Black Music and Social Change in America

Black music's effect and change on America's racial inequality

  At the onset of American slavery, blacks were considered subhuman by many white slave owners. This belief and mindset led to a lack of conscience in how blacks were treated. Rapes and murders were common throughout the centuries as blacks were viewed as property and relegated to the status of animals.  In keeping with this thinking was the natural belief that blacks were much less intelligent than whites and inferior to them in every way.  Even if a black man could be taught to read, they reasoned, his comprehension level would be much lower than that of a white person. Even after the Emancipation Proclamation ended American slavery, this belief of black inferiority carried over into  the  20th century and permeated the first half of the century.  However, as Martin Luther King, Jr stated, a lie cannot live forever. Eventually more and more whites began to view blacks as equals and grew sympathetic to their plight, especially the plight of those in the American South, where racism was prominent and aggressively defended. This change of thinking coincided with the introduction of black music to the white majority and its impact can not be understated.

  Elvis Presley, a strikingly handsome and emotive white singer, was the deliverer. In 1956 when he appeared on television singing many songs that were originally performed by blacks, he sparked an interest in black music that had heretofore been untapped. Many looked beyond his dynamic sound to the original recordings which had inspired Presley and found that they too were enraptured by the black sound, or as Sam Phillips ( owner of Sun Records in Memphis and discoverer of Elvis )  put it, " the black feel for music."   From this point on, blacks like Little Richard, Fats Domino, and Sam Cooke became household names and inspired legions of followers, both black and white.

As whites were falling in love with black music, the Southern blacks were beginning to demand justice and equal treatment under the leadership of a young black Baptist minister named Martin Luther King, Jr.   The racist  mentality of the South dominated local  government in most cities and white law enforcement officers were routinely accused of atrocities that went unpunished. Yet, slowly, this way of thinking was losing its grip on White America.  As whites saw the televised  brutality of Alabama law enforcement many began to acknowledge that it was wrong, that it was evil. And, in the background, a chorus of beautiful black voices were not only enchanting whites, they were doing something that would effect American society - they  were humanizing blacks.

The black performer was initially an enigma to the white market. White recording studios in the late 40s and early 50s did not know how to sell black acts to white audiences so they focused on selling black records to the black community. When Nat King Cole, the first black male superstar, began to have hit after hit, his record company seemed to understand that his appeal was mainstream and too large to be contained solely to the black community. Whites bought his records consistently and he put hit after hit high on the charts for over 2o years. His songs were overly romantic things of beauty,  delivered in a whisper-like voice filled with emotion. But the key  is that the lyrics and emotional delivery touched people of all races and gave a sense of unity. Listening to Nat King Cole, whites had a sense that this man, this black man, was just like them - human, vulnerable,  full of life's heartaches and joys.  This sense of unity would in turn be transferred to other blacks.

Sam Cooke seemed to have had a similar quality. Once he started having hits he seemed unstoppable and his appeal was across the board. But, as time passed, Sam Cooke developed a desire to incorporate social injustice into his music. His most vibrant social song, " A Change Is Gonna Come",  is a timeless message of injustice and a brother's indifference to another's pain - an appropriate analogy between the black and white man of his day.  Nonetheless, like Nat King Cole's music, Sam Cooke's music unified rather than divided. That feeling of sameness, that we are all alike deep down inside, resonated strongly through Cooke's music as many, regardless of race, could relate to his songs.

This same concept, a feeling that whites and blacks were akin emotionally, seemed to spread across America with the advent of Elvis Presley.  The black music he covered appealed to the white market and exemplified the importance of black music on American culture.  Many white teenagers sought out records by  Big Mama Thorton ( Hound Dog ) the fanatical Little Richard ( Tutti Frutti ) in addition to Elvis' renditions of the song. Being from the South and an admitted lover of black music, Elvis impact on the thinking of the day was truly underrated by his peers. He opened the minds of Southern whites to black music and the very appreciation of the music itself relegated the black status to far above its previous state.

 And yet, despite the contributions of the aforementioned performers,  Social Change in America for the blacks, in terms of racial inequality, really leapt forward with the rise in popularity of a Detroit record label called Motown. It's most prominent hits were whimsical love songs and its most frequent hitmakers of the time were the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder. Again, whites who bought their records could relate to what was being said and, much more deeper than that, they were touched emotionally by the music.


 In the end, what the black music of the 50s and 60s did was to help change a way of thinking that was prevalent in America.  In 1950 many white law enforcement officers openly admitted to peers that they were members of the KKK. Within 20 years, by 1970, KKK membership was considered a shame by many. The music humanized blacks as it touched whites emotionally and socially. Along with this, it gave a conscience to many who had previously lived with stereotypes and false assumptions concerning blacks.  It's beauty and urgency was a potent backdrop to the Civil Rights Movement of the time.  Although MLK's speeches were eloquent and thought provoking, it could not have hurt to have had  a chorus of angelic voices making music for a society that had at one time denied  they were fully human.