op-ed: the importance of knowing our musical roots

June 4, 2015

June is Black Music Month. According to the National Museum of African American Music, Black Music Month was originally created in 1979 by Kenny Gable, Ed Wright, and Dyana Williams and was formally recognized by President Obama in 2009. Black Music Month is meant to celebrate black musicians from the past and present, but there seems to be too much focus on the latter.

By Latonya Pennington, AFROPUNK Contributor



It is important that the black community remember and celebrate their musical roots. In fact, I wish more black youth my age (twenty-something) and younger knew their musical roots. It is very disappointing that some black youth don’t know any black musicians outside of hip-hop, R&B, and pop. Yet when you consider the factors that cause this ignorance, this lack of knowledge isn’t surprising.

One way a young black person can hear a really old song is if it’s featured in a commercial, television show, or film. However, ageism and stereotyping is unconsciously taught to young people by the media so that they think that really old music isn’t worth their time.

As a kid and teen, I rarely saw black kids on screen listening to Cab Calloway or any old music I listen to now. It was always current hip-hop, pop, and R&B music. As a result, I would associate blackness with only these genres until after high school.

Other ways young blacks can be exposed to music before their time is through their parents or school. In fact, parents are the best source. In grade school, the only time I was exposed to past black musicians was during Black History Month. Even then, I was only exposed to musicians from The Harlem Renaissance.

Milt Hinton and Cab Calloway

My parents raised me on Michael and Janet Jackson, but that only made me interested in pop music for a while. If my parents had raised me on past black musicians from a variety of genres, then I would have developed a diverse music taste sooner and become immune to musical ageism.

Due to musical ageism, stereotyping, and a lackluster education on past black musicians, I didn’t discover and appreciate the musical roots of black people. It also didn’t help that I couldn’t find any current black musicians that related to the anger and angst I felt as a black girl who was different from her peers. From 9th grade to my first semester of college, I turned to white alt. rock bands for comfort.

Things changed when I had to do a survey and write-up on music for an Intro to Psychology course. While doing research on the history of music for a section of the write-up, I discovered musicians like Chuck Berry and B.B. King and that black people had invented rock n’ roll.

Since I enjoyed rock music so much, I ended up appreciating some of the genres that came before and after it. I became a fan of classic rock as well as blues, jazz, and funk. A few years later, I found current black musicians I could relate to when I discovered Janelle Monae, the AFROPUNK movement, and underground hip-hop.

Last year, I celebrated Black Music Month for the first time and felt proud about how rich my music taste had become. This year, I feel that pride and then some. My music taste and knowledge is so vast that I know which past musicians influenced current musicians I like. More importantly, by knowing the musical history of blacks, I know that my identity and potential is limitless.