The effects of white musicians profiting off African-American culture 

Vir Sinha

Staff Editor

     When you think of jazz music, what’s the first image that comes to mind? Most people might think of Frank Sinatra, or the roaring 20’s, or the boring cafe music that they hear at their local coffee shop. However, history glosses over the true origin of jazz — the musicians who actually developed the sound into the cultural centerpiece it eventually became — and the lengths white artists took to claim that sound as their own. 

     The beginnings of jazz came towards the end of the 19th century, but it only started gaining traction in America in the 1910s, mainly due to its, as Christian Blauvelt puts it in his article regarding the origins of jazz,  “association with the brothels where it was initially played… [specifically] the Storyville red light district” in New Orleans. It was an integral part of African American culture, and it slowly started spreading to similar poorer red light districts in major cities such as New York and Chicago. 

     As jazz started to grow in popularity, major publications began to trash jazz culture (and thus African American culture), such as a notorious essay written by Professor William Patterson titled, “Why ‘Jazz’ Sends Us Back to the Jungle.” This coverage tainted the image of the jazz scene that came out of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, despite its prominence in white clubs and bars at the same time. 

      But this trend didn’t end with jazz music. Elvis Presely is widely considered “The King of Rock N’ Roll,” despite Chuck Berry being the one to truly develop that sound. Even in a more modern context, despite hip hop being a product of African American culture, the highest grossing rapper of all time is still a white man: Eminem. Although our society is now more aware of overt racism, a lot of the structural racism that has been embedded into our government and industries still goes over our heads. The music industry is no different: there is a reason rap was frowned upon before Eminem took center stage, just like how artists like Louis Armstrong were frowned upon while Frank Sinatra experienced extreme success. 

     The difference between recent times and the jazz era is that artists like Jimi Hendrix and Chuck Berry, and rappers like Kendrick Lamar and Nas get equal if not greater recognition than their white contemporaries within music communities. In fact, according to Chris Jancelwicz, many white artists during the Rock era, such as Eric Clapton and The Beatles, even “attempted to get their Black counterparts more (or in some cases, any) recognition”. Despite their efforts, it was common practice for record labels to pay African American musicians to write songs for a small sum of money, then giving the song to a white artist and allowing them to bring their “original” hit to the public. 

     It is evident, then, why this cycle of exploitation has been detrimental for African American culture. Products of geniuses have been manipulated to fit broader audiences, allowing white artists and record labels to profit off the real creators of that music. 

     When we look at the music industry today, it’s not uncommon to hear jazz rhythms, or rock chords, and hip hop is still a prominent genre in pop culture. As consumers of this art form, it is important that we recognize contributions that African American artists have made throughout the course of American music history. From the innovative rock scales of Jimi Hendrix, to the warm sound of Louis Armstrong; even the “shady” sound that came out of the New Orleans redlight districts, African American musicians have played a significant role in the development of the American sound. 

African American artists, despite their contributions to the jazz scene, have often been in the background while white artists have taken center stage, getting the spotlight all to themselves.

Picture Credit: BM, The Michigan Daily

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