We have always had a strong affinity for music. Soon after our forefathers were let off the slave ships and sold to plantations we started singing. Much of that was developed in the “Motherland.”
We were visiting Kenya and went to a music event. One of our hosts told us that the entertainment was from the Congo. I started to hear some similarity with Afro-Cuban jazz. Later, the host said that they prefer Congo music as opposed to Afro-Cuban jazz, because the rhythm is pure and unadulterated Congo. It was enslaved Africans from the Congo who brought it to Cuba.
Blues and jazz were probably the first commercial Black music. Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey did a lot to promote “rotgut” blues. Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong and the great Lena Horne were leaders in jazzing the genre up. Blacks became some of the best jazz singers and musicians.
Eventually, Soul evolved from those two genres.
Copy and sell
There wasn’t much money in the business for Blacks. But when Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis (among others) copied it, White radio stations became the biggest vehicle in getting the general population to embrace it. Even goody-goody Pat Boone would wait, copy Little Richard releases, and profit handsomely.
This type of exploitation was immense. Find hot tunes recorded by Black artists; redo them with acceptable White artists; blast them through White radio stations; and ban the original Black artists from radio play.
It wasn’t until 1956 that a Black-owned radio station, WCHB in Detroit/Inkster, Mich., went on the air. This would be the start of the immense popularity of Black music.
Soon Black stations would start popping up across the nation. Sales of Black music were jumping.
Thus, White-owned stations were pressed to start playing Black music. Before then, they would only play ‘acceptable’ Black artists like Nat King Cole, Eartha Kitt and Ray Charles.
A big milestone was the great Barry Gordy’s founding of Motown in 1959. His artists had a silky-smooth style of music (compared to rhythm and blues). It became known as “Soul.”
I was 11 years old and immediately fell in love with Motown hits. So did the vast majority of Blacks. What was significant was that Whites, Hispanics, Asians, etc. were equally in love with this Soul music.
There were many Motown subsidiary labels such as Tamla and Gordy. Eventually, Al Bell would launch the Stax label. White businesses would launch Atlantic, which triggered many investors to launch their own labels.
Soul music became a multibillion-dollar industry. But here was the money going?
Not getting paid
Very few of the artists were becoming wealthy. Most lacked proper legal representation. Many of the principals were predatory and managed the get the lion’s share of the business. A popular arrangement would be the artist would get two to three percent of the sales – and much of that was doctored.
Major record companies were preying upon Black labels. If they wouldn’t sell their companies for a discounted rate, then the moguls would steal their artists for a signing bonus. (Go see the play “Motown.” It explains what Barry Gordy had to go through in keeping his company.)
Writers like Holland, Dozier and Holland would leave for a nice bonus and then turn on Motown with the aim of ruining them. Popular singer Mary Wells left Motown for a White-owned label.
When she realized it was a mistake, she tried to blame it on Motown. A long-lasting lawsuit was filed. She would soon die of lung cancer – broke and broken. All of her hits still belong to Motown as well as the many Holland, Dozier and Holland blockbusters.
Then came cable television and video programs. MTV was immensely popular, but they would only play Prince and Michael Jackson. That would change when the great entrepreneur Bob Johnson would change the landscape with Black Entertainment Television – BET. Soon Black artists were as successful on television as they were on radio. The bright future was just ahead as Soul was accepted as mainstream.
But then came a negative shift. Hip-hop was developed in New York City. Street gangs were popping up in every city and town. The merging of these two things became a cult.
Wall Street saw this as a vehicle to take over or even kill the ever-growing Soul industry. Hip-hop was “gangsta.” It has contributed to the rising violence in our communities. Tupac Shakur (West Coast) and Biggy Smalls (East Coast) were the leaders of this genre. They fought each other for very little reasons. In the end, both were assassinated and the crimes go unsolved.
According to Village Voice: “The hip-hop movement has become increasingly mainstream as the music industry has taken control of it. Essentially, from the moment ‘Rapper’s Delight’ went platinum, hip-hop the folk culture became hip-hop the American entertainment industry sideshow.”
Soul music is disappearing from radio as conglomerates control the radio population and are beholding to Wall Street investors. Television is no better, even with many of the Black-owned stations spending valuable time showing old reruns of Black family shows. Soul is going away.
According to Time Magazine: “In 2013, no African-American musician had a Billboard/Hot 100 number one. This was the first time there was no number one in a year by an African-American in the chart’s 55-year history.”
A beautiful thing is going away to “gangsta.”
Harry C. Alford is the co-founder and president/CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce.
Contact him via www.nationalbcc.org.