History Through Adjectives
This piece was written by Emmanuel Carrillo, Vista’s Arts and Culture editor.
While consuming some form of bite-size information (probably a YouTube video) I heard something that made me stop and really think. The guy talking said that we shouldn’t call jazz an American artform, but should instead call it an African American artform. I took time to think about this distinction and whether it’s truly necessary, eventually coming to the realization that it’s crucial. Labelling art as African American is not a negative process making it less American. It is an additive process that serves as a reminder of the historical legacies that brought about these movements. Yes, jazz was born in America, but not really. It was born out of the experience of being black in America, an experience too often at odds with American ideas of unalienable rights and freedoms.
I remember talking to a friend about how most important musical movements in twentieth century America have origins in black communities. The usual suspects come to mind: jazz, blues, hip-hop, and the like, but you can’t forget Fats Domino and Little Richard who popularized a little thing called rock and roll. Don’t forget the contemporary pop music of the last half century or so either. And house music? Why, yes, and thank queer black people for most of its dances. Even your favorite hipster folk band with a beardy banjo player has roots in black America. These movements sprung up in a country hesitant to receive input from what it considered to be a group apart from itself, an other. African American artists resisted marginalization, going on to define America’s blossoming cultural landscape.
Since such a large portion of American culture has its roots in the experience of black Americans, can we justifiably call it our collective culture, meant for black and non-black alike? Can I rightfully call Charlie Parker, Aretha Franklin, or Biggie Smalls part of the American musical canon? Yes, but only kind of. American culture was the medium through which African American culture took form, but the two are not synonymous. These art forms and cultural movements originate from a black American narrative, one which you can’t fully know looking in from the outside. American culture as a whole took years of boiling to become the amalgam it is today, but what the man in the soundbite was saying is that we must never forget where it began. We must never forget the people who fought against an oppressive system to express themselves, the people who radically altered the fabric of our country forever.