Assimilation, Integration, And Identity In Black Popular Music Essays Example

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Music, Artists, White, Women, Disco, Rhythm, Identity, Sexuality

Pages: 5

Words: 1375

Published: 2020/12/27

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While rock ‘n roll started as rhythm & blues, with black artists writing music for black audiences, this close tying of rock ‘n roll with black identity started to wane with its increasing popularity with white audiences. As a result, black artists began to be faced with a choice – assimilation or self-sufficiency (George, 3-8). The same was true for female artists, finding it difficult to reconcile integrating with male artists or striking out on their own to forge their own identity (Whiteley 65-69). The 1960s and 1970s were a particularly trying time for black and female artists, as the political movements of this chaotic time forced these artists to deal with this aforementioned balance between white and black, man and woman, niche and mainstream. The most successful artists, however, managed to weather the storm by doing both: offering their own individual personalities while still offering just enough accessibility to find mainstream success in their musical careers. Through an exploration of artists such as Donna Summer, Barry White, Funkadelic, David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix and more, this tightrope walk in popular musical culture can be further illustrated, showing the precarious mix between equality and personal pride that existed for minorities and women in the 60s and 70s.
The 1960s was a particular time of change – the rise of rock ‘n roll as a racially-homogenous adaptation of rhythm and blues was in full swing, and black artists often found themselves unable to stand out in the midst of the British Invasion and white folk artists. Jimi Hendrix, however, was one notable exception – a former rhythm and blues sideman, Hendrix took his guitar to the mainstream airwaves, fully embracing the chaotic and artistically challenging genre of seventies rock. That being said, his complete and total departure from the swing and funk of rhythm and blues indicated his unwillingness to keep himself tied to an often-antiquated idea of authenticity. With his own rock music, “his success with guitar-based music made him an outcast on Black Main Street,” establishing his audience of white teenagers who fully embraced the counterculture and took drugs (George). In this way, Hendrix fully embraced his ability to assimilate into white rock culture, largely abandoning any fealty to any R&B roots he may have had.
The assimilation of black artists into white popular culture (and vice versa) is a topic that is not without its controversies. George, in his assessment of how rhythm & blues died because of record industry manipulation that forced black artists to compromise in order to be heard by greater audiences, is highly negative of the perceived illegitimacy of white popularity for black artists. Much of this sense of assimilation is criticized for making black artists make artistic compromises to cash in on trends:
“Within the realities of the American system, both [assimilation and self-sufficiency] are necessary for advancement but only assimilation, the strategy that dilutes the racial power bloc in exchange for an American identity of dubious rewards, has dominated the thinking of most black Americans” (George).
One particular example of someone who chose assimilation is Donna Summer, one of the biggest stars of the 1970s disco scene. Four Seasons of Love, her debut album, is said to “define the worst tendencies of Eurodisco while at the same time making Summerthe period’s biggest black female star” (George). In doing this, Summer’s popularity (helped by the marketing cachet of large record companies) contributed to an overall decline in a perceived authenticity in black music, as black artists seemingly ‘sold out’ in order to cater to whiter audiences, which helps to explain the disco craze. The disco craze of the 1970s was primarily a female phenomenon, as female artists like Summer became popular divas while black male singers were “essentially shunned” (George).
In this way, it is easy to see a change in black popular music trends in the 1970s toward a more alternative genre of music, as black artists found themselves reconciling the desire for commercial success with the difficulties inherent to keeping themselves authentically black. Disco itself was a mixture of rock ‘n roll, rhythm ‘n blues sounds with rigid European electronic and pop beats, something which could arguably neuter the authenticity of a black artist’s music. From this perspective, Summer and other singers like her could be considered violators of their own black musical tradition, in their seeming abandonment of rhythm ‘n blues for the more androgynous, compromising and homogenous mixing of white and black music that was disco in the 1970s.
