An interactive exhibit celebrating, promoting, and preserving the idea that the history of Black American music is the history of America
It’s the mid-70s. A warm summer night in a mid-sized city in the Chicago suburbs. And my family is throwing a party. A party to celebrate the July 4th holiday and more importantly to us, our recent move to the “other side of the tracks” — to a neighborhood that is thoroughly middle class (e.g. we saw more white folks than just the mailman). The house is full of aunts, uncles, little cousins around my age, grown folks, and teens who thought they were grown folks. And of course, the matriarch of our clan, my grandmother, Cora, known to us all, and to most other close friends of hers since her days in New Orleans simply as “Momo”. Looking back, I can clearly see the looks we were sporting back then — a mixture of bright colors, patterns, plaids, bell bottom jeans, and summer shorts and flip flops. I can see the afros, which came in all shapes and sizes, the braided hair styles, and the facial hair. The aromas that filled the air come drifting back to me too as if I was still there: gumbo on the stove, fried chicken in the oven, and the beautiful sweet and citrusy scent of my Aunt Didi’s lemon cake.
But what I remember best, is the sounds. I’m not talking about the sounds of laughter, stories, and tall tales, which were loud and plentiful throughout the house — except around the Bid Whist table, where the adults always seemed so intense and quiet to my youthful observation — I’m remembering the sounds coming from our “hi-fi” system, (complete with an 8-track tape player, this was a big ticket item for us purchased from either Zayre or Sears) that would automatically pick up and play a stack of 45s and hand chosen albums from the era. It was a mixture of the Jet magazine top 20, featuring Motown stars like Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, and my favorites as a kid, the Jacksons and Stevie Wonder; “Philly Soul” like the O’Jays and the Spinners; Curtis Mayfield (the song “Freddy’s Dead” frightened the mess out of me as a little nappy headed boy); EWF; Heatwave; Ohio Players; and of course, James Brown. I literally thought he had “ants in his pants”, and to me, it made perfect sense then that dancing would be the result of that infestation. That’s the thing about childhood, most metaphor, euphemisms and innuendo go completely over your head. I wonder if kids nowadays have that same issue since most music now has done away with a lot of hidden meanings? No matter how much some mothers and fathers might try to shield their kids from adult music or steer them towards the radio edits, somehow, a 6 year old always ends up singing the lyrics to “W*A*P” in some inappropriate place (hopefully, not in the Sunday pew).
The music that filled the house that day and evening was where my love affair with Black American music began. This period of music, the 20th century, the analog era, with its organic way of human beings coming together to work collaboratively and make music that couldn’t be quantized, or auto-tuned, or produced with infinite tracks was recorded with tubes and tapes, not bits and bytes, was what did it for me. To paraphrase Pauleine Kael, “I lost it” trying to learn how to do the “bus stop” next to that hi-fi speaker.
And so it is those memories, those vibes that I suppose are the catalyst behind this work, the Black Music Project (but specifically, at least at this point, Black American music), a visual taxonomy and catalog of a historic time that defined a nation and changed the world. The first germs of this idea probably sprang from an exploratory lesson I used to teach people wanting to learn graphic recording techniques in Italy back in 2010. I was working with UniCredit Bank's young bank manager program UniQuest in Turin, Italy and sharing my knowledge of different creative ways of visually organizing information. I chose the subject of jazz and its sub genres to show that there were many different visual ways of telling the story of its evolution. That exploration of jazz led me to personally toy with the idea of all the other genres birthed by American Blacks and how they intertwined with each other. So ten years after the Italy experience I did some simple sketches in my journal trying to map out Black music’s predominant genres.
By piecing together musical contributions that were cultivated in America by people that were stolen from their homeland and enslaved and oppressed for 400 years in this new world I realized it told a visual story of resilience. A story that despite all that turmoil and oppression, or as a reaction to it, Black people persevered and created art forms that shaped the land they helped build. The visual story being told is how we came from the field hollers and call and response slave work songs, through the end of the 20th century and the dawn of a new millennium. A dawn that was marked by the rebirth of that 70s vibe that first hooked me, in the loose formation of what was termed, “neosoul”, and the ascendancy of hip-hop culture and rap music as the most dominant popular genre in America — a dominance that still continues to this day twenty years later. The neosoul and hip-hop genres both continue to tell stories and sing songs of love, loss, pain and hardship, and soulful redemption just like the call and response field hollers of our ancestors.
