Why 'black music' isn't a racist term

January 5, 2019

 Black Music. Two words that are packed with meaning, ripe for discussion or argumentation. What do we mean when we say ‘Black Music’? 


To some it is an unhelpful label. When one refers to Western European music, there is a common understanding of what we are talking about. There is a written and notated history which can be traced back over at least a millennia and a half. When one refers to traditional Chinese music, there is an understanding of what is meant. However, the history of slavery and conquered lands has affected the narrative of black people and made it a more complex journey to trace musical lineage and heritage across continents. My intention with these blogs and my social media output is to highlight the broad scope of music across what Paul Gilroy[1]  calls, the Black Atlantic. 


“it always seemed to me that the people who invented the hierarchy of “race” ought not to be the ones to explain it away, now that it does not suit their purposes for it to exist’.


People ask why black? Why make it about race? Isn’t it just music? Yet there was a time when it was convenient for those with the marketing power to overtly label some music as black music. Toni Morrison [2] argues, “it always seemed to me that the people who invented the hierarchy of “race” ought not to be the ones to explain it away, now that it does not suit their purposes for it to exist’. One very obvious example is the history of the term ‘Race Music’ which was a term used in the USA to describe music specifically marketed to African Americans during the 1920s to 1940s, this included jazz, blues, gospel and other styles. This culminated in the Race Record chart from 1945 – 1949. The name was changed to Rhythm & Blues at the suggestion of Jerry Wexler [3] because it was a label, “more appropriate to enlightened times”. If you know anything about the history of this music, you will know of the incalculable debt that rock and roll (and consequently, rock music) owes to it.


Black music is not black music simply because a black person plays it. Europeans play black music and black people play European music. It is black music because it has originated in black culture and it’s been accepted and practiced in black culture as a mode of musical expression. It’s also important to note that it isn’t just one style of music, the diaspora is eclectic in its expression.


How does one describe the music of a people who were displaced by the transatlantic slave trade and dispersed by migration? The historical roots are in Africa but the people and their music are spread all over the diaspora.


Black music is the term I will use.


From Reggae to Hip-hop so many styles have their roots in the Black Atlantic. Influenced by and in conversation with other cultures, it encounters but never loses its own DNA. Black music has taken different routes around the Atlantic. The story is rich and diverse and one that needs to be told. 




[1] Gilroy, Paul, 1956-. The Black Atlantic : Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge, Mass, :Harvard University Press, 1993.


[2] Toni Morrison, ‘Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature (1989)’, in Within the Circle, ed. Angelyn Mitchell (Duke University Press, 2012), 368–98, https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822399889-029.


[3] Wexler, Jerry; Ritz, David (1993). Rhythm and the Blues: A Life in American Music. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 


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About Black Music History

Matthew Williams MA, PGCE, LLB is a PhD research student at the University of Bristol. He began this initiative in February 2017 in order to aid his studies. It has since blossomed with an online following on Instagram of over 15,000 followers. He continues to document on social media when he is not studying or working.


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