A Brief History of African-American influence on Rock & Roll

The his­to­ry of rock & roll is also a his­to­ry of racial pol­i­tics, both inside and out­side of music. In its ear­ly form, rock & roll pos­sessed a sub­ver­sive polit­i­cal force before it became a cap­i­tal industry.

TEXT Mercy Ferrars LEKTORAT Lara Helena FOTO Jakayla Toney

“For some of us, it began late at night: hud­dled under bed­room cov­ers with our ears glued to a radio pulling in black voic­es charged with intense emo­tion and pro­pelled by a wild­ly kinet­ic rhythm through the after-mid­night sta­t­ic. Grow­ing up in the white-bread Amer­i­ca of the Fifties, we had nev­er heard any­thing like it, but we react­ed,”

writes Robert Palmer in the Rolling Stone.

Rock & roll was born in 1950s Amer­i­ca, large­ly pio­neered by Black rhythm & blues musi­cians. Their sound, crude­ly put, had been trans­formed due to their labels’ flir­ta­tions with white coun­try music and Black blues and jazz. Born into the era of segregation—which was firm­ly estab­lished in the legal and cul­tur­al struc­ture of U.S. soci­ety, espe­cial­ly under the South’s so-called Jim Crow laws—it pop­u­larised Black music, act­ed as a cat­a­lyst in over­com­ing racial divi­sion and deliv­ered the dream of free­dom and revolt to white teenagers’ door­mats. Rock & roll his­to­ry is also a his­to­ry of race both with­in and with­out music. In such light, rock & roll pos­sessed sub­ver­sive polit­i­cal pow­er in its ear­ly forms, moments before it became a cap­i­tal indus­try. When ear­ly rock & roll first saw the light of day, its sound was so close to rhythm & blues that it made musi­cians such as Fats Domi­no ques­tion the emer­gence and neces­si­ty of the genre. Coun­try, swing, African-Amer­i­can and Latin influ­ences bled into 1940s’ R&B, blend­ing it into a new sound: ener­getic, rev­o­lu­tion­ary and young. Musi­cal­ly, rock & roll did not orig­i­nate from inno­va­tion but a fusion of racialised sound prop­er­ties such as riffs, beats and rhythms. Its mul­ti-eth­nic influ­ences can­not be denied:

“The Bo Did­dley beat, which […] began show­ing up on records by every­body from the for­mer jazz band­leader John­ny Otis (“Willie and the Hand Jive”) to the Texas rock­a­bil­ly Bud­dy Hol­ly (“Not Fade Away”)—was Afro-Caribbean in deriva­tion. The most durable (read “overused”) bass riff in Fifties rock & roll […] had been pinched by Dave Bartholomew, Domino’s can­ny pro­duc­er and band­leader, from a Cuban son record. […] Tra­di­tion­al Mex­i­can rhythms entered the rock & roll are­na through Chi­cano artists.”1

Emerg­ing artists had seg­re­gat­ed mul­ti-colour audi­ences dance in the same venue, set up self-expres­sive flam­boy­ant shows and oozed joie de vivre, sex­u­al­i­ty and free­dom. This new found feel­ing of rebel­lion and rev­o­lu­tion res­onat­ed with lis­ten­ers. Rock & roll became an eman­ci­pat­ing cul­ture, char­ac­terised by youth­ful rebel­lion and social non­con­for­mi­ty. It was most­ly mar­ket­ed towards white teens who had mon­ey they were keen on spend­ing and who had already been immersed in the ener­gy and soul­ful­ness of Black music behind closed cur­tains. Espe­cial­ly for teenagers, rock & roll opened up a new form of self-expres­sion, when “hard-dri­ving rhythm-and-blues and raunchy blues records” intro­duced them to “a cul­ture that sound­ed more exot­ic, thrilling, and illic­it than any­thing they had ever known.2

Fifties’ rock & roll loos­ened the dehu­man­is­ing ide­olo­gies set by the Jim Crow laws and pre­pared cul­tur­al­ly what the civ­il rights move­ment would achieve in the next decade. In the same year of 1954, the ‘sep­a­rate but equal’ pol­i­cy which had ruled since 1896’ Plessy v. Fer­gu­son was razed with the Unit­ed States Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Edu­ca­tion rul­ing; all the while a young white Elvis Pres­ley was record­ing his first hit—“That’s Alright Mama”—with rock & roll’s most avant-garde pro­duc­er Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Mem­phis, Tennessee.

