by Pamela D. Reed, Ph.D.
It’s June and Black Music Month (BMM) is here again, now in its 34th year. I know that, for some, with all that’s going on in the world, it’s hard to give this special month even a passing thought. Granted, the country is at war—and has been for over a decade now—and over 27 percent of African Americans are living below the poverty line.
Dyana Williams, known far and wide as the “Mother of Black Music Month,” insists that now, more than ever, BMM should not go unnoticed, particularly in Black America.
According to the broadcasting legend, these tough economic times are really having a huge impact on a lot of hard-working people in the music business…and not just the highly visible stars.
Williams is very passionate about this, adding that “There is a whole cadre of people who work behind the scenes who are also being affected. Black Music divisions are being eliminated at the labels. Budgets are being slashed…in this era of illegal file-sharing, jobs are being lost. Now, more than ever, we need to recognize, celebrate and resuscitate this vital cultural vessel.”
Williams also takes on the notion that Black History Month is enough. We sing and celebrate Black music in February, some say, so why do we need another month?
“Black Music Month is different. We’re celebrating the artistry, the artists, the industry itself, the manufacturing, the people who make the trains run on time, so to speak. We’re talking sound engineers, producers, executives, agents, musicians, dancers, stylists, and a host of other support people…We need to support the artists and celebrate the legacy of these creative people who provide the soundtrack for our lives.”
Then there’s the fact that Black Music is arguably the progenitor of all American music, bar none.
As songwriter, music anthologist, and Harlem Renaissance luminary James Weldon Johnson stated, “It is from the blues that all that may be called American music derives its most distinctive characteristics.”
Keith Richards, legendary guitarist of the Rolling Stones agrees. “If you don’t know the blues… there’s no point in picking up the guitar and playing rock and roll or any other form of popular music.”
What’s more, music is often the salve that soothes us during trying times, like the current Great Recession/Depression. Poet Maya Angelou has called music a “refuge.” “I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness,” says the literary icon.
“Music gives us strength and power. There is a healing power in music,” says Williams.
Along the same lines, Bob Marley observed, “One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain.”
Music is also a reflection of the people who make and consume it. “What we play is life,” said the great jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong.
But truth be told, many people, this writer included, are deeply disturbed by the life reflected in much of today’s Black Music that fills our airwaves. Of course, the images perpetuated in the music are not representative of the totality of Black America, but it is accepted as such.
And therein lies the problem. BMM, I submit, can be a vital part of the solution.
So does underground Hip Hop artist NIZM, who thinks Black Music Month important “because [his] generation and others need to remember when music was a true communiqué of the culture and pulse of Black America and the Diaspora, not the commercial foolishness that is today…The problem with Black music of today is there is often no relevance. Its hard for the kids of today to imagine the social power of music, outside of branding opportunities for companies.”
We must find a way to change this.
This should be an annual focus of Black Music Month, where we set goals and benchmarks…where we identify problems. And celebrate progress.
At one time, beginning with Jimmy Carter in 1979, the annual Black Music Month reception in the White House was a way of spotlighting the observance and, at the same time, celebrating and acknowledging America’s seminal music.
That was, of course, before the election of America’s first Black POTUS, President Barack Hussein Obama, whose administration has, to date, chosen not to honor this hard-won tradition.
But still, we press on, refusing to cease recognizing our power.
The resurgent, celebrated soul singer D’Angelo understands this power better than most, if his words in GQ are any indication. “This is a very powerful medium that we are involved in…The stage is our pulpit, and you can use all of that energy and that music and the lights and the colors and the sound. But you know, you’ve got to be careful.”
Careful indeed, in this dance called life.
“Any form of art is a form of power,” said acting giant Ossie Davis. “It has impact, it can affect change—it can not only move us, it makes us move.”
And move we must, in order to once again harness this power…and once again make Black music a force for good. Williams is optimistic that the “pendulum will swing in the direction of the past” back to positive Black music that is “timeless…music that folks will want to cover,” now and forever.
Let’s hope she’s right.
For, as the African proverb goes, “When the music changes, so does the dance.”
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