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BLACK MUSIC IS AMERICAN MUSIC: A JUNE JUBILEE

A message from our dear friend, a key player in the National Museum of African American Music, a radio legend and “The Mother of Black Music Month.”

Black music is America’s preeminent indigenous art form and one of our greatest cultural and economic exports. Musicians of all hues cite the work of African American creators as the wellspring that nur­tures their own inspiration. Hip-hop, the best-selling music in the world, is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

It’s time to recognize the potency and pervasive influence of Black music.

Black Music Month is an opportunity to celebrate the majesty and diversity of our homegrown cultural treasures and exalt those who’ve contributed to the cre­ation, marketing and consumption of Black music.

Celebrated each June and now in its 43rd year, Black Music Month was established by Black Music Associa­tion founder, multiple Grammy-winning songwriter/pro­ducer and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Kenny Gamble, broadcaster/National Association of Radio and Televi­sion Artists President Ed Wright and me.

With considerable pride, we acknowledge the con­tributions of past and present creatives, label executives, radio and television professionals, music educators, ven­ues, social-media platforms, media outlets, advertising agencies and, of course, the all-important consumer.

We must never forget that Black music, a universal language “spoken” by millions, was birthed in America. Before Aretha, Miles, Nina, Duke, Whitney, Boyz II Men, Tupac, Drake and Beyoncé, the U.S. had one of its first international superstars in composer, violinist and bugler Francis Johnson, aka Frank Johnson.

Born in 1792 in Philadelphia, Johnson was the first African American to perform major public concerts for integrated audiences in Philly and beyond. In 1838, he and an ensemble traveled to England, where they performed for Queen Victoria (who presented Johnson with a silver bugle). Despite the vitriol Black people faced at the time (and still face), his artistry prevailed. Johnson helped establish the template for the Black brilliance to follow.

Indeed, since Africans were first brought via the transatlantic slave trade to the shores of what is now America, Black music has been part of its fabric, though this historical narrative has not been properly recognized.

In 1871 Nashville’s historically Black Fisk Uni­versity—which had opened its doors just five years earlier—was confronted by bankruptcy and potential closure. Its white treasurer and music director, George Leonard White, assembled a nine-member student chorus and sent it on tour to help raise money for the struggling college.

The Fisk Jubilee Singers were the children of formerly enslaved people. Their repertoire consisted of slave songs and spirituals that had been sung by their forebears, and their shows were a marked and authentic contrast to the familiar Black minstrel performances of the day, in which white musicians performed in black­face. Radiating dignity, The Fisk Jubilee Singers sang harmoniously evocative songs, many of which had resounded throughout the cotton fields. Their performances, which became extremely popular with white audiences, raised $40,000 for their financially strapped school.

Despite the discriminatory forces Black folks were obliged to endure after Emancipation, particularly the Jim Crow legacy of the 1896 Supreme Court decision Plessy vs. Ferguson, which enshrined the segregationist doctrine of “separate but equal” (legally preventing African Americans from staying in “whites-only” hotels or dining in “restricted” restaurants), the Fisk Jubilee Singers were hugely successful in their mission; the group went on to perform for President Ulysses S. Grant at the White House and later toured Europe as well as England. Over the years, the vocal trailblazers raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and helped stabilize the university’s finances, keeping its doors open. In fact, their fame far outstrips that of the institution from which they sprang. The Fisk Jubi­lee Singers recently celebrated their centennial.

Frank Johnson and the Fisk Jubilee Singers, among countless other artists—most of whose names we’ll likely never know—enriched America’s cultural identity and spread its cachet worldwide. The success of early American record labels and related entities can be traced directly to the work of Black American composers, musicians and other entertainers.

From what we see now at the top of the charts, on sold-out tours and in millions of social-media feeds, Black artists working in not only rap, R&B and jazz but country, pop and other genres are tow­ering contributors on a global scale.

Let us celebrate Black music as America’s lead­ing indigenous mode of artistic expression during June and every month of the year. A good place to start: The National Museum of African American Music in Nashville at 5th & Broadway, a sacred place to explore, learn and be proud that Black music is American music, uniquely our own.

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