By Harry C. Alford
NNPA News Wire Columnist
Black people have always had a strong affinity for music. Soon after our forefathers were let off the slave ships and sold to plantations we started singing. Much of that was developed in the “Mother Land.”
During a visit to Kenya, I went to a music event. One of our hosts told us that the entertainment was from the Congo. I started to hear some similarity with Afro-Cuban jazz. Later, the host said that they prefer Congo music as opposed to Afro-Cuban Jazz. The rhythm is pure and unadulterated Congo. It was slaves from the Congo who brought it to Cuba.
Blues and Jazz were probably the first commercial genres of Black music. Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey did a lot to promote that “rot gut” type of blues. Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong and the great Lena Horne were leaders in jazzing the genre up. Blacks became some of the best Jazz singers and musicians. Eventually, Soul evolved from those two genres. There wasn’t much money in the business for Blacks. But when it was copied by Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis among others) white radio stations became the biggest vehicle in getting the general population to embrace it. Even goody – goody Pat Boone would wait and copy Little Richard releases and profit handsomely. This type of exploitation was immense. Find hot tunes recorded by Black artists and redo them with acceptable white artists; blast them through white radio stations and ban the original Black artists from radio play.
It wasn’t until 1956 that a Black owned radio station, WCHB in Detroit (Inkster, MI), went on the air. This would be the start of the immense popularity of Black music. Soon Black stations would start popping up across the nation. Sales of Black music were jumping. Thus, white owned stations were pressed to start playing Black music. Before then they would only play “acceptable Black artists” such as Nat King Cole, Eartha Kit and Ray Charles.
A big milestone was the great Berry Gordy’s founding of Motown in 1959. His artists had a silky smooth style of music (compared to Rhythm and Blues). It became known as “Soul.” I was eleven years old and immediately fell in love with Motown hits (so did the vast majority of Blacks). What was significant was that whites, Hispanics, Asians etc. were equally in love with this Soul music. There were many Motown subsidiary labels such as Tamla and Gordy. Eventually, Al Bell would rise to become the owner of Stax Records. White businesses would launch Atlantic, which triggered many investors to launch their own labels.
The above became a multi-billion dollar industry. There was just one big problem. Where was the money going? Very few of the artists were becoming wealthy. Most lacked proper legal representation. Many of the principles were predatory and managed the lion’s share of the business. A popular arrangement would be the artist would get 2 -3 percent of the sales and much of that was doctored. Black labels were being preyed upon by major record companies. If they wouldn’t sell their companies for a discounted rate, then the moguls would steal their artists for a signing bonus. Go see the play “Motown.” It explains what Berry Gordy had to go through in keeping his company. Principal writers like Holland, Dozier and Holland would leave for a nice bonus and then turn on Motown with the aim of ruining them. Popular singer Mary Wells left Motown for a White-owned label. When she realized it was a mistake she tried to blame it on Motown and a long lasting suit was filed. She would soon die of lung cancer – broke and broken. All of her hits still belong to Motown as well as the many Holland, Dozier and Holland blockbusters.
Then came cable television and video programs. MTV was immensely popular but they would only play Prince and Michael Jackson. That would change when the great entrepreneur Bob Johnson would change the landscape with Black Entertainment Television – BET. Soon Black artists were as successful on television as they were on radio. The bright future was just ahead as soul music was accepted as mainstream.
But then came a negative shift. Hip-Hop was born in New York City in the 1970s. As the crack epidemic exploded in the 1980s, drug-dealing street gangs began to pop up in every city and town. The merging of these two things became a cult. Wall Street saw this as a vehicle to take over or even kill the ever-growing soul music industry.
According to Village Voice: “The Hip-Hop movement has become increasingly mainstream as the music industry has taken control of it. Essentially, from the moment ‘Rapper’s Delight’ went platinum, ‘Hip-Hop: the folk culture,’ became ‘Hip-Hop: the American entertainment industry sideshow.’”
Soul music is disappearing from radio as conglomerates control the radio population and are beholding to Wall St. investors. Television is no better. Even with many of the Black-owned stations spending valuable time showing old reruns of Black family shows, soul music is going away.
According to Time Magazine: “In 2013, no African-American musician had a Billboard/Hot 100 number one. This was the first time there was no number one in a year by an African American in the chart’s 55 – year history.”
Mr. Alford is the co-founder, President/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce®. Website: www.nationalbcc.org Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.