Anyone who knows me, or has followed my career as a graphic recorder and graphic facilitator knows that music has always had a major influence in how I approach that craft. Over my near 30-year career I have come to believe that what graphic recorders really represent are “visual songwriters”. Good graphic records (or “reports”) to me almost have a lyrical quality to them. This project began by me incorporating my skill as a visual thinker and it will inform everything the Black Music Project is about going forward. By graphically mapping the musical forms, I primarily want to show the direct links from one genre to the next. This is why for instance, I show connections between jazz, ragtime, and the blues, but jazz is not directly linked visually in this map to hip-hop and rap. Yes, jazz, and many other genres helped influence the birth of hip-hop (you can especially find plenty of early 90s rap records that sampled jazz); but rap’s closest American antecedents and siblings were disco, funk and R&B. That’s why the very first rap record to become a hit on the radio, the Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” was sampled from Chic’s disco groove, “Good Times.” In all honesty, theoretically, you could make a case for linking everything on that map to every other genre, because they ultimately all spring from the same source — but where would the fun in that be?
Here’s some other criteria to keep in mind when viewing the map and perusing this site. This is not intended to be a clinical look at the entirety of Black music. As a matter of fact, we have chosen to only look at genres specifically birthed here in the USA (hence, no reggae music or other styles that came out of the African diaspora). This also only examines genres that were birthed solely or principally by Blacks — which is why you will not find a “pop music” bubble on the map, though there are plenty of artists here, like Janet Jackson and her brother Michael “the King of Pop” who could easily have been placed there. It is for this reason too that you will not find a “country” or “folk” music spot on the map, even though Black artists like Ledbetter (“Lead Belly”, whom I placed under blues) and Charley Pride were instrumental in spreading their popularity and influencing those that followed them.
I should state up front that I, nor anyone else working on this project is a certified musicologist. And this is not intended to be an encyclopedia, or even Wikipedia of Black American music. It was born as a genuine labor of love that I just thought would be fun to do. It stops intentionally with the end of the 20th century because that point is the beginning of the “here” moment I set out to designate when I was thinking about how we got from “there” to “here.” Here being the ascendency of African-American music as the inescapable, undilutable popular art form that it is today. Also, I am now a “seasoned” member of the community (I eventually did get the hang of metaphors) and the new millennium is when my knowledge of contemporary music gets a lot more dicey. Things have to be brought to my attention (usually by social media, and nieces and nephews) rather than me seeking out new stuff.
Because it was not developed to be a new encyclopedia it is certainly not definitive and due to the limitations of the map and my time as an illustrator and designer there were many beloved artists that I was not able to include yet in the project. Don’t worry, plenty of my favorites got left out too (Kool Moe Dee is going to have to make the next round I guess).
We will be offering interviews with artists and musicologists (with graphic reporting synopses), curated lists of music from people in the industry, cultural writers, and devoted fans, and an overview of seminal artists and behind-the-scenes people. There will also be the ability to purchase signed prints of the performers featured on this site.
This was made as a fun, celebratory exploration for old fans, and an introductory 101 course (rather than a graduate study) for new fans. It was made “for the culture” but I hope that anyone who admires the Black American musical contributions to the world stage finds something to enjoy about it.
On behalf of my collaborators, Marc Fuller, my writer, editor, information source gatherer, database manager, and sounding board, Brandon Black, my fellow visual-thinker and all-around creative idea man, Chakura Kineard, my exuberant artistic consultant, and Callum Griffith of Composite Digital, who provided their invaluable design input and project management (Callum is melanin deficient, but “he cool”) I hope you enjoy this labor of love. Until our official rollout I encourage you to sign up to our mailing list here at blackmusicproject.com and follow us on social media to learn more about what we have planned and also receive fun and interesting news.