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DYANA WILLIAMS, EBONY MOONBEAMS AND THE BIRTH OF BLACK MUSIC MONTH

As the ’70s wore on and the politicized, authority-challenging strain of R&B gave way to the opiated debauchery of the disco days, black music scarcely lost its ambition—indeed, the symphonic, syncopated grooves confected during that time reached new heights of sonic sophistication. What declined, for some years, was the message.

Yet it was at the height of the disco era that a push began to commemorate the musical contributions of black creators by officially designating a Black Music Month. Esteemed producer/songwriter Kenny Gamble—an architect of Philadelphia soul—was a primary exponent of the idea.

Gamble, after visiting Nashville and observing how much the city supported and organized itself around music, led the launch of a new organization, the Black Music Association (BMA), which he founded and helmed; the membership consisted of label people, managers, retailers, DJs and others.

Nixon had declared October Country Music Month in 1972; the organizers of the BMA believed that designating a month honoring black music would pay huge dividends—as the music itself had been doing for decades.

He was joined in this endeavor by his then-wife, the trailblazing journalist, activist and pioneering radio personality Dyana Williams, known to her radio listeners as Ebony Moonbeams. Williams, whose warm radio presence has been felt on WBLS, WDAS, WRQX and other influential outlets—and who has worked with BET, VH1 and more besides—was active in the powerful Philadelphia chapter of the BMA.


The time had come, Williams recalls, “to celebrate the majesty of all genres created by black people and also the monetary power and dominance of black music.” She and her cohorts made their case to the White House; on 6/7/79, President Jimmy Carter decreed that June would be Black Music Month, a declaration accompanied by a picnic on the South Lawn.

“I come from the Bronx and Harlem,” Williams recalls. “And though I came from a family where learning and knowledge were stressed, I didn’t know anything about lobbying. But guess what? I made that shit happen.”

More than a decade later, during the Clinton presidency, Williams and company checked in with the White House again—only to learn that Carter had never signed an official Proclamation to institute the month. A meeting with President Clinton and more discussion ensued, and then a follow-up meeting that also included The Isley Brothers (per Isleys fan Clinton’s request); an act of Congress was recommended.

The advocates, who’d been celebrating every June in the interim, got to work. Williams penned an editorial in Billboard. She canvased much of Capitol Hill to muster support.

Then, despite having had no training in politics, she drafted what eventually became the legislation solemnizing Black Music Month, with a proper proclamation at last signed by Clinton in 2000.

Williams, with the passion and determination that was positively evangelical, was the primary engine behind the victory, and has become known as “The Mother of Black Music Month.”

“I come from the Bronx and Harlem,” she recalls. “And though I came from a family where learning and knowledge were stressed, I didn’t know anything about lobbying. But guess what? I made that shit happen.”

Williams has been all over the airwaves in the tumultuous decades since that first White House picnic. She’s still on the radio, hosting “Soulful Sunday” on Philly’s WRNB-FM. She’s a respected celebrity media coach, helping (among others) execs, actors, directors and music artists—including many hip-hop acts getting their first mass exposure—prepare for the spotlight via her Influence Entertainment. She’s still an activist, and as “The Ambassador of African-American Music,” she’s a board member of the National Museum of African-American Music, due to open in Nashville in 2020.

 

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