Black music

Posted July 17, 2008 9:09 pm (about 4211 days ago)

My friend Cornelius Harris, whose titles include manager of the Underground Resistance techno record label recently posted some thoughts on mainstream definitions of "Black" music. Plus, some words about the Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities in East St. Louis, IL.

But what does Black *really* sound like?

In the US, June is what's known as "Black Music Month", and many publications, "black" and otherwise, make mention of the African American contributions to the music scene. One such publication, Ebony Magazine, is known as the veteran of black American popular culture. Their cover boasted the line, "What Does "Black" Sound Like?" Inside was a feature that documented Black contributions to genres that they were involved with creating like jazz, blues, reggae, and rock, but also genres that were based in European and white American traditions such as country, opera, and classical music. But nowhere to be found was any mention of techno. So I sent a letter to the editor, Linda Johnson-Rice...and not too surprisingly, there was no response. And as a quick note, Ebony is based in Chicago and incredibly, house music was also not mentioned (major apologies to the ones who taught me how to dance for not including them in the initial letter below!). S
o now I post this letter in my blog, an ongoing challenge to not only Ebony/Jet, but to Vibe, Upscale, and all the other African American owned/edited/marketed publications to acknowledge the work of some...African Americans!

Special Note: URB Magazine based in LA is the ONLY magazine run by an African American that has managed to cover this scene in any depth. Major props to Raymond Roker!

Ms Johnson-Rice,

First off, I have to admit, I'm hurting. But at this point, it
's a more tired kind of hurt. A kind of hurt shared by a significant minority of African American musical artists. And I'm pretty sure it was unintentional, but we're still feeling the pain.

Around the same time hip hop was becoming "Black America's CNN" there were a group of men and women in Detroit who were borrowing from places diverse as Chicago, Berlin, Tokyo, and London to create what became known the world over as "techno music". Like many of the young African Americans who started hip hop, there was a lot of drive, but not a lot of business know-how, forcing them to figure a lot of things out on their own. Circumstances led to this music going overseas to Europe where it took off and eventually made its way back to the US, leaving many to assume that the music originated in Europe. The sound *was* different, reflecting a different aesthetic and mission, but still...there was no questioning its origins ( Top selling electronic music artist Moby has stated "that without Detroit electronic music...I probably wouldn't have had a career." This music has gone on to become a staple in countries as diverse as Japan, Israel, South Africa, and Brazil. Major music publications all across Europe and Asia have no issue praising the work of the black pioneers of techno. And yet here, in our own country, we get little to no acknowledgment from our own community. I *will* say that it's a bit different *within* the music community, where some rap artists have gone overseas to find their shows with low turn out due to a techno performance happening nearby. Artists like Missy Elliot sample Detroit artists, recognizing their role in the sound of "electronica". Dr. Portia Maultsby of the Archives of African American Music at Indiana University hosted a conference in 2006 to bring some of this to light ( and

So maybe you can imagine the excitement someone might have seeing the cover of Ebony asking "What Does Black Sound Like?", and a reference to artists who "redefine the sound of blackness." And maybe you can imagine going through the magazine and seeing country, opera, and classical music represented, but not a single artist representing a music *founded* by Black American youth. And trust me, I'm not just talking about Ebony. Every time Black Music Month comes up, the Detroit electronic community collectively sighs as magazines, radio, television, all cover every genre African Americans participate in *except* techno. Again, I don't think it was intentional at all. But when we talk about the global impact of Black music, particularly when being done by African Americans, it would nice to get a nod.

Thank you for your time,

Cornelius Harris

As someone who loves exploring how cultures share/cross pollinate and the shared roots of so many styles of music, I appreciated the above comments. I remember once while in Detroit hearing an "urban" radio personality (which in laymen's terms means BLACK) defending the fact that he was playing Justin Timberlake and that his job was to promote good music, even if that meant pushing boundaries. That stood out to me because I used to have discussions with various people in the music industry about "Black" music and why they didn't promote salsa or calypso or even dancehall or Bob Marley! Their response was usually that they were a "hip hop and R&B format," ending the conversation as far as they were concerned. It just reiterated the need for more education and control of our media. Justin Timberlake was "pushing boundaries," but playing other forms of Black music is unfathomable? But mainstream African American magazines aren't the only ones who miss the boat. Most Mexicans deny the African presence in our culture and history, despite the fact that one of the most popular songs, La Bamba, can be traced to Africa! There are people who still think Elvis came up with all of his own music and invented those dances!-DZ

On a related note, today my family and I visited the Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities in East St. Louis, IL. First, Dunham was a true renaissance woman, mainly known for her work in anthropology and dance. She choreographed numerous shows and movies, integrating various cultures of the African diaspora. Unlike many of her contemporaries, Dunham was well respected for her work, receiving numerous accolades, including 100 honorary doctorate degrees. As related to the words above, her contributions to furthering and promoting the arts of the African diaspora can't be overstated!

Second, the center is a great place to visit if you have even a  passing interest in dance, music, black folks, or supporting East St. Louis. As some context, East St. Louis as a whole has seen bett
er days and when I lived out here in the early 2000s I always thought the center was closed. The neighborhood is filled with numerous abandoned buildings, which makes it an uninviting environment, but the center is truly a diamond in the rough and I'm glad it exists as a resource in the community. The museum itself includes a Haitian exhibit, a music room, and Dunham's office, filled with various awards. The guide was great and there were children in the back taking classes, giving the place a welcoming feel. For those interested in marketing and promotion, the website was a final selling point to visit, after postponing over the years. It looks good! If you're in the area make sure to stop by for a visit!

On an unrelated note, we also visited the Cahokia Mounds museum and grabbed a bite to eat in Fairmont City, a majority Mexican town in a region that's predominately Black and White. I've had mixed feelings about southern Illinois, but visits like these always me feeling good about the area.


1. The Galley said at December 18, 2008 9:55 pm:

Just stumbled upon this site and bookmarked it. Never knew the roots of Techno was in Detroit! You live and you learn, you live and you learn. I was into Techno but haven't really listened to it in a long time. This post has rekindled my interest. Very informative post.

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