Black Music Is American Music

This past weekend was like one giant “ah-ha” moment for me. The big revelation was that just like Black history is American history, Black music IS American music. There is no segregating the two. I know that this is not news to Black Americans. And that, like me, most white Americans understand that Black artists have had a huge impact on our popular culture, particularly when it comes to music. Yet I came away from the weekend feeling as though I had been living under a rock. 

Why didn’t I know that the music I drive, cook, exercise, shower, sing and dance to has its roots in America’s original sin?

Like some of you, I’ve been watching The 1619 Project, streaming on Hulu. This important and thought-provoking documentary is based on the New York Times Magazine Pulitzer Prize winning series, created by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. The 1619 Project, in all its evolutions (essays in the NYT Magazine, a podcast, book, and now docu-series), centers the legacy of slavery in the telling of American history. Saturday night I viewed the third episode, which examines the history of American music. The music episode is derived from NYT writer and critic Wesley Morris’s essay in the magazine version of the project ( Why Is Everyone Always Stealing Black Music? – The New York Times ( ).

The next night happened to be “music’s biggest night,” The Grammy Awards. 

If I began to understand the connection between slavery and Black music on Saturday night, Sunday it was laid out before me in all its glory, joy, beauty, complexity, and history. Wesley Morris’s words kept coming back to me as I watched performances of both artists who are Black and not Black: “There are centuries in that music”. It didn’t take much effort to hear the voices of the enslaved ancestors as they toiled in the fields or recovered after a long day of providing grueling, free labor to those who held them in bondage.

In the documentary version of The 1619 Project, Hannah-Jones sits with Mr. Morris for much of the episode. They take us from the sorrow, faith, and beauty of field songs and spirituals of the enslaved to the repulsion of blackface and minstrels. They discuss Blues, Jazz, Funk, Disco, R&B, and Hip Hop. It’s hard to fathom what American music would be without Black artists and their ancestors. I can not do the documentary justice by attempting to summarize it, but I’ll share just a few things I learned by watching it.

When you watch The 1619 Project: Music, you will hear that word, “freedom”, throughout the hour-long episode: The relative freedom experienced by the enslaved to create music and to sing in the fields; freedom in the riffs of jazz, funk, and rock and in the words, rhythms, and rhymes of rap; freedom of self-definition, to show the world who they are on their own terms, through their art; freedom to party and to protest using instruments, voice, and movement. 

As the show nears its end, Mr. Morris says something that played over and over in my head as I watched the Grammys: 

“The sound of Black music is the sound of freedom. Black music is uncatchable.”

About NAFC

Newtown Allies For Change is a grassroots advocacy organization run by volunteers to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in Newtown. We are an unfunded organization and our mission is to center Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) in Newtown.