This blog post was updated on February 21, 2022.
When thinking about black history in America, you can’t deny the influence of music. From coast to coast, we can find examples of musical influence, genres, and experiences, all pioneered by people of African descent. We have documentation of music created for blacks and by blacks that dates back to as early as the 1700s. This originates from songs that slaves would sing in the cotton fields of the American South. It’s no surprise then that a lot of the mainstream music we hear today echoes the history of African-Americans.
Pay homage to this journey of expression and creativity in the face of extreme hardship and injustice and take a look at these destinations. They each have their own unique soundtrack where the voice of black America — both past and present — sings loud and proud.
New York, New York
In the 1970s, hip-hop originated in the Bronx, New York City. It all started when music enthusiast DJ Kool Herc pioneered the use of sampled percussion “breaks” that he used to mesh together to create dance music at house parties. The movement eventually spread across the entire borough after it initially began in his high-rise apartment. Some other legendary hip-hop pioneers from the same era include Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa, Mr. Magic, and DJ Jazzy Jeff.
The popularity of hip-hop led to a strange series of events. In 1977, New York experienced what would be called the great electricity blackout. During this time, locals looted stores for all kinds of electronics, and many of them made away with DJ equipment and sound systems. In the wake of this incident, thousands of well-equipped DJs started popping up in parks and catering to fans that hung out at parties. They referred to these parties as “jams”.
Today, anyone can take cheap flights to New York and experience a 4-hour hip-hop tour that takes them around the city to explore hip hop’s origins. During the tour, you can see Dj Kool Herc’s apartment, parks that were known for their jams, and even the home of the late Notorious B.I.G., one of the hip-hop world’s most revered rappers.
New Orleans, Louisiana
New Orleans is one of the richest areas in the United States when it comes to African-American history. The Big Easy appears to be respectfully and purposefully stuck in time when it comes to culture, architecture, and an indefatigable party spirit. Many would say that despite the 1724 “Black Code” that was created to restrict the rights of slaves, they were still able to influence the entire city with their amazing customs and traditions.
New Orleans is also considered the birthplace of jazz — one of America’s biggest contributions to the world of music. New Orleans is also a trendsetter in diverse genres from hip-hop to rhythm & blues and funk. It also played a significant role in the evolution of gospel music.
When someone thinks about important experiences that shape African-American history in Chicago, the Great Migration, a long-term movement of African-Americans from the South to the urban North that took place between 1916 and 1970 comes to mind. Over 500,000 of the approximately 7 million African-Americans who left the South ended up in Chicago during this time.
Shortly after, as a result of this new population being composed of many musicians that would perform in the streets, at parties, clubs, and other events, the “Chicago blues” was born. The open-air market on Maxwell Street in the 1930s and 1940s was a very prominent spot for blues musicians to perform, earn tips, collaborate with other musicians, and entertain throngs of enthusiastic onlookers and fans.
Whether it’s checking out the top blues bands in Chicago nightclubs or at the always popular Chicago Blues Festival, Chi-Town reigns supreme when it comes to a destination that lives and breathes the blues.
Southern soul music originated in Tennessee in the first half of the 20th century and it was championed and promoted to mainstream America thanks to the efforts of Stax Records. This iconic record company was known for discovering black soul singers from 1957 to 1975 and giving them the hits that propelled them into the charts.
Stax Records produced legendary heavy hitters in the industry such as Booker T. and the M.G.’s, Sam and Dave, Isaac Hayes, and Otis Redding. In the 1960s, soul music was polarized and was used as an outlet for community activism and political agendas. It was also used to express the desire and need for peace during some very turbulent times in African-American history.
In the late 1970s, the American disco era caused soul music to decline, but it had already influenced an array of other musical genres and sub-genres and continued to live on through Motown soul, southern rock, R&B, hip-hop, and country music. Today, visitors can find a detailed chronology of soul music and other Midwest music genres at the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum.
In 1959, Berry Gordy, Jr. purchased the property on Detroit’s famed Grand Blvd. that would eventually become known as “Hitsville U.S.A.” A year later, he incorporated Motown Records as well as Tamela Records and housed them both underneath the Motown Record Corporation umbrella. From 1961 to 1971, Gordy was able to produce over 100 top ten hits from artists such as Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and many others. The unique sound created at the studios of the label came to be known as “The Motown Sound”.
One of the biggest reasons for its success was its ability to cross over to white culture. Because the music was so catchy and popular, many of Gordy’s acts were able to travel all over the world. Motown eventually established offices in both Los Angeles and New York. In 1972, the company headquarters was relocated to Los Angeles. In 1988, Gordy sold his stake in Motown Records for $61 million to MCA. The classic Motown sound still continues to offer people a feeling of joyful nostalgia.
Know of another musical city that’s got soul power? Tell us about it in the comments.