Racism Has Shaped Music As We Know It [Funk Radio E100]

Today we spend our 100th episode theorizing how racism and discrimination have historically (and unfortunately) developed music into what it is today.


If you’ve been following our past few episodes, you may have noticed that we’ve been tackling some rather controversial topics. So it may not surprise you that we’ve saved one of the most controversial subjects for our “Funktennial” episode. With the help of three guest hosts (Moo, Eric and Andrew), we delve into some ways that racism in American culture has historically affected the way that certain types of music have grown over time. In some cases, there are genres that we argue would virtually not exist if it weren’t for the socio-economic hardships that those musicians and their people endured.

We find it important to clearly state that racism (or other forms of discrimination) is a terrible thing, and we’re not justifying it in any way. The message here is that racism is an undeniable part of our nation’s history, and as such has had a direct influence on certain types of music.

Because this is such a big topic, we can’t expect to cover everything within an hour-long podcast, but we do touch on some of the big points and go down some tangent discussions for interesting perspectives. Here are some questions we brought up, and are worth taking a moment to ask yourself:

Would historically “Black” genres like Soul or Hip Hop exist today without the social injustice that inspired them?

We’re pretty confident to say that no, they wouldn’t.

While Soul evolved from two other primarily “Black” genres, Gospel and Blues, the real inspiration behind it was to convey the hardships that African Americans were facing during the 1960s in the age of the Civil Rights movement. Some of these songs are about despair, others about empowerment and hope for a better tomorrow. If you listen to many of the core Soul songs, this message is pretty clear. A Change is Gonna Come by Sam Cooke (1964) is a prime example.

Similarly, Hip Hop primarily grew during the 1980s as the product of Blacks’ frustration when, even after receiving lawful rights to equality, they were still facing unfair treatment and “ghettoization” in America. Although (or maybe because) the original meaning may have faded over the last 30 years, you can say without a doubt that, unlike Soul, Hip Hop is still widely popular in 2014.

If it hadn’t been for the social boundaries between “White” and “Black” music, what would we be listening to today?

It’s hard to say for sure, so we can only theorize.

We feel that genres like Jazz would have been widely accepted much sooner by the White audience and there would have been significantly more collaborations and experimentations in these styles by White musicians. Later styles like Doo Wop may have actually remained somewhat intact, as racism wasn’t a driving force in their development.

We do believe that there would still have been some racial separation just culturally speaking. In other words, some Black musicians may have developed a style of music based on their historical roots, and some White musicians may have explored their own styles separately. Lack of racism doesn’t mean racial cultures can’t grow in parallel – obviously we all come from different places and bring with us our own unique identities. And that’s a wonderful thing.

Is racism still a driving force of music today?

It may in some small ways, but overall we think not.

Racism absolutely exists today. Due to the nature of human beings, it’s probably fair to say that there will never be such a thing as “no racism anywhere.” But in the last few decades we’ve seen a significant (and fortunate) decline in overall discrimination. We can attribute some small part of this to the growth in technologies like the Internet, which have given us an unprecedented ability to learn, understand and embrace other cultures. In the same way that we’ve learned to appreciate different kinds of people and music, musicians have been able to collaborate and share their styles with each other more than ever.

That being said, we don’t live in a perfect world. The argument that genres like Hip Hop encourage misogyny and racism is something that we do touch on in this discussion, but that’s a much bigger can of worms that we can’t try to “solve” here. It’s an interesting premise, though – instead of racism driving music, is the music now driving the racism? It’s something worth thinking about.

Alas, we covered many points in our discussion and we do hope you take a listen to hear some of our theories. As a couple of White guys we’re certainly not the end-all authorities on racism, but we’ve tried our best to bring these issues to light and help you think critically about how such an unfortunate social trend has managed to give us these significant developments in the world of music.

As a final note, we want to thank all of you for faithfully listening to us for the last 100 episodes. We recently celebrated the show’s 2-year anniversary as well, so it’s been quite a journey so far. Where will the Funk take us next? It’s not easy to say, but we hope it’ll be just as fun as it’s always been.

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