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Black American Music Genres and Musicians

Posted on February 05 2023

Black American Music Genres and Musicians


Dear Educator,

Humans like music. In fact, scientists suspect we have been making music for at least 40,000 years or so, if not longer. Some of the earliest bone pipes date to between 39,000 and 43,000 years ago. But early human ancestors, such as Neanderthals, appear to have had the anatomy to sing. And there is evidence that about 12,000 years ago, humans hit rock structures in caves that made sounds like gongs. Perhaps they were creating a rhythm. Certainly, modern humans love music, and it is a big, money-making industry. The history of modern music is bursting with important contributions by African Americans—so much so, that entire music genres are associated with Black America, such as the blues, jazz, and hip-hip or rap. This week we are taking a look at some pioneers in these genres, as well as the Harlem Renaissance, which featured musicians, artists, and writers, all creating in New York City during the 1920s-1930s.
Much of the history of Black music is from the South, especially along the Mississippi Delta. The U.S. National Park Service describes the delta as “the cradle of American music,” given that jazz, Cajun music, and the blues all come from there. The map that accompanies this GNN article shows some of the important sites along the delta that showcase the blues. Few musicians have had more influence on American blues than guitarist Robert Johnson. Johnson only recorded 29 songs, 8 decades ago, but his legacy is incomparable.

The importance of New York’s Harlem district as a center for African American creativity is indisputable. Long before the civil rights movement, Black artists, musicians, and writers gathered there after the Great Migration. Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong were among the jazz greats that played at the famed Cotton Club. Students can both read this GNN article and watch the video to learn more about this period of artistic triumph for Black Americans.


The importance of jazz music was evident in Harlem, and it has remained a popular musical genre for connoisseurs of great musicianship. Miles Davis, a jazz trumpeter, is still known today as one of the greatest innovators in jazz. This biography of Davis will help students learn more about this talented performer.


The blues and jazz are not the only musical genres that African Americans developed and popularized in the U.S. Hip-hop, or rap music, grew out of the 1970s and 1980s and is still going strong. The earliest rap was produced on the East Coast, predominantly in New York City. Eventually, rap moved to the West Coast, particularly in the Los Angeles-area city of Compton. Today, rap continues to have new stars, styles, and flow. There is no doubt that Black Americans have made a massive cultural contribution through music.


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