While the vast majority of black musical stars in the disco era were women, there were some men who were able to break through (and, ostensibly, be granted more authenticity than the women were permitted to keep). Barry White, for example, is thought of as more authentically ‘black’ and more indicative of his people’s approach to music through his more stripped-down, orchestra-laden, and elegant approach to music in the midst of disco (George). His music and songs are associated with a specific breed of black sexuality and allure, particularly his low tempos, provocative lyrics, and deep bass vocals; as opposed to the strict, peppy and inoffensive rhythms of Eurodisco, White’s work was allowed to stay more authentic to its rhythm and blues roots, giving it the perception of greater authenticity. By carving out that niche for himself, Barry White established himself as the primary voice for black sexuality – and in this respect, he still garnered mainstream respect due to white audiences who were attracted to his songs for that very reason.
Apart from individual artists, the 1970s saw black men maintaining their authenticity by forming funk groups, such as Parliament-Funkadelic. Unlike the homogenous, light and airy works of Donna Summer, Funkadelic’s works “stuck to their grooves, weaving humor, parody, tons of slang, and the skills of some extraordinary funk musicians” (George). By making their work ‘anti-disco,’ Funkadelic in particular defined themselves by their blackness, and their music was an active retort against the “Placebo Syndrome” that Funkadelic leader George Clinton called “funkless black music” (George). In the 1970s’ wave of disco and black artists working to keep themselves authentic instead of selling out to white music styles, Funkadelic established themselves as a dike against the rising waters of musical mediocrity.
Just as many black artists were either catering their music for white audiences or using their blackness as part of their novelty, women artists also struggled with their identity, either using sex to sell or playing with the idea of owning their sexuality to make it their own. Madonna, in particular, was well known in the 1980s for her highly sexualized and eroticized images of herself, a seemingly natural evolution of the diva craze of the disco era (Whiteley 17). Madonna’s wild costumes, provocative music, and heavy electronic sound in her early albums were a clear step further in the direction of artists like Donna Summer, but using a more in-your-face sensuality to establish herself. While this can be (and often was) interpreted as a shallow catering to sexuality and eroticism to sell records, Madonna’s music and persona also allowed for a certain freedom and liberation of women’s bodies and their sexuality. Rather than catering to men’s lustful needs, Madonna’s goal was seemingly to take possession and ownership of her body in order to redefine her sexuality on her own terms (Whiteley 18).
In conclusion, the evolution of popular music for black and female artists in the 1960s and 1970s was a constant push and pull between authenticity and establishing one’s identity. Some artists, such as Jimi Hendrix and Donna Summer, found mainstream success by catering to white audiences through their love of disco music and guitar-based hard rock, with little of black music’s R&B roots to be found in their works. Others, like Barry White and Funkadelic, carved out their own niche and found mainstream popularity not by assimilating, but by maintaining their sense of pride and self-identity as black men. In keeping with the international beauty and pop sensuality of Donna Summer, female artists like Madonna followed in her heel-steps and established their own unique brand of sexuality in their music and performance personas, which would permit them to forge their own identities independent of the male gaze. These two decades proved to be incredibly influential ones in the establishing of racial and gender identity for musical artists, showing the many different ways in which women and people of color could survive and thrive against the threat (or opportunity) of assimilation and integration of black and white musical styles and cultures.

Works Cited

Espar, David, and Robert Levi (dirs.) Rock & Roll (miniseries). 1995.
George, Nelson. The Death of Rhythm & Blues. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.
Whiteley, Sheila. Women and Popular Music: Sexuality, Identity & Subjectivity. New
York: Routledge, 2000.

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WePapers. (2020, December, 27) Assimilation, Integration, And Identity In Black Popular Music Essays Example. Retrieved June 14, 2021, from
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"Assimilation, Integration, And Identity In Black Popular Music Essays Example," Free Essay Examples -, 27-Dec-2020. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 14-Jun-2021].
Assimilation, Integration, And Identity In Black Popular Music Essays Example. Free Essay Examples - Published Dec 27, 2020. Accessed June 14, 2021.

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