From African slaves who cultivated their own musical styles, to fiddlers who provided dance music for the Southern white gentry, to the lyrical cries of Black street vendors in 18th-century Philadelphia, to Motown, Black music boasts a storied history.
In 1979, Pres. Jimmy Carter designated June as African American Music Appreciation Month to focus on this rich history and continuing legacy of African-American musicians, singers, and composers whose creative sounds tell the stories of the hardships and triumphs Black people in America experience.
More than 30 years later, Pres. Barack Obama pronounced June as Black Music Month. In his 2016 proclamation, Obama noted that African-American music and musicians have helped the country “to dance, to express our faith through song, to march against injustice, and to defend our country’s enduring promise of freedom and opportunity for all.”
Black music has profoundly influenced the lives of all Americans. It is the sound that continues to bring all cultures together. While there is much focus on the history of rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues, jazz, gospel, hip-hop, and rap, few know that African Americans have also successfully performed classical and concert music.
Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint-Georges, considered the first classical composer of African origins, was known as Le Mozart Noir (the Black Mozart). Born in 1745, his career included string quartets, symphonies and concertos. He was a champion fencer, classical composer, virtuoso violinist, and conductor of France’s leading symphony orchestra: Le Concert des Amateurs.
Mozart, at that time, was struggling for professional recognition, resenting Saint-Georges’ success. Reportedly, Mozart not only used one of Saint-Georges’ pieces in his Sinfonia Concertante, but also used his fury to create the evil Black character, Monostatos, in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute.
According to the Independent, “Saint-Georges was exotic, brilliant, established … close to the Queen … Mozart was not. He led one of the best orchestras in Europe while Mozart’s symphonies received inferior performances … Mozart had every reason to be jealous.”
George Bridgetower (born 1778), an Afro-European virtuoso violinist and composer, is described in the film Immortal Beloved as “the famous virtuoso from Africa.”
In the film, Bridgetower performs Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9 (the “Kreutzer” Sonata), a piece Beethoven formally dedicated to him. The scene recounts their real-life falling-out, which culminated in Beethoven withdrawing his dedication over an off-color remark Bridgetower made about a woman Beethoven knew. Outraged, Beethoven opted instead to name his sonata after French violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer.
Florence Price, born in Arkansas in 1887, was the first African-American woman to, in 1933, have her music performed by a major symphony orchestra. A music critic from the Chicago Daily News heard her work performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and declared it “a faultless work, a work that speaks its own message with restraint and yet with passion
While Black musicians continue to create and influence, their work remains steeped in the long tradition of African-American music.