all part of what would become to be known as funk music. Funk was/is and artistic expression that was like another artistic expression of the time known as Disco. Funk and Disco were similar to Jazz and Blues in that funk was more of a mid western and southern stylistic expression where as Disco held court in the clubs of the east and west coast as well as internationally. Disco and Funk music were also fuiled in part by drugs. Many of the disco band/artists, Rock, pop, and even soul artists of the day all participated in the widely accepted drug culture of the day that taught drugs as nothing more that unleashing the shackles of one's creativity. Marijuana and cocaine were all seen as keys to the doors of creative enlightenment. Drugs at this time were not viewed as negatives or anything destructive until the 80's revealed the danger of drug use.
As with Bix Beiderbecke, there were non African America artists that contributed to the art forms of Disco, Funk, and Soul. Unlike Elvis, that stole from the black community and culture artists like Tina Marie, the average white band, Michael McDonald were white artists that made authentic contributions to the art forms. They readily perform with and acknowledged black artists so their music was not seen at mimicry or thievery, their artistic expressions were seen a valid. The average white band named themselves ironically because they were white artist performing what was seen as black soul/funk music. The song "pick up the pieces" was such a hit that it was later sampled by many artists of the hip hop genre. The band Wild cherry topped the charts with a song called "play that funky music, white boy" with the irony being that the band leader was infact white. The uniqueness of the song is that while ironically a funk song, it harken back and has the traditional elements of call and repose.
As of 2013, hip hop has been as revolutionary to the musical art world as had jazz and blues been in their day. Funk, Disco, and soul had success internationally, but nothing has ever refashioned the musical art world as has Hip Hop. The art form known as Hip Hop reigns as the current artistic musical expression of choice as well as the most marketable and profitable. The history books will say that hip hop was birthed in New York at a party when a DJ first, “Scratched” a record. After that first record was scratched then came break dancing and graffiti art. (History Of Hip-Hop Style)While that story may be true, it is only the story Hip Hop as told by the East coast, of the East coast on the East coast. All different parts of America have a different story as to how Hip Hop was began in their neighborhoods, cities, states, and regions.
In the Bay Area of California, children of the 60’s and 70’s had pimps in their neighborhood (Glass). Movies such as “The Mack” which was about a pimp from Oakland California (Kearney) were the actual reality of the neighborhood. These pimps and hustlers such as Frank Ward(Panache) and Felix Mitchel(Panache) were the superstars of the neighborhood that drove big fancy cars, wore fancy cloths, and would normally have more women on their arm and money in their pockets than the average neighborhood child could have even imagined. When crack ravaged the black neighborhoods in the 80’s, these children, now adults, saw an easy way to escape the poverty trap of disenfranchised black neighborhood. Some of these adults that sold crack now had the money that the pimps of their childhood flashed around. The Bay Area prized thick gold herringbone chains and brand new pair of Jordan's over the shell toe converse and gold donkey rope chains. When Hip Hop emerged in the Bay Area many Bay Area artists like Todd Anthony Shaw a.k.a Too Short mimicked the rhythmical, lyrical, storytelling style of the pimps of Oakland California and the Bay Area. (Bush) Too Short also geared his storytelling, rapping around his sexual exploits with women, again mimicking the stories he had heard as a child from the pimps of his neighborhood. The Bay Area also produced early Hip Hop artists such as Stanley Kirk Burrell a.k.a Mc. Hammer (Frenaye) that did not rap about drugs, violence, or his sexual exploits but focused on party music and dancing.
In L.A. the Pimps and hustlers of the 60’s and 70’s were not as prominent as they were in the Bay Area. The economic hardships and struggles were. A majority of the children in L.A. during the 60’s and 70’s were first generation children of parents that had come to L.A. looking for work. Some of these children banded together and formed gangs as did the children of immigrants in New York in the early part of the 1900’s. Two of the major gangs of the time were the Bloods and the Crips.( Walker) The influence of crack and easy money it offered changed the mindsets of these children whom saw their parents work long hours at many different jobs and barely have enough money to pay the bills at the end of the month. The children that had experienced and lived the life of a gang member and some that had also sold drugs expressed this in a unique style of hip hop that would later be called gangster rap. This is also became the misconception that all rappers that were from the west coast were all in gangs and all had sold drugs, this for the most part was infact not true which gave rise to a term known as the studio gangster. The studio gangster was one that boasted of false exploits in the studio and on their albums but had never lived or experienced the life they rapped about. The idea of a studio gangster was popularized by a rapper named Eric Wright a.k.a. Eazy E.
Eazy E, along with Dr. Dre/Andre Romelle Young, Ice Cube /O'Shea Jackson, DJ Yella/Antoine Carraby, the Arabian Prince/Mik Lezan, and the D.O.C. /Tracy Lynn Curry formed the group N.W.A/Niggas.With. Attitudes. and came to personify what was presumed to be west coast rap style. These men rapped about what they had experienced growing up in L.A. and the American public, typically those that had not come from similar disenfranchisement and poverty, loved it. One could say that it was a morose curiosity of what was being called gangster rap that made it such a success. Children from middle class to extremely wealthy families living in suburban homes could have a fantasy experience of what it was like to live in the ghettos and sell drugs. In a sense this truly is art in that art is supposed to communicate an experience and give a glimpse into a realm of existence that may be otherworldly for the viewer. The rap songs of NWA would and did show what life was like in LA to those that did not know and assumed that all of LA was Hollywood. With their single, “Straight outta Compton” the world was given a view of that world. (N.W.A.)
