"Black Music Means Everything": Bruno Mars Drops Some Truth for Black History Month
Kai Z. Feng
If you think Bruno Mars isn't awesome, you're just demonstrably wrong. This is a man who could nail an Elvis impersonation before most of us could do our multiplication tables. He can dance like Michael Jackson (or as close as any mere mortal has ever gotten), sing like James Brown and rock leopard print without looking like he raided his grandmother's closet. And even though "Uptown Funk" was technically a Mark Ronson song, everyone knows whose performance made it the best pop-funk jam since Roger Troutman retired his talkbox.
Now, just in time for Black History Month, he's gotten even more awesome by dropping a little black-history truth bomb in a recent interview with Latina magazine. Apparently agreeing with writer Jesus Trivino Alarcon that his music can be described as "black music," Mars goes on to clarify what that term means to him:
“When you say ‘black music,’ understand that you are talking about rock, jazz, R&B, reggae, funk, doo-wop, hip-hop and Motown. Black people created it all. Being Puerto Rican, even salsa music stems back to the Motherland [Africa]. So, in my world, black music means everything. It’s what gives America its swag."
Because we apparently now live in a country where literally everything said by anyone is cause for controversy, I'm sure the above statement will send some alt-right trolls scurrying to Twitter to express their #AllLivesMatter outrage. But Mars is 100 percent correct. With the possible exceptions of country and bluegrass (and maybe not even those), every major American genre of music owes its existence to African-American originators.
Don't believe it? Fine. Let's break it down.
Rock & Roll
Though its precise origin is still a subject of much debate, most critics and scholars agree that the earliest rock & roll records were an evolution of rhythm & blues, itself an African-American art form. Add some of the twang of country music and the chord progressions of traditional 12-bar blues, and you've got rock & roll. Though the sound was popularized in the mid-1950s by white artists like Elvis Presley and Bill Haley & His Comets, it can be traced back to such seldom-credited African-American musicians of the 1940s as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Jimmy Preston, Wynonie Harris and Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup. In fact, you might recognize Crudup's 1946 song "That's All Right, Mama" from the version Elvis recorded as his first single, eight years later.
This one is easy. Jazz was born in the nightclubs and brothels of New Orleans, where African-American musicians played a combination of ragtime and blues, often featuring instruments that up until then were more associated with marching bands (enshrined in New Orleans in the famous brass and percussion "second line" music). A few early white adopters like Bix Beiderbecke aside, the music's earliest composers and bandleaders — Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong the best known among them — were all black. Even into the 1930s, when jazz was widely appropriated by white artists, its most influential figures were still predominantly African-American: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, to name just a few.
"Rhythm & blues" was originally a catch-all term created by white record and radio executives (often credited to Atlantic Records' Jerry Wexler, though it's unclear whether he invented the term or just made it official) to market what had previously been called "race records" — basically, anything recorded by black people, in a variety of popular styles of the era. So by definition, the earliest creators of R&B were black, including such musical pioneers as Louis Jordan, T-Bone Walker, Paul Williams and Fats Domino. By the 1950s the sound — a mix of blues, gospel and rock & roll — was both popularized and codified by artists such as Ray Charles, Ruth Brown and Sam Cookie.
You might think Bruno Mars needs a geography lesson for name-checking the genre of Bob Marley, since it originated in Jamaica, not the United States. But the term "African-American" can be taken to refer both to a country and a hemisphere, since the Atlantic slave trade brought Africans to many parts of North and South America and the Caribbean, not just the United States. And in Jamaica, the descendants of those slaves were especially prolific at inventing new forms of music: dub, ska, rocksteady and the most influential of them all, reggae, which grew out of ska and rocksteady in the 1960s, pioneered by artists like Larry Marshall, Lee "Scratch" Perry, Toots and the Maytals and the great Marley.
Basically a mutation of R&B built around heavily syncopated, highly danceable grooves, funk existed in some form as far back as the late 1940s. But the version we all know and love today basically starts with James Brown's 1965 single "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," which still sounds as if it could've been written yesterday. It was further developed by other African-American visionaries such as George Clinton, Sly Stone, Rick James and Prince.
An offshoot of R&B based around vocal harmonies, doo-wop first emerged as a kind of folk music, sung a cappella on street corners in African-American communities in New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago and other major cities in the 1930s and '40s. The earliest doo-wop recording groups were all African-American: The Orioles, The Platters, The Drifters and, arguably the greatest of them all, Little Anthony and the Imperials. By the late 1950s, the style was adopted by white, predominantly Italian-American groups — which is what gave us Jersey Boys and Sha Na Na.
Do I really have to explain this one? The most influential American art form since rock & roll was born in the projects of the Bronx and has now become a global phenomenon. All its earliest originators, from DJ Kool Herc to Coke La Rock to Grandmaster Flash to Kurtis Blow, were black. As much as it has been disseminated to and appropriated by every other culture on the planet, it remains the defining sound of African-American culture of the past 30-plus years.
A record label that basically became a genre unto itself, Motown Records was founded by African-American entrepreneur Berry Gordy Jr. in 1958 and would go on to popularize soul and R&B music with a string of hit records never equaled before or since. With an integrated but predominantly black house band called the Funk Brothers and a roster of African-American artists who would go on to become superstars — among them Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson — Motown's impact on pop music is almost impossible to overstate. Fittingly, Gordy's moneymaking machine of a label scored its first hit with Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want)" — one of several Motown tracks later covered by The Beatles.
Convinced yet? If anything, Bruno Mars might have actually understated African-Americans' influence on popular music. He didn't even mention several other genres they invented, including the blues, gospel and even electronic dance music (it's true, kids — without black innovators like Frankie Knuckles and the Belleville Three, there would be no Chainsmokers).
At this point, African-American forms of popular music are the soundtrack to most of the civilized world. Black music doesn't just give America its swag, as Mars rightly noted — it gives humanity its swag. There are many reasons to celebrate Black History Month, but that might be the best reason of them all.
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