Black Music Month: NMAAM addresses the State of Black Music

Producer Nile Rodgers, musician Charlie Wilson and singer-songwriter Keith Urban take photos backstage during NMAAM Celebration of Legends Galaon May 31, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Jason Kempin/Getty Images for NMAAM)

To celebrate the proclamation of June as Black Music Month (African American Music Appreciation Month), the National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM) has issued their first State of Black Music address.

The address was given Friday, June 1, the first day of Black Music Month, on the day following the NMAAM’s Gala on Thursday, May 31, the evening of Black Music Month.

“Black music is America’s music,” said Henry Beecher Hicks, president of the NMAAM. “It’s global music. It crosses boundaries of culture and race and geography, bringing us together in moments of joy, celebration, challenge, and contemplation. Black music is, in a word, transcendent, and it may be that the State of Black Music is stronger than ever.”

Hicks gave his address live on WPRT-FM in Nashville. The National Museum of African American Music, set to open in 2019, will be the only museum in the country solely dedicated to educating, preserving and celebrating the influence African Americans have had on music, told through the artifacts, artists, and stories that have defined American music. Based in Nashville, the museum will share the story of the American soundtrack by integrating history and interactive technology to bring musical heroes of the past into the present.

“For the first time in the history of Nielsen Music measurement, hip-hop / R&B claimed the largest share of overall volume sales … as the top genre in American music,” Hicks said. “It’s hard to believe; but in the span of one generation, rap has come to define the sound of popular music.”

The State of Black Music
The National Museum of African American Music

by H. Beecher Hicks, president of the National Museum of African American Music
Friends, neighbors, music fans; my name is H. Beecher Hicks, president of the National Museum of African American Music, now under construction in the heart of Music City, Nashville, Tennessee. In celebration of Black Music Month (sometimes referred to as African American Music Appreciation Month), my colleagues and I are honored to share, for the first time, our thoughts on the State of Black Music.

As we reflect on the past 12 months, it gives me pleasure to report that the State of Black Music is strong.

Black music is America’s music. It’s global music. It crosses boundaries of culture and race and geography; bringing us together in moments of joy, celebration, challenge and contemplation. Black music is, in a word, transcendent, and it may be that the State of Black Music is stronger than ever.

Major labels have shown robust performance for the second consecutive year. Sony Music reported $3.85 billion in revenues, with streaming up 33%; Warner Music reported revenues as $3.6 billion, up 10% and Universal Music generated $6.4 billion in revenues and $900 million in profits all in 2017.

Additionally, for the first time in the history of Nielsen Music measurement, Hip-Hop/R&B claimed the largest share of overall volume sales with 25%, replacing rock, with 23%, as the top genre in American music. The Hip Hop/R&B category produced eight of the 10 most popular artists in Nielsen’s Mid-Year Report, and it now claims almost a third (30%) of on-demand audio streams across the nation, nearly as much as the next two genres combined.

According to Nielsen, Rock still dominates album sales, with over a 40% share, but its share of streaming is only 16%. Country also remains strong in album sales with 12%, but lags in streaming with only 6% coming from the genre.

Streaming has certainly leveled the playing field for artists of color. The gatekeepers at record companies and radio stations can’t ignore the analytics. Rap has leveraged its dominant position on streaming platforms into a Hip-Hop invasion of the Billboard Hot 100. It’s hard to believe, but in the span of one generation, Rap has come to define the sound of popular music.

If you’re looking for the reason that today’s Hot 100 feels much more urban than what we’ve come to expect from traditional Top-40, look hard at streaming. It’s a trend that will continue, as album sales continue to decline, and media giants enter the game. Google’s YouTube Music launched just over a week ago to compete with Apple Music and other subscription platforms.

Unfortunately, while black and brown artists are making strides, Billboard pointed out in April that “executives of color are scarce atop major [music] companies.” While not a surprise to industry players, Jon Platt, Sylvia Rhone, Ethiopia Habtemariam and Jeff Harleston need company. The big three labels do seem to realize that having a diverse executive pipeline is important to their continued prosperity. Over the last year, Billboard also reported a wave of African American hires and promotions in the industry. Only time will tell us if this progress continues.

In many ways, the past year was the year of the woman. From Cardi B, becoming the first female rapper to lead the Hot 100 chart with a solo song in 20 years, to Stacey Abrams in Georgia becoming the nation’s first black female candidate to win a major party’s nomination for governor, we think that this is a trend you can expect to see continue.

Cardi B’s song, “Bodak Yellow,” was her debut on a major label and won her Single of the Year at the 2017 BET Hip-Hop Awards. In fact, in January of this year, Cardi B’s first three chart entries were in the top 10 at the same time. There are only two other acts in history, The Beatles, and Ashanti, that can make the same claim.

Singer, songwriter and banjo player Rhiannon Giddens received the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship award, otherwise known as the “genius grant,” for reclaiming African American contributions to folk and country music and bringing to light the myriad connections between music of the past and the present.

And speaking of genius, is there any other word to describe Beyoncé’s performance in April at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival? In a different but unforgettable way, Beyoncé also paid homage to those who came before her; and it was on the very night that Nina Simone and legendary gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with Bon Jovi, The Cars, Dire Straits and The Moody Blues.

