The leaders of America’s political and corporate institutions have discovered one of several successful formulas of mass population control in the form of cultural hegemony. By determining a hegemonic culture that reinforces a belief system embraced by the power elite, they have tried to prevent any possible dissent among the lower classes. Cultural diversity, especially when mixed between classes and races appears threatening to the upper classes who wish to have all classes embrace the same belief system as themselves.
Political and social dissent in cultural expression has always been expressed most frequently with music. As a result it is music that has often been subverted or suppressed. The racism in the modern music industry is a prime example of the unjust treatment of minorities.
Robert Rydell addresses one of the origins of pervasive racism in popular culture in All the World’s a Fair. The international expositions held between 1876 and 1916 show how the promoters began to see the possibilities for mass consumption in popular culture, solutions to class warfare and ways to defend themselves and their moral authority from the perceived threat of the non-white, non-Christian population.
Rydell demonstrates the methodology of the elites in their manipulation of the concept of “progress,” the use of Darwinist anthropology to justify racism, and the nativism that developed into a self-righteous sense of imperialism abroad. Racism provided the backbone for most of the attitudes and practices developed at the expositions. It was racism that ultimately inspired their desire to control the contents of mass culture.
Directors of the Atlanta and Nashville fairs illustrated such control. In the entertainment avenues, they set up demeaning dance displays of black people in a concession called the Old Plantation. It had the atmosphere of a zoo, where “young bucks and thick lipped [sic] African maidens ‘happy as a big sunflower’ dance the old-time breakdowns, joined in by ‘all de niggahs’ with weird and guttural sounds to the accompaniment of ‘de scrapin’ of de fiddle and ‘de old bangjo [sic]'” (Rydell, 87).
The continued influence of the racist attitude can be traced to the rock ‘n’ roll music industry. Ever since whites first recognized African-American folk music as real music, it has been “borrowed” in order to facilitate the success of white performers like the Christy Minstrels with black skin makeup, or “refined” by European-trained black composers like Louis Moreau Gottschalk and Edmond Dede to fit the narrow spectrum of white music.
From the Duke Ellington’s and Count Basie’s swing to the black pioneers of ragtime, blues and jazz, the record businesses owned by white men stifled their deserved financial success in comparison to the white benefactors of manufactured Tin Pan Alley tunes. Even by the late 1930s, brilliant artists like Besse Smith, Billie Holiday, Robert Johnson, Big Joe Turner and Tampa Red were unknown to everyone who did not have access to the handful of “race” record stores in segregated neighborhoods. Few radio stations played any sort of “race music.”
The reluctance of stations to play music by black musicians is linked to the cultural hegemony developed in the expositions. Much of the words in black music, particularly in many blues songs, eloquently express black peoples’ discontent with the injustices pressed upon them. Indeed, there is often a sense of righteous anger that would serve as a powerful unifying force for oppressed minorities if it were to be disseminated throughout the airwaves of America.
By the time Fats Domino, B.B. King, Sonny Boy Williamson, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry had developed the blueprint for rock ‘n’ roll in the early 1950s, the baby-boom generation began to grow into a highly influential group of consumers, giving the industry incentive to capitalize on the junk teenage culture and abandon any elitist ideals of sophistication in music. But at first the industry would only let white men like Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Louis to become rich and famous from rock ‘n’ roll. Many songs written and performed by blacks were covered by faceless whites that put them on the charts. Throughout the first decade of rock ‘n’ roll, major label corporations including RCA, Capitol and Atlantic made sure that white culture reigned supreme, if only in illusion, with a majority of performers plagiarizing blacks.
The true celebrities in rock ‘n’ roll were always white, from Buddy Holly to Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. It was not until 1964 when racial segregation in the record stores and radio would begin to change. It was the rise of the Motown label in Detroit, Michigan with the Supremes as it’s first top ten singles success. The Temptations and the Four Tops were soon to follow, prompting Motown to adopt the nickname “Hitsville, U.S.A.” What appeared to be a renaissance in the popularity of black music lasted for only a short time. Much of black music not supported by huge conglomerates was smothered under the rolls of fat protruding from the majors.
By then, many black musicians were again fueled by frustration and disgust at racism, revealing a political thrust within their community in the struggle for integration. Some even preferred to do without integration as long as they could have justice. As a younger, more radical generation who became involved in black pride and black power, the sentiment was developed that mainstream white society and culture was not worth integrating into. White culture included rock ‘n’ roll, which was stolen from them in the first place. Blacks largely would not claim it as their own again until the 1980s.
Meanwhile, black people who chose to continue bold progress in music were restricted to the underground. With the exception of Jimi Hendrix, a prime example is George Clinton’s band Funkadelic, who began making records in the late sixties in Detroit, by then the home of the Black Panther Party. They synthesized a brilliant hybrid of soul, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll and funk, with cocky lyrics inspired by the radicalism of black politics in Detroit. Because they represented the very same kind of class wars that the expositions at the turn of the century aimed to squash, Funkadelic and their small label were completely ignored by the music industry, and despite their inspired influence in music, banned from the rock ‘n’ roll press and history books.
By the 1970s corporate FM radio had taken possession of the airwaves, further segregating blacks from the cultural hegemony of rock ‘n’ roll. While black music managed to maintain artistic progress with the support of British skinhead support of soul, ska, reggae, and the rich integration of the 2-Tone movement, America only had disco. Disco provided only an extremely limited form of commercial artistic exposure for a few black musicians. It was often viewed as an inferior form of music, as embarrassing as African-American folk music was to white people at the turn of the century.
Ironically, it was from the racist controversy of Music Television in the early eighties that finally sparked the revolution in commercial black music. The first years of MTV were tainted with their completely all-white playlist. Just before the resulting protests could have permanently damaged MTV’s success, they introduced Michael Jackson and later Prince. Dozens of artists followed their success, even making the popularization of rap, otherwise known as hip-hop possible. With the help of Vernon Reid, blacks also chose to re-cultivate their rock ‘n’ roll roots and call them their own with The Black Rock Coaliton.
There are, however many signs that show racism has not been purged from the corporate music industry. The classic American double standard can best be illustrated by the recent controversies surrounding the white heavy metal band Guns N’ Roses and the black class-conscious hip hop group Public Enemy. While racist and sexist sentiments revealed by Axl Rose in interview prompted their label to defend the band’s right to free speech, the anti-Semitic comments from a member of Public Enemy prompted Columbia to drop them like a hot potato.