A Musical Celebration for Black History Month


February is Black History Month. What better way to celebrate it than through music. American music would not be what it is today without the influence of African American music. It begins from when Africans were forced into slavery and brought music to America from their homeland. As time went on, African-American music evolved into what we hear today. Here are some of the major African-American musical genres.

African-American Spirituals

A spiritual is a type of religious folksong that is closely associated with the enslavement of African-Americans in the American South. The songs proliferated in the last few decades of the eighteenth century leading up to the end of legalized slavery in the 1860s. The African American spiritual (also called the Negro Spiritual) constitutes one of the largest and most significant forms of American folksong. In the following video, Calvin Earl presents an African American spiritual song in hopes of providing a better understanding of the music created by the slaves in the cotton fields of the Old South in America. The history and secret codes within the spiritual  ‘Wade In The Water’ is brought to life in a small clip of his performance in Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.


Ragtime is a musical style that enjoyed its peak popularity between 1895 and 1918. It was also a modification of the march style popularized by John Philip Sousa, with additional polyrhythms coming from African music. Ragtime fell out of favor as jazz claimed the public’s imagination after 1917, but there have been numerous revivals since the music has been re-discovered. Scott Joplin has become one of, if not the most, famous ragtime piano players. The following video is of the Maple Leaf Rag, recorded on Pianola Roll actually played by Scott Joplin. Apparently, this piano roll was found in the wrong box on eBay and turned out to be a long lost Joplin recording.


Blues is a music genre[2] and musical form originated by African Americans in the Deep South of the United States around the end of the 19th century. Blues incorporated spirituals, work songs, field hollers, shouts, chants, and rhymed simple-narrative ballads.  Blues shuffles or walking bass reinforce the trance-like rhythm and form a repetitive effect known as the groove. Below is a video of Samuel John “Lightnin'” Hopkins (March 15, 1912 – January 30, 1982). He was an American country blues singer, songwriter, guitarist, and occasional pianist, from Centerville, Texas. “Baby, Please Don’t Go” is a blues song which has been called “one of the most played, arranged, and rearranged pieces in blues history.”


After ragtime and blues, jazz started taking hold. Jazz originated in the African-American communities of New Orleans, United States, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and developed from roots in blues and ragtime. Jazz is characterized by swing and blue notes, call and response vocals, polyrhythms and improvisation. Billie Holiday (April 7, 1915 — July 17, 1959) was an American jazz singer and songwriter. Nicknamed “Lady Day” by her friend and musical partner Lester Young, Billie Holiday had a seminal influence on jazz and pop singing.

Rhythm and Blues

Rhythm and blues, often abbreviated as R&B, is a genre of popular music that originated in the 1940s. The term was originally used by record companies to describe recordings marketed predominantly to urban African Americans, at a time when “urban, rocking, jazz based music with a heavy, insistent beat” was becoming more popular. Louis Jordan and The Timpany Band were one of the first R&B groups. Here they are with the popular, “Let the Good Times Roll”.

Rock and Roll

African-American musicians in the 1940s and 1950s were developing rhythm and blues into a genre called rock and roll, which featured a strong backbeat. However, it was with white musicians such as Bill Haley and Elvis Presley, playing a guitar-based fusion of black rock and roll with country music called rockabilly, that rock and roll music became commercially successful. 

Rap and Hip Hop

From about 1986, rap took off into the mainstream with Run-D.M.C. and the Beastie Boys. Both of these groups mixed rap and rock together, which appealed to rock and rap audiences. Hip-hop took off from its roots and the golden age of hip hop flourished, with artists such as Eric B. & Rakim, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Queen Latifah, Big Daddy Kane, and Salt-N-Pepa. Hip hop became a best-selling genre in the mid-1990s and the top selling music genre by 1999. The popularity of hip hop music continued through the 2000s, with hip hop influences also increasingly finding their way into mainstream pop. On July 17, 2017, Forbes reported that hip-hop/R&B (which Nielsen SoundScan classifies as being the same genre) has recently usurped rock as the most consumed musical genre, becoming the most popular genre in music for the first time in U.S. history. There are even young performers recording it now, including Willow Smith in this video.

I hope you enjoyed going through this very quick history of African American music. And hope you explore more of it on your own.

Written by Amelia Vitarelli, owner and educator of My Little Conservatory in San Jose, CA. Amelia has been enriching the lives of children in Silicon Valley for over 20 years.