The Edit


black music history

As part of our celebration of Black History Month US, we wanted to trace the Black music history of some of our favourite music genres.

From jazz to hip hop, country to R&B, there are points in the evolution of music that may surprise you.

Names that might not be on your radar and key turning points that date back to the earliest days of history, as different people and cultures combined across the globe.

These are very much the highlights from hundreds of years’ of music development and intended as an overview, rather than a fully comprehensive guide, of the history of Black music.


From the 10th to the 15th Century, early archaeological representations reference instruments in Yorubaland, Western Africa.

These mainly consisted of drums, bells and other percussion instruments. Many African musical traditions and influences were then directly transported to Northern America during the Trans-Atlantic slave trade era, which began in the 1400s, driven by the expansion of colonial European countries Portugal, Spain, France, Britain and Holland.

From the 1500s, African and European musical traditions mixed openly in Cuba in and the wider Spanish and French colonies.

In parallel with the cultural, religious and musical traditions in Africa, the Islamic Empire was growing, and early Muslims conquered the North African regions and Spain. This united Persian, Islamic and African culture, and this blend gradually expanded into Europe, leading to Andalucia’s cultural rise.

The Muslims brought key scientific and cultural advancements to Spain, including early instruments such as the ud (lute), viol (a precursor to the violin) and the first reed/double reed instruments (eventually leading to the clarinet and oboe.)

Plus, vocal and singing practices, percussion, polyrhythmic traditions and dance.

The Crusades during the 1100s had the consequence of spreading key influences of this cultural melting pot through Europe. The 1480s saw the unification of Spain, which led to the beginnings of colonial ambition, in search of gold.

Key developments in Cuba included rhythmic forms such as habanera (the foundation of tango) and other key syncopated rhythms which had their origins in African traditions, that ultimately lead to the rhythmic foundations of jazz, blues and much of US popular music.

In parallel with this, Caribbean and Latin American popular music developed, party led by key Cuban styles such as son, mambo and rhumba.


In terms of Black music history, country music is one of the oldest genres we can trace – for example, in 1678, Martinique provided the first mention of banjo-like instruments in the Western Hemisphere, which evolved from similar instruments used in west Africa.

At that time, there was a government ban specifically on the ‘kalenda’, a gathering where enslaved Africans danced to drums and the ‘banza’.

Instruments played in Mali, Senegal, Gambia and Guinea-Bissau, such as the Jola ekonting and the Manyago bunchundo, also shared early banjo features.

The earliest evidence of the banjo is in documents from the Caribbean in 1746, which were discovered by historian Dena Epstein, while in his Notes on Virginia, (1781), Thomas Jefferson describes enslaved Africans at Monticello playing ‘the banjar, which they brought hither from Africa.’

Through the 19th century, Americanized interpretations of English, Scottish and Scots-Irish traditional music (often from settlers in Appalachia) were shaped by African American rhythms and minstrel songs, creating a further melting pot of cultural influences within country music.  

However, by the late 1830s, white performers had begun to mock Black artists, using blackface (known as minstrelsy), whilst appropriating their style of singing and instruments - most notably, the banjo.

Minstrelsy was one of the US’s most popular forms of musical entertainment by the middle of the next decade, which was an unfortunate consequence of African-American music and dance gaining a wider audience.

In 1920, ‘Race Music’ became an official music market sector, with Mamie Smith’s ‘Crazy Blues/It’s Right Here for You’ released. Simultaneously, ‘Hillbilly Music’ effectively erased Black people from country music’s origins.

In 2019, Lil Nas X brought country music full circle when he released his country hit ‘Old Town Road’, which broke the world record for the longest time at No.1 in the Billboard chart, staying on top for 17 weeks. A true black history music moment!

The Blues

The blues’ origins can be traced back to the ways in which Africans from various tribes, countries and cultures would use singing to identify friends and family during the passage crossings, when they had been kidnapped from their homes.

One of the most important names in the history of the blues is Ma Rainey (the subject of the recent Netflix film, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, starring Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman).

One evening in 1902, near Clarksdale in the Mississippi Delta, when she was about 16, Ma Rainey heard a young woman singing a sad song, which she quickly learned by heart and used as a closing song for her act. This turned out to be a critical moment for the blues.

Over the course of the following two decades, 1911 saw the birth of Robert Johnson, one of the best-known blues performers; the next year, WC Handy, the ‘Father of Blues’, released ‘Memphis Blues’, followed two years later by his biggest hit, ‘St. Louis Blues’, which became a million-selling sheet music phenomenon in the era before records.

