It wasn’t until college when I truly discovered the richness of Black music. Though I grew up in a Black household and was familiar with all of the necessary music to ensure that I wouldn’t be an embarrassment to my family or community, college is where I really dug deep into the experience of Black music. I knew the music of James Brown, but I didn’t know who inspired him, and how. Same with Michael Jackson, Patti LaBelle, Aretha, etc. I was a Motown superfan, even at 16, but it wasn’t until I started reading liner notes, especially of my favorite hip hop records, and hearing original pieces of music that I truly grasped the breadth of the African American contribution to art, music and culture and the river that runs through it all.
Now, this makes sense, I think. College is an era for discovery for so many of us. It is also a time when you meet people who open your mind. I had a whole group of friends who were interested and invested in music from all over. I had friends from Washington, D.C., who introduced me to go-go; I knew “Da Butt” from the School Daze soundtrack but I don’t think I realized it was a work of sub-genre and definitely didn’t know it was native to the District of Columbia. I had friends from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who were ardent New York boom-bap hip hop heads, but also had an affinity for the bounce music scene of their native Louisiana. I had friends from Baltimore and New Jersey who introduced me to house music.
The funny thing is that I was aware of and even enjoying segments of all those genres, I just didn’t know the language or realize them as entire subcultures. It was all just music. But the music that really got me the most open in college was jazz. As cliche as that sounds, it’s true. I still remember listening to Donald Byrd’s “Wind Parade” and then deciding I needed every record he ever made. Same with Miles Davis and John Coltrane. And then I heard Sarah Vaughn and Esther Phillips. The list went on and on. I was all in, it was A Love Supreme, and one I haven’t let go of yet.
I grew up in the church so gospel was always part of my life; I used to love singing old negro spirituals on our youth 4th sundays. But that was for fun. When I started learning what “Wade In The Water” really meant in a Black history class my freshman year, it changed my life. It was no longer just a song but a means for survival; my entire scope changed. I wanted to become not only well versed but fully immersed. I’ve always loved church choirs—that was always where I heard the best singers—from the Mississippi Mass Choir to Dottie Peoples to Edwin Hawkins, to contemporary artists like Maurette Brown-Clarke, The Clark Sisters (no relation), and the omnipresent Kirk Franklin and every project he works on. The music spoke to my soul, and sometimes I needed that conversation.
Interestingly, and despite growing up in the south, the blues was a genre that I came to appreciate much later both for what it provided for artists and the entire culture that seemed entirely all for Black folks. The juke joints, the songs, the feelings and the storytelling were something that felt 100 percent like the Black experience in America.
Even the story of Robert Johnson, who allegedly sold his soul to the devil at The Crossroads in exchange for becoming the greatest bluesman ever is both mythical and emblematic of the relationship between Black people and America. For a chance at success, sometimes it feels like you have to give it all up. I learned about Muddy Waters and Etta James, long before a movie was made to honor and introduce them to new people, but their presence, and especially James’ “At Last” have been part of my life from the moment I was allowed entry into their worlds.
The two areas I showed up the most well-versed in were soul/R&B and hip hop. My parents loved soul music so my house was always flooded with the sounds of The Temptations and Marvin Gaye or The Supremes. But through hip hop, I learned a tremendous amount about artists like Kool & The Gang, northern soul groups like Honey & The Bees, William Bell, and any number of other artists who really framed the art form, especially in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I became an ardent student of both Sam Cooke and Donny Hathaway, with the latter being the first singer to ever bring a tear to my eyes with their voice.
When I discovered Phyllis Hyman after a late night jam session in a friend’s apartment, I was different. I’d never heard a voice so perfect. The only other person whose voice affected me like hers, aside from Donny, was Amel Larrieux. The spirit and soul with which so many artists sang showed me just how far we’ve come and just where we could go. Sam Cooke’s silky voice, from his gospel roots to the song of a movement with “A Change is Gonna Come,” became both a sound and symbol of hopeful progress. But there were also the elements known as Earth, Wind & Fire, and Parliament and everything George Clinton touched. The throughline from the 1960s to even artists like SWV, Mary J. Blige, and John Legend exists to remind us that we are all One Nation Under a Groove.
Hip hop is my passion and my life; I’ve spent a considerable amount of time writing in my career about both the minutiae and the societal impacts of the music. Hip hop is probably my first love and well, you never forget your first love. From the first time I heard Pete Rock & CL Smooth’s “Reminisce (T.R.O.Y.)” my life changed and continued through De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and Outkast. But artists like T.I., Cam’ron and The Game brought that same sensibility, The Message, and repackaged for a new, younger demographic. Hip hop changes with the people, and even the new artists today are reaching their people in innovative ways. Hip hop is here to stay, a tributary of the culture that could become its own river one day. Those college room arguments (and one fistfight…that I witnessed) are the stuff of legend and the reason why the music is so transcendent—it’s essential to the soul.
Black music has tentacles that have reached every corner of the planet and influenced the way music sounds around the globe. We’ve Waded in the Water, met at The Crossroads, enjoyed A Love Supreme, attempted to become One Nation Under a Groove and listened to The Message. Our flow and existence has run through America and this very land in ways that can’t be discounted. From the beating drums of our ancestors to the MPCs, Phantoms, and MIDI controllers used to create entire new genres of music, Black music is life.
Black music is forever.