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Celebrating Black musicianship

February in the United States marks the celebration of Black History Month. Initially conceived by Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who founded what is now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History in 1915 and in February of 1926 introduced the first week dedicated to the observance of African Americans’ contributions to the history of the United States and world, Black History Month is an opportunity to illuminate the often overlooked contributions to society made by Black Americans. 

This month at the Maine Campus, we have been honoring Black History Month by lifting up the experiences and accomplishments of Black Mainers. This week’s focus is the influence that African American music has had on American culture.

The history of American music is steeped in the influences of the musical traditions of African American communities. In popular music today, much of the musical language and sounds used are heavily inspired by the genres of hip-hop, rap, trap and R&B –– all genres originating with Black musicians. African American history is one full of striving, hope and determination –– themes that are apparent in much of the music produced today. However, contributions to the music scene made by Black artists have been instrumental in the development of the vast majority of American genres, to the point of near inseparability. 

Beginning with spirituals, Black artistic expression has made a permanent impact on the musical culture of the United States. The earliest songs that could be considered American popular music were used in minstrel shows, as part of grotesque entertainment parodying the spiritual traditions of enslaved communities with the imitation of African instruments, song and dance. Soon the blues genre rose in popularity, with influences from spirituals, work songs, and sorrow songs in the African American tradition. Jazz is another American genre born out of Black artistry, with origins in the New Orleans creole communities. 

Chuck Berry, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Little Richard and Ike Turner are not household names on the level of Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones, yet are the muses the latter performers adopted their styles from. Though many of the big names in rock and roll and its subgenres are not of African descent, the genre has undeniable parentage in Black communities, with the most direct evolution growing out of R&B.

Entering the mainstream in the late 20th century, genres like rap and hip-hop have grown as beautiful vessels of social commentary and Black empowerment. Bleeding into the 2000s and the following decades, some of the biggest stars in mainstream music, Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Beyoncé, hail from Black communities in the United States and across the globe. 

Closer to Maine, one Black musician making marks is Janay Woodruff, known by her stage name JanaeSound. Currently based out of Portland, JanaeSound has opened for FloRida and is gaining traction for her skillfully delivered vocals in soul and rock. Thankfully, with the support of community efforts and other organizations, more resources are being dedicated to uplifting Black artists so that the world can be introduced to even more expansive musical genius.


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