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African American Musical Styles and Its Influence on the American Culture


Discussing the African influence on American music in its glory and variety is an interesting, if not educative, task. The African American music influence has become so central to American music that none would exist without them. The African people are the earliest non-indigenous inhibitors of what would become the United States. The rich musical heritage they took with them formed part of the foundation that built the new culture of American and European music. The African dances, work songs, religious music, and syncopated, rapped, and rocked music would become the lingua franca of American music, ultimately manipulating all American ethnic and racial backgrounds. This paper seeks to discuss how the African American musical styles influenced American society’s social and cultural developments.

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Impacts of Rhythm & Blues on the Development of Popular Music in the 1950s and 1960s

Rhythm and Blues have grown in style and sound over time to be among the supreme influential musical types in African American culture. R&B, sometimes known as jump blues, emerged in the late 1940s and quickly established itself as the dominant black popular music during and after Second World War (Coady 97). Its musicians frequently sang about love, relationships, life difficulties, segregation, and race issues (Kirk-Duggan n.p.). R&B helped to encapsulate and legitimize what was special about black American culture as something distinct and worthwhile.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Rhythm and blues bands typically consisted of drums, piano, guitars, saxophone, and bass, with occasional background vocalists. When gospel music, jazz, and the blues were combined, Coady (98) claims that a highly specialized kind of melody and rhythm emerged, which has become considered one of the best types of American music. Rhythm and blues evolved from jazz, which fused African black folk music with European folk and pop music to communicate the singer’s feelings and experiences through syncopated beats and vibrant chordal combinations.

Rock and roll, which was initially a neutral term for sex, was almost identical to R&B in the early 1950s. By the mid-1950s, as more white youths began to shift to rhythm and blues, the word rock and roll had expanded to include white singers like Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, whose music had elements of R&B genres that targeted the white audience (Weiler n.p.). Even when the word was largely ascribed to white artists, African artists remained vital to the evolution of rock and roll.

Chuck Berry embodied the teenage subjects, image, rebellious sound, and hostile guitar-playing of initial rock and roll. His country-influenced, bluesy melodies were extremely popular with white audiences. His 1958 hit “Sweet Little Sixteen” quickly became a rock staple Turner (Turner 145). Junior Parker, who recorded “Mystery Train” (1953), “Next Time You See Me” (1957), and “Sweet Home Chicago” (1958), was another rhythm-and-blues performer who influenced the birth of rock & roll in 1958.

As the 1960s progressed into the 1970s, a fundamental shift in African-American identity accompanied the musical and political shifts in Soul music (Solis 234). In the mid-1960s, while Motown performers were groomed for mass consumption by white audiences, Soul artists began to adopt a style that was far more in tune with their African roots. These changes coincided with musical shifts in which melody was pushed to the background in favor of rhythm and blues, as it was in many traditional African musical styles.

Consequently, in the late 1960s, James Brown’s band popularized the “funk rhythm” and modern street funk. Traditional rhythm and blues stressed the backbeat, whereas the funk beat was a severely syncopated, aggressive rhythm that put a strong pulse on the opening note of the musical measure. Brown and others, like Sly and the Family Stone, began to use funk rhythms as a framework for their music, while their lyrics took on strong social commentary topics (Steinitz 102). Moving to the early 1970s, funk, with its driving beats that were accompanied by thoughtful and melodic arrangements, became a musical standard for band and soul singers. Bands sang the praises of funk as a way of self-development and personal liberation. Isaac Hayes and Curtis adopted the funk approach in their recordings as rhythm and blues musicians in 1971 and 1972, respectively (Hoffmann n.p.). Additionally, the disco music of Donna Summer and Kool directly relied on funk’s version of rhythm and blues in the 1970s.

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Even though the white business executives coined the term rhythm and blues to represent a variety of musical forms, it endures expressing the rudimentary elements of black popular music. Some of the musicians like Living Color and Prince Lenny Kravitz were inspired by the 1980s and1990s songs of James Brown, Little Richard, and Jimi Hendrix, while on the other hand, a group of musicians such as Boyz II Men modernized the close-harmony vocal collective sound of the 1940s and 1950s. The African-American popular music, such as rock, funk, soul, and pop-gospel ballads, tenaciously borrowed and combined gospel, jazz, and blues genres, establishing R&B as the mutual ground of contemporary African-American popular music.

Work Cited

Coady, Christopher. “New Orleans rhythm and blues, African American Tourism, and the Selling of a progressive South.” American Music 37.1 (2019): 95-112.

Kirk-Duggan, Cheryl. “Sacred and Secular in African American Music.” The Oxford Handbook of Religion and the Arts (2018).

Solis, Gabriel. “Soul, Afrofuturism & the Timeliness of Contemporary Jazz Fusions.” Daedalus 148.2 (2019): 23-35.

Steinitz, Matti. “Calling out around the world”: How soul music trans-nationalized the African American freedom struggle in the black power era (1965–1975).” Sonic Politics. Routledge, 2019. 88-106.

Turner, Richard Brent. “4. Hard Bop, Free Jazz, and Islam: Black Liberation and Global Religious and Musical Consciousness in the Late 1950s and 1960s.” Soundtrack to a Movement. New York University Press, 2021. 125-198.

Weiler, Emily. “The Roots and Impact of African American Blues Music.” (2017).

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Hoffmann, Frank. Chronology of American Popular Music, 1900-2000. Routledge, 2016.

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