Influential Black People in Music

June 10, 2021
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RTA Team Leader, Anna Molloy, looks at some of the most influential (yet maybe not always talked about) Black people in music

My original blog for Black History Month was going to be about modern day music that was influenced by Black culture. Did you know that techno started out in Detroit and house music started as an underground club scene in Chicago, mainly played at a venue called The Warehouse by pioneering DJs Frankie Knuckles and Ron Hardy.
While researching, I actually realised that Black music and artists have influenced all areas of modern music from the obvious RnB to Rock and Roll and country music. With the up-and-coming movie Respect about to be released, it made me think how many influential Black artists are there that we don’t know about and what are their stories.
We all know about the legends that are Louis Armstrong, Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles but there are many unsung or forgotten musical heroes that made a massive impact in the music scene and broke down barriers.

R Nathaniel Dett- Composer 1882 – 1943

Robert Nathaniel Dett was born in Canada his ancestors were among the slaves who escaped to the North. He majored in piano and composition and was the first person of African descent to graduate from Oberlin College. His most important work was while working at Hampton Institute, here he took the choir to new levels of musical excellence, which gained him the job of Director of Music at Hampton in 1926, the first Black person to hold that job. During his career he wrote many pieces/songs influenced by folk and spiritual music including Listen to the Lambs and The Emancipation of Negro Music which an important literary prize at Harvard

William Grant Smith 1895 -– 1978

Dubbed ‘The Dean of African American Composers’, William Grant Smith broke barriers for future generations by having a lot of ‘firsts’. He became the first African American to conduct a major US Symphony Orchestra and his opera, A Bayou Legend, was the first opera by an African American to be performed on TV, laying the path for future African American composers/artists.
Smith wrote over 150 pieces, incorporating blues, spiritual and jazz into his compositions. His first symphony was one of the most performed of its time by any American. He was not only involved in classical music but had an input in many pop music recordings working with popular singers of the time such as Sophie Tucker and jazz artist Artie Shaw.

Mamie Smith 1883 – 1946

Mamie Smith was an actor and singer who in 1920 made history by recording Crazy Blues, believed to be the first blues recording.
Little is known about her early years but in her 20s she was starring at the Lincoln Theatre in Made in Harlem. This is where she was approached to do some blues recordings including Crazy Blues which was purchased by both Black and white consumers putting Mamie Smith on the map for representing Black female artists in the popular music culture and opened the doors for blues music to be recorded and distributed.

Junita Hall – 1901-1968

Performer, actor and recording artist and the first African American to win a Tony award.
Juanita Hall is mostly known for her role as Bloody Mary in South Pacific, the role which won her a Tony Award in 1950 – the first African American to win a Tony award. She also played the role in the movie Adaptation.
Hall’s early career was singing and directing in a choir and led the Juanita Hall Choir when they performed on radio.

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