This article is part of theMusic of the United States series.
African Americans (black music, formerly known as race music) have long constituted a large minority of the population of the United States. They were originally brought to North America to work as slaves in cotton plantations, bringing with them typically polyphonic songs from literally hundreds of ethnic groups across West Africa. In the United States, multiple cultural traditions merged with influences from polka, waltzes and other European music.
The influence of African Americans on mainstream American began in the 19th century, when the banjo became a popular instrument, and African-derived rhythms were incorporated into popular songs by Stephen Foster and other songwriters. In the 1830s, the Great Awakening led to a rise in Christian fundamentalism, especially among African Americans. Drawing on traditional work songs, African American slaves began performing a wide variety of Negro sprituals and other Christian music. Many of these songs were coded messages of subversion against slaveholders or escape.
By the end of the 19th century, African American music had begun its rise to mainstream popularity. Ragtime performers like Scott Joplin became popular, and some soon became associated with the Harlem Renaissance and early civil rights activists.
The early part of the 20th century saw a constant rise in popularity of African American blues and jazz. White and Latino performers of both genres existed, and there had always been cross-cultural communication between the United States' races. Jewish klezmer music, for example, was a noted influence on jazz, while Louis Armstrong famously explained that a "Latin beat" was a necessary component of good music. African American music was often sanitized for white audiences, who would not have as readily accepted black performers, leading to genres like swing music, a pop-based outgrowth of jazz.
By the 1940s, cover versions of African American songs were commonplace, and frequently topped the charts, while the original musicians found little success. Popular African American music at the time was a developing genre called rock 'n' roll, whose exponents included Little Richard and Jackie Brenston. The following decade saw the first major crossover acts, with Bill Haley and Elvis Presley performing rockabilly, a rock and country fusion, while black artists like Big Bopper, Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley received unprecedented mainstream success. Presley went on to become perhaps the first watershed figure in American music; his career, while never extremely innovative, marked the beginning of the acceptance of musical tastes crossing racial boundaries among all audiences. He was also the first in a long line of white performers to achieve what some perceive as undue fame for his influence, since many of his fans showed no desire to learn about the pioneers he learned from. The 50s also saw doo wop become popular.
The late 1950s also saw vastly increased popularity of hard blues from the earliest part of the century, both in the United States and United Kingdom. A secularized form of American gospel music called soul also developed, with pioneers like Ben E. King and Sam Cooke leading the wave. Soul and R&B became a major influence on surf, as well as the chart-topping girl groups like The Angels and The Shangrilas, only some of whom were white. Black divas like Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin became 60s crossover stars. In the UK, British blues became a gradually mainstream phenomenon, returning to the United States in the form of the British Invasion, a group of bands led by The Beatles who performed classic-style R&B, blues and pop with both traditional and modernized aspects.
The British Invasion knocked most other bands off the charts, with only a handful of groups, like The Mamas & the Papas, maintaining a pop career. Soul music, in two major highly-evolved forms, remained popular among blacks. Funk, usually said to have been invented by James Brown, incorporated influences from psychedelia and early heavy metal. Just as popular among blacks and with more crossover appeal, album-oriented soul revolutionized African American music with intelligent and philosophical lyrics, often with a socially aware tone. Marvin Gaye's What's Going On is perhaps the best-remembered of this field.
The 1970s saw a general decline in the popularity of black bands. Album-oriented soul continued its popularity, while musicians like Smokey Robinson helped turn it into Quiet Storm music. Funk evolved into two strands, one a pop and soul fusion pioneered by Sly & the Family Stone, and the other a more experimental psychedelic and metal fusion led by George Clinton and his P-Funk ensemble.
Black musicians achieved generally little mainstream success, though African Americans had been instrumental in the invention of disco, and some artists, like Gloria Gaynor and Kool & the Gang, found crossover audiences. White listeners preferred country rock bands, singer-songwriters and, in some subcultures, heavy metal and punk rock. The 70s also saw, however, the invention of hip hop.
Jamaican immigrants like DJ Kool Herc and spoken word poets like Gil Scott-Heron are often cited as the major innovators in early hip hop. Beginning at block parties in Harlem, hip hop music arose as one facet of a large subculture with rebellious and progressive elements. At block parties, DJs spun records, most typically funk, while MCs introduced tracks to he dancing audience. Over time, DJs began isolating and repeating the percussion breaks, producing a constant, eminently dance-able beats, which the MCs began improvising more complex introductions and, eventually, lyrics.
In the 1980s, black pop artists included Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie and Prince Rogers Nelson, who sang a type of pop dance-soul that fed into New Jack Swing by the end of the decade. Hip hop spread across the country and diversified. Miami bass, Chicago hip house, Los Angeles hardcore and DC go go developed during this period, with only Miami bass achieving mainstream success.
At the very end of the decade, however, two groups broke into white audiences. Public Enemy's politically revolutionary lyrics found more controversy than hip hop had previously seen, while N.W.A simultaneously placed West Coast hip hop at the top of the genre's charts and popularized gangsta rap.
1992 saw the release of Dr. Dre's The Chronic, which brought a P Funk-inspired genre of gangsta rap called G Funk to crossover audiences. G Funk soon dominated American popular music, only later yielding to a new generation of a East Coast performers as well as popular artists from Atlanta, New Orleans, St. Louis and, most famously, Detroit's Eminem, the first major white rapper.
See also: music of the United States