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Black Music as a Bridge

todayMay 14, 2024

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Diverse styles of music by Black artists entering the mainstream have brought both great hits and important visibility to the Black diaspora and its equally diverse cultures.

Since the early 2010s, Black genres outside of hip-hop & rap have been moving into the mainstream in a big way. 2014 had people chanting Youroba in clubs thanks to Nigerian artist WizKid’s hit song ‘Ojuelegba.’ North American artists like Drake dipped their toes in dancehall-inspired beats and intonations. And later in the decade, US rappers like Playboi Carti experimented with moody aesthetics and sounds.

Musical crossovers, fusions, and the emergence of new styles were by no means started in the decade, in fact even before hip-hop emerged in the early 70s Black people have long been pioneers and founders across rock n’ roll, country, folk, and more. It has become even more common to see Black artists divert from the typical expectations and stereotypes associated with hip-hop and rap in a way that has shifted and shaped public discourse on Black culture. Black people are often marginalized and boxed in, but music is a place where Blackness has always been allowed to exist limitlessly. 

Beyonce is currently on a run with her Renaissance Trilogy, a collection of albums reclaim traditionally Black genres in a reimagined sense. First, she gave us Renaissance, an album with house-inspired production, arrangements, and futuristic, western meshed visuals. Outside of the unmistakable chrome, metallic, and shimmery imagery, including a disco glass-covered cowboy hat which has become synonymous with Beyoncé’s image in this era, sonically, the music shines a light on the Chicago club culture that birthed the genre. Beyoncé’s latest release, “Cowboy Carter,” similarly draws from Black history in country music, Black Southern tradition, and iconography and brings new life to the genre and Beyonce’s sound as an artist. The third installment in the collection is yet to drop. Her boldness in putting out a project like this proves her prowess as an artist and commitment to using her talents to tell the stories of forgotten parts of Black history. 

Last year, SZA put out her highly anticipated second album, “SOS,” where she entangled R&B, rap, pop, pop-punk, and even country into one cohesive project paired perfectly with her signature earthy, ethereal aura. Despite the diversity of sound in this genre, “SOS” was nominated for and won Best Urban Album at the 2023 Grammy Awards. There’s, of course, nothing wrong with this well-deserved win, but it shows a tendency for Black artists to be lumped into the “urban” category for the simple fact of being Black. White institutions label Black-made music urban not in celebration of their Black identities but out of ignorance of them. Tyler, the Creator, criticized the Academy for placing his experimental 2019 album Igor in the rap category despite winning the award for best rap album that year.

“It sucks that whenever we — and I mean guys that look like me — do anything that’s genre-bending or that’s anything they always put it in a rap or urban category. I don’t like that ‘urban’ word — it’s just a politically correct way to say the n-word to me,” he said.

Whether Black artists perform in or outside of hip-hop, rap, and R&B, they deserve recognition for their contributions across genres, especially those they have created and pioneered. Acts of the 2010s helped remind the public just how dynamic and multifaceted Black music could be outside of the traditional mainstream monolith. We saw many Black artists outside of hip-hop and rap aesthetics skyrocket to popularity and live at the top of the charts. As mentioned earlier, the Afrobeat genre started to pick up in the 2010s with artists like Wizkid, Akon, and P-Square. Americans were exposed to these global artists and in turn many of the dialects and traditions from their home countries through the music. Africa is often erased and is hardly recognized for its 54 countries with vastly different customs, so the music coming straight from the region served as a bridge displaying all of the rich cultures in Africa.

From the West, Anderson Paak blended funk and soul; Frank Ocean gave us introspective, bedroom R&B, and from The Weekend, a fusion of hip-hop and electro-pop sounds. Each of these artists provided unique perspectives and dimensions of the Black experience, and drawing from these different genres reflects a willingness to challenge who is “allowed” to participate in a genre by infusing new life and cultural background into it. Finding a place in mainstream music, while not a determinant of talent or worth as an artist, allows Blackness to be presented as the diaspora that it truly is.  From afrobeats, to country, to folk, to dancehall, and beyond, music often can teach listeners more about a person, or group of people, and what they value more than words alone.

With a monolithic idea of Black music also comes a monolithic lens of Black people, which is why the ever-changing face of Black music and the sound-bending many Black artists take part in is so vital to correcting and clarifying the image of Black people as a diverse body.  Popular culture and media are the only way many people around the world experience Black American, African, Afro-Latin, and Caribbean cultures. Music is a powerful tool because of its ability to communicate an artist’s intrinsic thoughts and personal experiences and tap into the most universal of emotions, traditions, and shared lifestyles. The world sees the Black experience via its diverse cultures and lifestyles. And this is not just for other races and ethnicities, but even within the Black Diaspora, there can be a lack of understanding and awareness between the various cultures.

Finding common links and inspirations can be a bonding point that can neutralize quarrels by realizing there is something we all share. Music provides a unique opportunity to connect and experience different cultures across borders, but it can also contribute to misrepresentations and false assumptions. While twerking and trapping are valid perspectives of what the Black interior life can look like for some, when only music that touches these subjects reaches the mainstream, the full depth and range of what being Black in America looks like can be lost and skewed. In the same way, misrepresentations of Africa as desolate, poor, and without civilization are incorrect and fail to tell the story of the thousands of vibrant cultures across the continent. 

It’s not just twerking and trapping, huts and wild cats, cowboy boots and American flags, or Sunday hymns. It’s colorful histories, family lineages, and countless souls with, if nothing else, their humanity in common.


Written by: Kiera Sona

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