A pho­to­graph pro­motes the movie Jail­house Rock and depicts singer Elvis Pres­ley. 1957 / Metro-Gold­wyn-May­er, Inc.

Brown v. Board of Edu­ca­tion ruled seg­re­ga­tion ille­gal in schools, allow­ing Black kids to attend white schools, which includ­ed bus­ing between Black and white neigh­bour­hoods; and it became the first step tak­en towards end­ing seg­re­ga­tion.3 Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white pas­sen­ger in Mont­gomery, Alaba­ma, in 1955 while Lit­tle Richard start­ed to rise to fame, trans­form­ing the way white and Black folk shared pub­lic spaces while com­bat­ing racial stereo­types show by show. Elvis Presley’s first hit metaphor­i­cal­ly cut the rib­bon for rock & roll to become a lifestyle and genre white folk would embrace and which they could open­ly iden­ti­fy with. African-Amer­i­can music, which had pre­vi­ous­ly been dero­gat­ed as “race music,” was now made avail­able to a wider white audi­ence, which changed its sound into a more ster­ile ver­sion of itself. With the new music style, a new name was need­ed: rock­ing and rolling, alleged­ly an ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry Black slang term for sex­u­al inter­course, titled the rebel­lious, fast-paced, excit­ing new genre and lifestyle. 

As the cen­tu­ry pro­gressed into its 60s, sev­er­al acts fol­lowed the deseg­re­ga­tion of schools ruled in Brown v. Board of Edu­ca­tion. While the non­vi­o­lent Civ­il Rights Move­ment leader Mar­tin Luther King Jr. was active from rough­ly 1955 to 1968, the Supreme Court ruled the Civ­il Rights Act (1964), ban­ning dis­cri­m­ini­a­tion based on race or gen­der; the Vot­ing Rights Act (1965), pro­tect­ing non-white vot­ing rights; and the Fair Hous­ing Act (1968). Rul­ings like Lov­ing v. Vir­ginia (1967) which lift­ed the ban on inter­ra­cial mar­riage and Heart of Atlanta Motel, Inc. v. Unit­ed States (1964) helped to fur­ther accel­er­ate and upkeep civ­il rights progress. How­ev­er, while pol­i­tics seemed to move for­ward, rock & roll took a step back­wards in its atti­tude towards race—a regret­table devel­op­ment con­sid­er­ing its ear­ly philo­soph­i­cal back­grounds laid out by one of its found­ing fathers, Sam Phillips. 

The Mag­a­zine of the Nation­al Endow­ment for the Human­i­ties claims that “The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll Is Found at Sam Phillips’s Sun Records” in a 2016 arti­cle.4 Sam Phillips (1923 — 2003) was one of the key fig­ures of rock & roll. A white boy from rur­al Alaba­ma, he was influ­enced ear­ly on by a vari­ety of musi­cal styles, includ­ing the music of his African-Amer­i­can peers with whom he had worked in the fields as a child. Anoth­er for­ma­tive event was a vis­it to Beale Street in Mem­phis, Ten­nessee, “home to an ener­getic and diverse music scene where yet-to-be blues and jazz leg­ends like Louis Arm­strong and B. B. King could be heard.5 From the begin­ning his stu­dio had been a wel­com­ing place for white and Black artists alike, although he found­ed Sun Records in the last decade before a polit­i­cal upheaval of racial pol­i­tics in the States. Phillips’ phi­los­o­phy remained sin­cere­ly unaf­fect­ed by the can­cer­ous seg­re­ga­tion of his time. As a result, he pro­duced rhythm & blues lumi­nar­ies such as B.B. King, Ike Turn­er and Rufus Thomas. Phillips released what some declare to be the first rock & roll sin­gle, “Rock­et 88” by the Ike Turn­er front­ed band Jack­ie Bren­ston and his Delta Cats. But his earn­ings were tena­cious, and he soon realised that he would do bet­ter in the era of seg­re­ga­tion if he could mar­ket Black rock & roll to a white audi­ence by proxy of white artists. 