Making history in 1924 was Bessie Smith, dubbed the ‘Empress of the Blues’, when she became the highest-paid African-American performer in America after signing a contract with the Theater Owners Booking Association (TOBA).

Just a year later, the first recordings of the country blues were made. Performers include Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charley Patton and Robert Johnson. In 1930, blues legend - and a rare female guitar player - Memphis Minnie recorded 'Bumble Bee' with her first husband, Kansas Joe.

The advent of the Chicago blues was sparked by Muddy Waters’ introduction to the electric guitar in 1945.

Commentators differ in their view of whether the blues or gospel, country and folk had the greater influence in the development of rock ‘n’ roll – and to the degree which it was a re-branding of African-American rhythm and blues for a white market, or a new hybrid of black and white forms.

Chuck Berry was inspired by electric blues, establishing the electric guitar as rock ‘n’ roll’s centrepiece, and adapting his rock band instrumentation from the basic blues band combination of a lead guitar, second chord instrument, bass and drums.

It is debated which was the very first rock ‘n’ roll song, but the main contenders are all by Black artists.


What are the origins of soul, and how did it lead to disco, funk and R&B?

At the start of the 18th Century, work songs, developed from African traditions, were commonplace in enslaved communities. Field hollers, chain gang songs and corn ditties were the predecessors to ‘spirituals’, the ‘call-and-response’ singing style forming the blueprint for many strands of Black music that followed.

Enslaved Africans were legally forbidden from learning to read or write, so they would also pass on stories through the oral tradition of singing.

This oral tradition later led to the exchange of coded information and directions for those who wanted to escape their horrific lives via the Underground Railroad.

In 1728, the First Great Awakening sparked a religious revival across America, with huge numbers of both Black and white people being converted.

A decade later, Dr Isaac Watts published Hymns & Spiritual Songs, favoured by enslavers wanting to convert the enslaved to Christianity. Spirituals were conceived, which carried African DNA in their rhythms and structure.

The early white settlers’ Gaelic psalm singing is also believed to have influenced the development of spirituals.

Spirituals were the precursor to gospel, and spread through southern enslaved communities throughout the 1740s, conveying hope and freedom.

The first book to document spirituals, Slave Songs of the United States, was published by abolitionists William Francis Allen, Lucy McKim Garrison, and Charles Pickard Ware in 1867, two years after slavery was abolished in the US.

Slavery songs were introduced to the world by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, from Fisk University, Nashville, at the start of the 1780s, helping to preserve spirituals.

Arizona Dranes, the ‘Mother of Gospel’, was born in 1889, and went on to be the first African-American artist to introduce secular styles, like ragtime, to the church.

She was also an inspiration to Thomas Dorsey, ‘the Father of Gospel’, who organised the first gospel choir in Chicago, in 1931. He also founded the National Convention of Gospel Choirs and Choruses, and the first label focused solely on Black Gospel composers’ music.

Then known as the Harlem Hit Parade, the first unofficial Billboard R&B chart appeared in 1942; soul pioneer Ray Charles’ first national hit, ‘Confession Blues’ hit No. 2 in 1949.

In 1952, BB King achieved his first Billboard R&B No. 1 with ‘3 O’Clock Blues’ – this kicked off his prolific recording and touring career and made him one of R&B’s most important names in the 50s and beyond.

In 1953, gospel, jazz and crooner pop started evolving into soul, as Black performers altered the content of religious songs into secular compositions. For an example of this, look to Ray Charles’s ‘I’ve got a Woman (Way Across Town)’, which is a secular version of the gospel song, ‘I’ve got a Savior (Way Across Jordan)’.

Sam Cooke, previously a gospel singer, is credited with creating the first soul release with ‘Loveable’ which is a secular version of gospel song, ‘Wonderful’.

It’s striking to note how much of what’s thought of as ‘pop’ vocals today came out of this ‘soulful’ way of singing.

A huge moment in 20th Century music occurred when Berry Gordy launched Motown Records in his native Detroit in 1959 – it was one of the first Black-owned record labels to achieve major commercial success.

Aretha Franklin was named ‘Queen of Soul’ by Pervis Spann, a host on Chicago station WVON, in 1964; she recorded her version of Otis Redding’s ‘Respect’ in 1967, and it became her signature song, taking its place at No. 1 in the Billboard Hot 100.

James Brown, dubbed ‘the Godfather of Soul’, was born in 1933. He became hugely influential across a whole range of later genres, including funk and hip hop, and is one of the most sampled artists of all time.

