The Power of Music and its Prominent Role Throughout Black History

By: Jennifer Magdalene

On average, people in the United States spend an impressive 26.9 hours per week listening to music. This averages out to three hours and 50 minutes of music listening per day, however, while listening to music can be a form of relaxation, a way to unwind, celebrate, or to feel strong emotions like sadness, many may not realize the role that so many of our favorite songs play throughout Black history. From where Black music began to the powerful feelings that can be evoked when listening even today, here’s just how powerful music can be.

A longstanding history

The origin of Black music can be traced back to slavery, with spirituals being one of the earliest forms of musical expression. According to one Buzzfeed article, those who were enslaved were forbidden to speak their native languages (as slave owners were afraid they would plan/share escape routes, seek revenge, or rebel), thus leaving singing and creating songs as a form of communication of feelings from sorrow to hope. Post slavery in the 1860s, it’s noted that the creation of Blues took life in the south, a genre that took inspiration from work songs/spirituals, while Jazz first appeared around the 1890s, according to the article.

There have been countless influential Black artists throughout history and spanning across a variety of genres,  from Miles Davis, who challenged creativity in jazz to Aretha Franklin, who blended gospel with jazz, blues, and R&B. In addition to the artists themselves, many songs throughout history work to highlight the various social issues of their time. Sam Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come (1964) is just one prominent example, in which his inspiration for the song was based on milestones from his own life. According to one Mezz Entertainment article, one of the most prominent of these moments is when he and his crew were turned away from a “whites only” motel for being Black, thus highlighting the song’s emotion behind racial segregation. N.W.A.’s F**k Tha Police (1988), on the other hand, was written after N.W.A. was harassed by a local police department. In regard to the song, Mezz Entertainment states, “It depicts America’s heavy racial profiling and police brutality at the time, and was a part of Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”

Music and emotion

Depending on who you ask and when, listening to music can be described as an emotional, sad, uplifting, or joyful experience (to name a few). For some, listening to a favorite song or playlist can be the ideal way to get into a more positive mood, and there’s research to back that up — for example, one study found that 60% of Australians that listen to music while at work say it helps them get into a positive mood, while 64% of Aussies also said that music was more effective in helping them get work done than coffee. Dr. Adrian North, Head of Psychology at Curtin University, notes that “There’s an undeniable link between the degree to which we experience stress release or motivation from music.”

Many songs throughout the history of Black music hold an immense amount of emotion, whether it be through the lyrics themselves or the overall tone. However, when listening, it’s important to note that even sad music can have an effect on our emotions — In fact, one study found that listening to sad music evokes positive feelings in listeners, partly due to the fact that it “provides a safe container in which to experience their emotions.” Another study, according to Newport Academy, found that sad music evokes “a mix of pleasure, pain, and comfort,” thus highlighting the strong emotions that can come from listening to even melancholy tunes.

A powerful way to connect

“Every genre that is born from America has Black roots associated with it, from rock ‘n’ roll to blues to disco,” says Sidney Madden, a co-host of NPR’s podcast “Louder Than a Riot,” which focuses on the intersection of music and culture. “The fingerprints of Black creators are all over what makes American music so unique,” added Madden, highlighting how Black music has influenced the music/entertainment industry as a whole. In addition to physically affecting the brain, our emotions, and our mental health, music can play an integral role in connecting us to people and culture. Music is powerful in the sense that it has the ability to unite people, with Healthline noting that protest songs stir a sense of shared purpose while hymns build group identity in church. For many in the Black community, music can be a way to explore emotions about issues surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality, and discrimination, in addition to the numerous additional ways in which any human can connect through music.

Music has played a prominent role throughout Black history in America, from songs that encapsulate the emotions and events of their time to the influential Black artists who made history with their voices. For those who listen to Black music today, doing so can evoke a wealth of feelings and responses, from releasing stress to bringing comfort in addition to connecting with the culture.

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