The artistic expression of Hip Hop and the style of hip hop was not segmented and regulated only to what was deemed hip hop and rap as defined by East and West coast styles. The Geto Boys helped put the south on the hip hop radar in the early formative days of Hip Hop, paving the way for other artists from the south like Outkast, Master P, and Cash Money records. With the invention of the tape cassette, the Walkman, the CD and the CD player, along with affordable television sets and recording material, the artistic musical expression of Hip Hop reached all edges of the globe just as jazz and Rock and Roll. The key difference between Hip Hop and its predecessors was that the culture of Hip Hop was valued more that the actual product, the actual art its self. Worldwide you had more and more people not only liking and mimicking the rap songs they heard but wanting to be exactly like the rap artists they heard. With Hip Hop, one did not have to learn how to play and instrument, one bought a turn table. With Hip Hop, one brought clothing, that use to be the cheapest clothing that ones parents could afford like khakis and dickies with flannel shirts, to now having those same clothing items being some of the most expensive. Hip Hop in the late 80’s and 90’s was going down a path of commercialization that was a marketing dream but was an artistic nightmare. The last two great, and true artists of Hip Hop were 2pac and Biggie. They rightfully earned legendary status in the Hip Hop world with doing things and achieving status that had never been seen before and would only be imitated after.
Throughout the history of the music that was spawned by the decedents of the diaspora there were innovators and imitators. What made the music truly art was the experiences that that the creators of the music experienced. When those experiences were no longer unique to the creators of the diaspora music makers, those that could admire began to mimic and create for themselves. The natural progression of an art is as unique as the experiences that created said art. Whereas the rhythmic and lyrical pimps of the Bay Area birth the style of Too Short, the stories handed down and sometimes live by Original Gangsters, O.G’s, fathered the harsher and typically more violent style of Hip Hop found in the LA style of NWA and Death Row records. All of the history and all of its aspects needs to be told as to not have the entirety of Hip Hop being as something that spread out from New York to every other place in America and then the world. An artist’s art at base level is a product and expression of self through their medium. Negro spirituals were a product and expression of slaves and slavery as was mento and calypso. Blues, R&B, and Ska expressed a sense of freedom not experienced with slavery and at the same time expressed the stories of oppression and poverty that still remained in the community.
Black art can be defined as art created by someone of African descent, but that definition limits the contributions of artists that are not of African descent that made authentic contributions. If one also maintains this definition then it completely uproots all of latin, indio, and Japanese Jazz as some sort of bastardized imitation of Jazz and not art forms in themselves, every word that Tina Marie sung and every word that Eminem rapped would no longer considered funk or hip hop. Black Art then becomes defined as more than the ethnicity of the artist that performs the art. Black art is the defined as an amalgamation of experiences that are expressed through and art form that is typically associated with people of African descent. Defining Black Art this way, one does not have to actually be “Black” to create and express authentic “Black Art,” one only needs to have gone through similar experiences to that which is typically associated with “Black people” and then one’s “Art” can be considered authentic.
Eminem growing up poor in a predominately poor black neighborhood, with an absentee father and drug abusing mother would be considered a stereotypical archetypical black experience in America.(Eminem) Drake growing up Jewish, in an upper middle class, predominately white neighborhood in Canada then becoming a child actor would be considered a non-stereotypical archetypical black experience.(Drake) Investigating Eminem’s experiences and contrasting that with his artistic expression of Hip Hop one could say that it is in fact authentic because he is rapping about what he himself experienced in his life having had what is considered an authentic voice. It could be said that Eminem is not mimicking or imitating his hip hop style but actually making contributions to hip hop as an authentic white hip hop artist.
If one now defines “Black Art” by a certain set of characteristics that are experiences expressed through an art medium associated with those that are typically of African descent, a new question arises. Can one that is not of African descent make authentic black art? As with Eminem we answer yes. In answering yes to this, a strange question is raised. Can an artists of African descent produce art that conforms to what has been defined as Black Art, but because of their lack of the stereotypical “Black” experience that is associated with said Black Art and Black People, is their art no longer authentic Black Art even though they are Black. In the case of Drake one could argue that even though he is a person of African descent, his experiences were not common or typical to others of African descent or even other Black Artists so by this definition Drake would not be considered authentic. Drake would be considered, in 1990’s rap language, a studio gangster. This would not be entirely accurate however since Drake does not rap in a so-called gangster style and vacillates between singing and rapping on. Drake, like Queen Latifa, L.L. Cool J, and Will Smith is more of an entertainer than artists, instead of going from rapping to acting he did the reverse, which in the hardcore days of the 1990’s gangster rap would have been a big mistake. There are certain cases however like Ice Cube and Ice T that went from hardcore gangster rapping to kid friendly Disney movies and primetime pacified TV dramas.
What is Black? Black is, but also, more than, the experiences associated with skin color or culture that is associated with being Black. What is Art? Art is, but also, more than, a creation or expression of one’s environment and experiences in and of said environment. What is Black Art? Black Art is, but also more than, the artistic expression of the culture that is typically, and sometimes stereotypically, associated with the people of African descent that are called Black. Black Art is a collaboration of time, space, and people that birthed and nurtured this unique expression that over time was not regulated and exclusively produced by the people called Black, this is personified in the music of the descendants of the African Diaspora. Black art is as complex and as simple as saying all that is Art, and the artist, has never been separate from that which is Black Art and that which is the Black Artist.
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