 Ike & Tina Turn­er 1971 / Foto­col­lec­tie Anefo 

Among Phillips’ great­est dis­cov­er­ies was Elvis Pres­ley. Elvis’ sound was not a white sound. Many com­pare his voice to that of African Amer­i­can R&B singers. Count­less of his songs were cov­ers of African Amer­i­can musi­cians. But to the rebel­lious teenagers of his time, he became an idol while copy­rights issues weren’t as strict­ly dealt with as today. Many white teens had pre­vi­ous­ly lis­tened to rhythm & blues, and often did so in secret in heav­i­ly seg­re­gat­ed Amer­i­ca, but Elvis brought rock & roll to the white world and pre­sent­ed an icon white teens would iden­ti­fy with. He trig­gered a fren­zy that many white rock bands fol­lowed. Step by step, African-Amer­i­can influ­ence reced­ed into the back­ground in the mainstream’s per­cep­tion of rock music. In the 60s and 70s, most suc­cess­ful rock artists were white in per­cent­age. Phillips host­ed the country’s super­stars at Sun Records, includ­ing none oth­er than John­ny Cash. Hav­ing switched to pro­duc­ing Black-sound­ing white musi­cians styled accord­ing­ly for a white audi­ence, he con­se­quent­ly chose to move away from pro­duc­ing Black artists. And although at the begin­ning of his career Phillips orches­trat­ed the phi­los­o­phy of rock & roll as a cross-colour, inclu­sive move­ment; spir­it­ed by dreamy free­dom and racial equal­i­ty; he ulti­mate­ly con­tributed to the era­sure of Black influ­ence from the his­to­ry of rock music. In 1955, Philipps sold Presley’s con­tract and in 1969 he sold Sun Records, choos­ing to retire. Despite the slow aver­sion from its African-Amer­i­can roots, rock & roll added sig­nif­i­cant­ly to the social change in the States. “What could be more out­ra­geous, more threat­en­ing to the social and sex­u­al order sub­sumed by the ingen­u­ous phrase tra­di­tion­al Amer­i­can val­ues, than a full-tilt Lit­tle Richard show?” Palmer chal­lenges.6

Lit­tle Richard / Rob­bie Drexhage

By the 1980s, rock & roll had long since estab­lished itself as “white music.” White­wash­ing had cov­ered its mid-cen­tu­ry roots under a thick blan­ket. Most mod­ern gen­er­a­tions’ gen­er­al knowl­edge of rock his­to­ry does not date back fur­ther than the 70s, and so the nar­ra­tive that rock music is inher­ent­ly white cul­ture upholds itself. By the 80s, rock music had also grown into a huge cap­i­talised indus­try and had mor­phed from youth cul­ture into the main­stream. At the same time, hip-hop was devel­op­ing as a dia­met­ric antag­o­nist to rock, not only musi­cal­ly but also racial­ly. If rock & roll was now con­sid­ered white cul­ture, the key fig­ures of ear­ly hip-hop were African-Amer­i­cans from New York who rhymed lyri­cal vers­es over scratchy records, deal­ing with the still stark­ly unequal real­i­ty of life in the States—marked by police and gang vio­lence, pover­ty and sys­temic racism.7