Soul branched out into the more subversive disco sound, with the opening of New York clubs The Continental Bathhouse and the Sanctuary in 1968.

The former, located in the basement of the Ansonia hotel on 74th Street and Broadway, became a cultural hub for not only music and clubbing, but also queer culture. A decade later, Studio 54 in the city was established as the absolute epicentre of disco and hedonism.

Disco continued its sequined rise through the late ’70s, as Chic released their debut, ‘Dance, Dance, Dance’ and Donna Summer’s classic ‘I Feel Love’ dropped; produced by Giorgio Moroder, it’s regarded as a cornerstone of modern dance music.

Prince, meanwhile, signed his first record contract, a three-album deal worth $1 million, with Warner Bros. in 1976. Stevie Wonder released his masterpiece, ‘Songs in the Key of Life’, considered by music professionals as the most innovative and inspiring album in the history of recorded music, in 1975.

As the 80s hit, disco was giving way to funk – Prince released the album and movie ‘Purple Rain’ in 1984 and ‘Queen of Funk’ Chaka Khan released her platinum-selling album ‘I Feel for You’ – in another genre crossover, the single of the same name was the first R&B hit to feature a rapper (Melle Mel.)

The 90s saw a wave of women becoming global superstars: Whitney Houston breaks records with ‘I Will Always Love You’ from The Bodyguard (she was named the most awarded female artist in history by the Guinness Book of World records in 2006); Mary J Blige’s debut album, ‘What’s the 411’ (produced by Sean ‘P Diddy’ Combs’) landed in 1992, while Missy Elliott’s debut, ‘Supa Dupa Fly’ heralded her arrival on the scene in 1997.

R&B and soul took over the mainstream worldwide at the start of the 21st Century, with Destiny’s Child’s third album ‘Survivor’ unleashing hit singles ‘Independent Women’, ‘Survivor’ and ‘Bootylicious’ on the charts, whilst Alicia Keys bagged 5 Grammys with her album ‘Songs in A Minor’ in 2002.

Usher’s third studio album, ‘8701’ (2001), produced two No. 1 hits, ‘U Remind Me’ and ‘U Got It Bad,’ and his first two Grammy Awards.

His fourth album, ‘Confessions’ (2004), sold more than 10 million copies in the US alone and netted Grammy Awards for best contemporary R&B album, best R&B performance by a duo or group and best rap/sung collaboration.

John Legend ushered in a new era of throwback soul with his double platinum album ‘Get Lifted’ in 2004, and platinum-selling ‘Once Again’ (2006), while Ne-Yo became both a solo superstar, and built an impressive resume of songwriting credits for everyone from Beyonce and Rihanna to Mary J. Blige, Jay-Z and Celine Dion.

In 2010, Beyonce was named best-selling artist of the 2000s, with 64 gold and platinum certifications, whilst Rihanna broke the record for the most No. 1s on the Billboard charts, clocking up 11, in 2014.

Female artists continued to lead the charge when Janet Jackson launched her Rhythm Nation label in 2015, making her the first female African-American recording artist to form her own record label.


In the history of Black music, New Orleans is viewed as the birthplace of jazz – founded in 1718 by the French, within three years, Black people, although still enslaved, accounted for more of the city’s population than free white people.

In 1724, the French implemented ‘Code Noir’ in Louisiana, giving enslaved people a Sunday ‘day of rest’; their gatherings included playing drums and other traditional African instruments, singing, dancing and religious ceremonies.

New Orleans was one of the only places in America where Black people could legally own and play drums at the time.

New Orleans was the birthplace of Charles ‘Buddy’ Bolden – also known as King Bolden – one of the pioneers of jazz, in 1877. In the 1880s, barbershop quartets emerged as a precursor to jazz.

They emerged as a form of Black music because, at the time, as one of the few occupations open to African-Americans, virtually all barbers were Black.

Another jazz precursor, ragtime, was beginning to peak around 1895, spearheaded by Joseph Lamb, James Scott and Scott Joplin, ragtime’s ‘big 3’.

Ragtime evolved into jazz with one of the very first jazz recordings in 1916 - The Versatile Four’s ‘Down Home Rag’.

It went mainstream, reaching Europe via US soldiers around 1922 and making stars of Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Duke Ellington.

Nat King Cole’s first big hit ‘All for You’, (1943) began a run of hits over the next 7 years which transformed him into one of the US’s biggest stars.

His romantic allure and smooth, graceful singing style counteracted public images of Black singers depicted by minstrels and other such derogatory caricatures, together with influencing a whole generation of singers.