Beyoncé was the first black woman to ever headline the Coachella festival, and probably the first artist of any kind to inspire a name change. The 2018 festival quickly became better known as Beychella.

Before her show, it was unclear whether predominately white audiences would appreciate a show steeped in black culture and the HBCU experience. But, after the show, there was no doubt.

New York Times music critic Jon Caramanica wrote: “There’s not likely to be a more meaningful, absorbing, forceful and radical performance by an American musician this year, or any year soon, than Beyoncé’s headlining set” at the festival. With 458,000 simultaneous viewers and 41 million total viewers from around the world, it was the festival’s most viewed performance to date, and the most watched live streamed performance of all time.

In one more example over the last year of black artists using their platform to bring about social change or awareness, about a week after Beychella, Janelle Monae found her voice too, coming out about her sexuality on the eve of the release of her latest studio album and its accompanying short film, “Dirty Computer.” Janelle dedicated the album to those who feel differently. In her interview with Rolling Stone, Janelle said, “I want … people who are having a hard time dealing with … feeling ostracized or bullied for just being their unique selves, to know that I see you. … Be proud.”

We certainly can’t ignore the power of the #MeToo movement. From the departure of Sony’s Epic Records CEO L.A. Reid and the dismissal of Berklee College of Music Jazz professors, all from sexual harassment claims, to the #MuteRKelly efforts, women in music and entertainment have made it clear that they will not be dismissed. Spotify took steps to hold R. Kelly accountable for his multiple accusations of sexual misconduct by cutting promotional ties with him. The company’s new approach puts pressure on other companies in the music industry to define their own positions on similar situations.

The Women in Harmony symposium regarding the #MeToo movement that the National Museum of African American Music held in March, featuring Time Magazine Persons of the Year Tarana Burke and Ashley Judd, along with BMI’s Catherine Brewton made it clear that even the most powerful men must be held accountable.

The issue of criminal justice reform also made its way to the fore of social consciousness thanks in part to the music community rallying in support of fellow artist Meek Mill. Fans, athletes and entertainers, such as Jay-Z, Kevin Hart, Isaiah Thomas and T.I., used protest marches, social media, and their music to show their support and to highlight disparities in criminal sentencing.

Over the last year, we also saw the power of storytelling and the birth of a new kind of protest music. In Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” the dissonance and sad accuracy of a video that shows dancing in the foreground and racially-tinted violence in the background holds perhaps the most memorable and haunting images of the past year in music. This video was released about a month ago, and we still can’t stop watching it. “This is America” was the fifth fastest music video to reach 100 million views in YouTube history, and that took only nine days. It is now closing in on 200 million views.

And at around the time that Childish Gambino was releasing his video, Kanye West excited controversy with his statement that “American slavery was a choice.” Clearly this position is inaccurate and insensitive. But his remarks and this dialogue are a reminder that musicians have a platform to reach the masses and impact the news cycle like few others.

Finally, we saw improved inclusion over the last year in music. Jazz at Lincoln Center, an institution that brought African American music to new levels of respect and institutional support, celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. In December, at the 40th annual Kennedy Center Honors program in Washington, D.C., Queens Rap legend LL Cool J became the first Hip-Hop artist to be honored at the event, along with Lionel Richie, Carmen de Lavallade, Norman Lear and Gloria Estefan.

In April, Kendrick Lamar became the first rapper to win the Pulitzer Prize for music, honoring his work on the Grammy winning album DAMN. In fact, Kendrick is the first non-Classical or Jazz artist to ever win the prestigious prize. And it capped an amazing year for Kendrick that also included his work producing and curating the soundtrack to the movie Black Panther, which also featured Sza, Vince Staples and the Weeknd.

One cannot recap the year in music without noting that in May, just two weeks ago, there was a Gospel choir singing at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, now the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Karen Gibson and the Kingdom Choir performed “Stand By Me,” “Amen,” and “This Little Light of Mine,” three songs with deep significance in African American history and culture. It was a remarkable moment; unfathomable in other times.

Likewise, we will take the opportunity here to pay homage to those who came before us. This past year, we marked the centennial birthdays of Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, and we mourned the passing of many beloved artists who made us dance, reflect and dream. We honor their contributions as we close this first State of Black Music address and turn toward the future.

We are keeping an eye out for more cross-genre collaborations such as Snoop Dogg’s ambitious gospel album, “Bible of Love,” which features contributors ranging from Marvin Sapp to Charlie Wilson.

We also believe that in the coming year R&B and Hip-Hop will continue their influence on the music industry, while gaining traction and legitimacy in new settings. As evidence, a year ago, rapper A.D. Carson completed a 34-song album he called Owning My Masters: The Rhetorics Of Rhymes & Revolutions and submitted it as his doctoral dissertation.

A.D. Carson is now Dr. Carson, teaching at the University of Virginia as Assistant Professor of Hip-Hop and the Global South. Today, at Thomas Jefferson’s university, writing Rap is not an offense, it’s a course of study. And that curious fact, perhaps a footnote to the year in music, is what gives us so much hope for tomorrow.

The State of Black Music is strong. Maybe stronger than ever before.

Research and analysis for the National Museum of African American Music compiled by curators Dr. Dina Bennett.

NMAAM Celebration of Legends Gala on May 31, 2018 in Nashville, Tennessee