If the gen­e­sis of rock & roll has proven any­thing, it is that music tends to cross bound­aries, brings peo­ple togeth­er, and is able to both define and dis­solve stereo­types. As the races are musi­cal­ly divid­ed once again, in the 1990s rap sud­den­ly comes in con­nec­tion with rock music and pro­gress­es to nu-met­al or “rap-rock.”7 World-famous 90s’ and ear­ly 2000s’ bands like Linkin Park, KoRn, Limp Bizk­it, Papa Roach, Rise Against the Machine or the Beast­ie Boys are famous rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the genre and dom­i­nat­ed pop cul­ture for at least a decade. Even though most of these bands are white, there are also col­lab­o­ra­tions insti­gat­ed by Black rap artists like Run D.M.C. with Aero­smith on a 1986 “Walk This Way” remake, Pub­lic Ene­my’s col­lab­o­ra­tion with Anthrax on 1991’s “Bring The Noise” remix, rap­per Ice‑T’s band Body Count, Jay‑Z’s col­lab­o­ra­tion with Linkin Park on “Numb/Encore,” 1990’s “Kool Thing” by Son­ic Youth and Chuck D, 2001’s “Clint East­wood” by Goril­laz and Del the Funky Homosapi­en, and count­less others.

What can be estab­lished of the his­to­ry of rock & roll? The genre and youth cul­ture which emerged from late Forties’/early Fifties’ Black R&B was influ­enced and affect­ed by a mul­ti­tude of eth­nic stim­uli and even­tu­al­ly devel­oped into a high­ly esteemed indus­try. With unprece­dent­ed dri­ve it instilled in many the feel­ing of free­dom, revolt and self-expres­sion. But mon­ey and pol­i­tics coloured it white and caused it to turn its back to its sub­ver­sive roots, pass­ing on a false “rock is white” nar­ra­tive to future gen­er­a­tions. The anal­o­gy of rock’s gen­e­sis and its many waves of racial sep­a­ra­tion and approx­i­ma­tion reflects the ide­olo­gies of its time. All the more impor­tant is keep­ing up the part of his­to­ry which is exclud­ed from the his­to­ry books.


Foot­notes
1Palmer, Robert. “The 50s: A Decade of Music That Changed the World.” Rolling Stone, April 19, 1990.
2Kot, Greg. “Rock and Roll.Ency­clopæ­dia Bri­tan­ni­ca.
3McWhort­er, John. “The Ori­gins of the ‘Act­ing White’ Charge.The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Com­pa­ny. July 20, 2019
4Scan­lan, Lau­ra Wolff, et al. “The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll Is Found at Sam Phillips’s Sun Records.The Nation­al Endow­ment for the Human­i­ties, 2016.
5Scan­lan, Lau­ra Wolff, et al. “The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll Is Found at Sam Phillips’s Sun Records.The Nation­al Endow­ment for the Human­i­ties, 2016.
6Palmer, Robert. “The 50s: A Decade of Music That Changed the World.” Rolling Stone.
7Gri­er­son, Tim. “Rap-Rock and Its Hip-Hop Ori­gins.” Live­About, 13 Apr. 2019.

Fur­ther Sources
History.com Edi­tors. “Black His­to­ry Mile­stones: Time­line.History.com, A&E Tele­vi­sion Net­works, 14 Oct. 2009.
Jor­dan, James. “Racial Roots of Rock and Roll.Medi­um, Pub­lishous, 1 Oct. 2019.
Rock’n’Roll.Board of Music.
Reents, Edo. “Sam Phillips: Der Mann, Der Elvis Erfand.Frank­furter All­ge­meine, 31 July 2003.
Sam Phillips.Sun Records, 7 Jan. 2022.
Car­o­line Pea­cock. “The True Sto­ry of Rock and Roll: How White­wash­ing Let down the Black Voice.” The Kol­lec­tion, August 3, 2020.
Van­der­burg, Col­in. “How Rock and Roll Became White.Los Ange­les Review of Books, 24 Nov. 2016.

ABOUT: Mercy Ferrars 

… author of Why We Are Here, pub­lish­es Fer­rars & Fields Mag­a­zine since 2019. As a philoso­pher she is most­ly inter­est­ed in inter­sec­tion­al crit­i­cal the­o­ry (of which she has some fair knowl­edge) and in the meta­physics of the uni­verse; time and space (of which she has basi­cal­ly none). As a writer, she most­ly writes nov­els, short sto­ries and poet­ry which cen­ter around an explo­ration of com­plex feel­ings. She can be a lit­tle seri­ous some­times (that’s why her favourite TV show is Bojack Horse­man) but her sense of humour is all the more basic (her favourite sit­com is New Girl…).

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