In 1959, John Coltrane released his album ‘Giant Steps’, the same year that Miles Davis released the seminal ‘Kind Of Blue’.

Hip Hop

Hip hop is now the pre-eminent US music genre, officially surpassing rock as the most popular music genre in 2018. But how did it evolve?

Hip hop’s foundations were laid in 1966, when DJ Terry Noel became the first DJ to mix records together.

Building on this, DJ and music producer, New York’s Afrika Bambaataa organised block parties in the Bronx during the late 1970s and became known as ‘the Godfather’.

Another pioneer of hip hop culture was Kool Herc, a DJ for Bronx block parties. The original form of Djing was done to loop drum breaks using turntables to make the ‘break’ last longer.

This changed music drastically as it gave B-boys the beats to break to, and for MCs to rap to.

Rappers may have taken the more front and centre place in hip hop, but the innovators of scratching, cutting, backspins and needle drops provided the foundations for them to build on.

And DJ Kool Herc got there first, when he hosted a Back to School Jam with his sister in 1973. At the party, Herc unveiled a technique called ‘The Merry Go Round’, playing breaks back to back.

The Winstons had released ‘Amen Brother’ in 1969, which was used to create the legendary ‘Amen break’, one of history’s most sampled.

The Amen break was popularised by 80s hip hop producers after it featured on a compilation featuring funk and soul tracks with clean drum breaks intended for DJs.

Later, jungle and drum‘n’bass artists rediscovered the break and it’s still widely used.

The most sampled record of all time, is James Brown’s ‘Funky Drummer’, released in 1970. The first international hip hop hit came courtesy of The Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’ in 1979, which reached the Top 40 in America and went all the way to No.3 in the UK chart.

1987 saw Eazy-E and Dr Dre form N.W.A, the first ever gangster rap group; Eric B. and Rakim released 'Paid In Full' in the same year.

A year later, Chicago's Fast Eddie pioneered hip house, a precursor to the connection between modern dance music and hip hop, and in 1989, De La Soul released the seminal hip hop album, ‘3 Feet High and Rising’.

New York DJs Adrian Bartos (Stretch Armstrong) and Robert 'Bobbito' Garcia launched their legendary hip hop show on 89.9 WKCR-FM in 1990.

The early 90s featured Tupac’s first solo album ‘2Pacalypse Now’ (1991) and A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘The Low End Theory’, which has been widely credited with laying down the blueprint for alternative hip hop.

Regarded as one of the greatest hip hop albums of all time, and eventually hitting triple platinum status, the Wu-Tang Clan’s debut, ‘Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’, in 1993 was also notable for the album deal the group struck.

For the first time, it allowed solo members to sign contracts with other labels, separate to the group.

From the mid-90s on, female artists came to the forefront, with Queen Latifah the first female rapper to win a Grammy award in 1995, winning the Best Rap Solo Performance category for her hit ‘Unity’.

Missy Elliott’s debut album ‘Supa Dupa Fly’ hit the turntables in 1997, while Lauryn Hill's ‘The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill’ became the first hip hop LP to win the Best Album Grammy in 1998.

At the turn of the century, Jay-Z broke out with ‘Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)’, sampling Broadway musical Annie, Dr. Dre released his album ‘2001’, and in 2007, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five became the first rap inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Also making history? Jay-Z, who in 2008 became the first rapper to headline the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury.

The following year, Drake released third official mixtape ‘So Far Gone’, which launched his mainstream career, resulting in him becoming the biggest selling male artist in American history by 2018.

Two huge David Guetta-produced dance music/hip hop/R&B collabs - the Black Eyed Peas’ ‘I Gotta Feeling’ and Kelly Rowland’s ‘When Love Takes Over’ - inspired a slew of superstars to adopt the commercial dance music sound, christened EDM.

Future made history in 2017, when ‘Future’ and ‘HNDRXX’ became back-to-back No. 1’s, having been released on consecutive weeks.

A major cultural milestone was achieved by Kendrick Lamar in 2018, when he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, for his album ‘DAMN’. He is the first non-classical/jazz artist to be honoured in that category, with the Pulitzer committee commending the album’s, ‘affecting vignettes, capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.’

Want to Find Out More About Black Music History?

For more on the history of Black music, Black History Month music, and the evolution of popular genres, dive into our timeline video, or check out our articles on hip hop, iconic jazz moments in film, and the UK jazz renaissance. Celebrate Black History Month USA with us!

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