How black excellence transformed music history

Bonya Kleyman discusses the rich history of black musical excellence across a range of genres.

Bonya Kleyman
10th October 2019
Image: Eddie Mallin, Wikimedia Commons
Black Excellence has played a large part in the evolution and progression of musical trends and movements of the 20th and 21st centuries. Starting with ragtime and jazz in the early 20th century, which sprouted countless genres enjoyed by millions, the black community has made and continues to make musical breakthroughs that have sent ripples of impact throughout the entire globe. 

I will now present to you, a list of popular genres that have been shaped by black artists in the last 100 years.


Soul & Gospel (late 19th century)

Considered to be the originator of all genres later created by the African-American community. Performed in an upbeat, euphoric, and incredibly soulful way, gospel music was used for worship, but also paved the way to vocal and performance techniques used in decades to come. 

Notable musicians: Charles Tindley - “Father of Gospel Music” , Mahalia Jackson “The Queen of Gospel”, Thomas A. Dorsey - “Father of Black Gospel Music” 


Ragtime, Jazz, and Blues (early 20th century)

Characterized by a distinct piano sound, syncopated rhythm, and steady beat, ragtime was the immediate precursor to jazz and blues. Eventually,  jazz - the first of many revolutionary musical movements originating from the black community - took the world by storm. Beginning in New Orleans, USA, it is considered “America’s Classical Music,” staying a relevant genre for over five decades.

Notable musicians:  Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald (“Queen of Jazz”), Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Nat “King” Cole (L, is for the way you look at me…), Ray Charles 


Doo-Wop (1940s -1960s)

Created by young African-American men in  New York City, Doo-Wop became the sound that moved the world in the mid-20th century, characterized by simple harmonies and upbeat tempos, with little instrumentation. It especially appealed to youths, as the heartfelt lyrics were usually about love.

Notable musicians: The Mills Brothers, The Ink Spots, The Drifters


Ska & Reggae (late 1950s - 1970s)

Reggae is characterized by its offbeat rhythms played in 4/4 time (“skank” rhythm) , as well as its simple incorporation of piano and guitar. It originated as a result of speeding up the tempo of its traditional parent, ska, in 1960s Jamaica. Eventually, it reached new heights of popularity in the 1970s, and was used mainly for political commentary as a result of the turmoil occurring in Jamaica at the time. It is deeply linked to the Rastafarian movement.

Notable musicians: Bob Marley, Toots and the Maytals, Peter Tosh 


 Funk & Disco (1960s-1970s)

A mixture of soul and jazz, funk was a fresh movement that shifted its focus from melodies and rhythms to a strong bass and rhythmic groove that became a signature element of disco and pop. It was an immediate dancefloor filler in the 1960s, and popularized the concept of listening to music for the purpose of dancing, rather than it being perceived as a strictly sedentary activity.

Notable musicians: James Brown “Godfather of Soul”, Chaka Khan, Sly & The Family Stone, Donna Summer, Diana Ross , Gloria Gaynor, Earth, Wind and Fire, Boney M., Kool & The Gang, etc. 


R&B & Pop (1980s-Present)

R&B and Pop ushered in a new era of music in the 1980s. With the advent and rapid growth of new technologies, pop was characterized by more ‘electric’ sounds and a deep, driving baseline. Vocals were also brought to the forefront, and global superstars were birthed out of international broadcasting and global following.

Notable musicians: Michael Jackson (“King of Pop”), Whitney Houston, Prince, Stevie Wonder, Beyonce, Rihanna, Mariah Carey


Hip-Hop, Trap, & Grime (1980s-Present)

Although a young genre, Hip-Hop (USA) and Grime (UK) have seen constant transformation in their last 30 years of existence. They were revolutionary because they introduced the ability to create meaningful music out of spoken word, and still continue to hold top 40 spots on the charts. Reaching their peak in the 1990s, and then reborn in the 2000s, and once again in the current period (2010s) , hip-hop and grime continue to be products boundless creativity.

Notable musicians: Tupac, Notorious BIG, Run-DMC, Wu-Tang Clan, Ice Cube, NWA, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Nas, Drake, OutKast, Childish Gambino, P. Diddy, Snoop Dogg, Lauryn Hill, Stormzy, Skepta


Chances are, even a lot of the white music that most of us enjoy (Justin Timberlake or Eminem, for example) has elements that have been adapted from songs that have already existed in black music for years. Without the musical contributions of the black community, we would not have the vast array of tunes that we so cherish today. 

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