Written by Daisy Hill
Artwork by Savanna Ruffini Sutich (@savannamrsdesigns)
Music by black artists absolutely dominates our lives. We are engulfed in a sound of music that has been brought to us by the black community, and yet, recognition is rarely given. This is seen both historically and now, from the trauma of slave songs and their influence over modern music to the full command black artists have over the pop culture scene today. For any occasion, it’s more than likely that most of us would turn to work by black artists. How often do you feel down, and flick through your Spotify to find the perfect Frank Ocean song to put on your story? If you are looking for something to make you feel good while you get ready, who do you look for? My personal favourites are anything by Kaytranada, Tinashe, or Goldlink. Need a self-confidence boost? We would more than likely all look to Beyonce. However, despite this clear dominance, black artists still face numerous obstacles. Credit is often disregarded and, as we see the trends set by black artists become universal, their place in the formation of popular culture is often missed and rendered into something void of its true meaning.
The roots of contemporary Western music can be derived from Africa, with certain song structures holding origins in the slave trade. During this time, music was used as a means of expression after a cruel stripping of human rights, and songs created by slaves had deep relationships with their roots. This was followed by the creation of Jazz music by black Americans who were employed as musicians after the Civil War. Since then, black musicians have been the pioneers of other subsequent genres, such blues in the 1920s, rhythm and blues in the 1940s, funk in the 1960s, hip-hop in the 1970s and 80s and house music from the 1980s. This influence lives on; it always will. Hip-hop is now the biggest genre today, with 8/10 of the most popular artists in 2019 falling into the category. With the ever-growing power of artists such as Kenrick Lamar, Drake and Travis Scott, I highly doubt I need to make a case for the validity of this statistic.
These styles are often mimicked by white artists, and in some cases stolen altogether. Black artists were the pen behind many iconic hits by Elvis Presley and other artists from his period and yet they rarely made a penny. For example, Otis Blackwell wrote the Presley songs ‘All Shook Up’, ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ and ‘Return to Sender’, but Presley is the one who is recognised as the true creative. Sadly, this is merely one example in a plethora of similar cases. Today, the influence of black musicians is incredibly visible in many of the most popular white artists. Ariana Grande has been accused of ‘blackfishing’ multiple times in her music videos and lyrics, and Liam Payne has been argued to be appropriating black culture in his recent solo work.
Black influence does not stop at the sound of music. Black culture is deeply entrenched in online trends, but it is often treated as something ‘universal’ with many refusing to accept black artistic origin. One clear case for this undeniable influence of Megan thee Stallion over the past year. She has infiltrated vocabulary across the internet, making ‘Hot Girl Summer’ and ‘Real Hot Girl Sh*t’ household phrases. Other examples of this include the iconic ‘Boy Bye’ and ‘I woke up like this’ from Beyonce and the ‘City Girl’ identity, as popularised by the duo of the same name. These are just a slither of insight into the creative powers of black artists when it comes to making a memorable impact beyond the music itself. These phrases have become a cultural print, we tell our friends to say ‘Boy Bye’ just as Beyonce did, you can easily find a top with any of Kanye’s tweets on it and we may even refer to ourselves as a Hot Girl, thanks to Megan. The issue here is the lack of individuals giving credit where credit is due. Often though, these phrases are used by white individuals as a quirky personality trait and credit is rarely traced back to the rightful creators. White audiences dip into black culture and treat it as if it is a fun costume but forget that it has much deeper roots in another culture that is not their own.
The influence of black artists extends further into how we even receive music today. Beyonce said herself that she changed the game with that digital drop, when she released her self-titled album digitally on the iTunes Store without any prior announcement on 13th December 2013. It might not have been the first time an artist released a surprise album – but is definitely one that had an enormous impact on the industry. The word was easily spread due to instant access and reach of social media. In one night, she sold 80,000 copies, and the week after she landed the number 1 spot on the Billboard chart. This surprise drop phenomenon has since been emulated by J Cole with ‘KOD’, Drake and ‘If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late’, and Ariana Grande’s ‘thank u, next’.
Despite this clear dominance, credit is often brushed aside. We adore these artists, but we take their terms and their sounds and erase their meanings and morph them into something fun to caption our pictures. We forget the meaning of the music, and who is it for. I could name numerous black artists that have personally influenced me as a white person – but it is not a white voice that matters in that context. And where we use black culture to benefit our own culture, we need to recognise where it’s come from and who it’s for. This is especially relevant in the wake of the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement, where artists will continue using their art as an expression of their struggles. We must listen and learn; not take aspects we deem fun and use them as personality traits. There are so many artists I’ve not even mentioned here whose influence have been absolutely paramount. This article has barely even scratched the surface of what deserves recognition – we have a long way to go.