Music defines the world: black history throughout the years

Illustration by Karly Andersen

Iman Mekonen, Contributing Writer

Throughout history, African-Americans have turned to music to express emotion and creativity. Many artists have created unforgetting and game-changing albums that have redefined what it means to be a black musician in the music industry. Although there are many who fit the category, here are just a few examples.

“Thriller” by Michael Jackson (1982)

Jackson’s most commercially successful album defined the unique sound of the 1980s and continues to hold cultural significance in the black community. The extreme success of “Thriller” marks its relevance to all communities by connecting people from all backgrounds and transcending geographical borders.

This nine-track album changed the way artists promoted their work. “Thriller” was released as a single and accompanied by a 14-minute short film, which helped its commercial success. Directed by John Landis, the film was inspired by the horror movie genre and Landis’ film, “An American Werewolf in London.”

It also acted to break racial barriers — MTV hesitated to broadcast Jackson’s music video at first, but it was immediately successful.

Jackson won seven Grammys for the album in 1984, including “Album of the Year”. “Thriller” is one of the highest-selling albums in the U.S. and it includes themes of unity, racial equality and interracial relationships. It also features performances from popular rock musicians, and the influences of disco, jazz, blues and rock ’n’ roll can be heard on the record.

Jackson sings a duet with musician Paul McCartney in the song, “The Girl is Mine.” Jackson and McCartney sing in a conversational style about fighting over a lover, highlighting interracial relationships.

In the music video for “Beat It,” Jackson unites two violent gangs together through the power of music and dance. The song also features a guitar solo from Eddie Van Halen and includes elements that suit all music tastes.

The creation of Jackson’s album helped pave the way for other black artists in the music industry, including Prince. The musical style and lyrical storytelling within “Thriller” continues to inspire generations, artistically and musically.

“The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” by Lauryn Hill (1998)

Hill’s debut solo album marks her only album to date, but it serves as an inspiration to members of the hip-hop community even 20 years later.

Its commercial success opened doors to other black female rappers in the male-dominated hip-hop industry.

Inspired by her departure from rap trio The Fugees and her unexpected pregnancy, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” acts as a poetic diary into her life by combining the diverse sounds of soul, doo-wop, hip-hop, and rhythm and blues to tell stories about love, motherhood, religion and her exit from The Fugees.

The Fugees’ second album “The Score” includes the singles “Fu-Gee-La” and “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” which highlighted Hill’s strong rapping ability and unique vocal range.

The albums includes skits at the end of a few songs like “To Zion” and “Doo Wop (That Thing)” about children in a classroom setting talking about love.

The single “Doo Wop (That Thing)” communicates Hill’s stances on self-respect and empowerment seen in the lyrics “Don’t be a hard rock when you really are a gem/ Baby girl, respect is just a minimum.” The song debuted at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

The song “To Zion” is dedicated to Hill’s first-born child and describes her relationship with motherhood. She speaks on the joy brought into her life with references to the Bible.

“The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” earned 10 nominations and won five Grammy Awards in 1999, including album of the year — becoming the first hip-hop album to do so. Hill became the first woman to earn 10 nominations for an album in a single year, as well as the first woman to win five awards in one night.

Hill’s role as a successful woman in the music industry has empowered the black community with her unapologetic attitude, creative lyrics and signature dreadlocks.

“808s & Heartbreak” by Kanye West (2008)

Written in the wake of his mother’s death and a breakup with his fianceé, “808s & Heartbreak” serves as a magnifying glass into a deeply emotional and dark time in West’s life.

The content of the album is as honest as the title. It’s a personal story about his battle with heartache and told with the use of electronic beats from a Roland TR-808 drum machine. Auto-tune, a program used to alter the voice, heavily influences the album’s sound and serves to show emotion and grief.

“808s & Heartbreak” diverges from West’s previous albums and shows an alternate side to his life by allowing listeners to understand his pain.

The loneliness and insecurity he experienced after these events are particularly prevalent in the two songs, “Welcome to Heartbreak” and “Coldest Winter.”  

The former explicitly depicts the audience the loneliness he suffered in the line, “My friends show me pictures of his kids … All I can show him is pictures of my cribs.”

West’s musical vulnerability has inspired other artists, like Kid Cudi, Drake and Frank Ocean.

West’s emotional expression helped the world understand what he was going through. With these albums, he has influenced black America and the entire music industry.

“To Pimp a Butterfly” by Kendrick Lamar (2015)

In “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Lamar tackles tough conversational topics, including police brutality, slavery, gun violence, colorism and mental health.

Inspired by a trip to South Africa, Lamar shares his experiences as a black man in modern-day America. The album is heavily influenced by his trip, shown in the elements of the album’s sound.

The song “Complexion (A Zulu Love)” discusses colorism, a form of discrimination based in the idea that lighter skin tones are favored over darker skin.

Lamar alludes to the beliefs of the Zulu, a South African ethnic group, emphasizing human kindness and love regardless of skin color.

Lamar continues to reference Africa in “i,” where he denounces the use of the N-word and supports the use of the word “Negus,” a term used in the Amharic language from Ethiopia to describe members of royalty.

The single “Alright” has served as an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement by bringing a message of hope in a time of suffering. The chorus, sang by producer Pharrell Williams, is constantly repeated throughout the song — “We gon’ be alright … Do you hear me? Do you feel me? We gon’ be alright.”

In “Blacker the Berry,” Lamar mentions Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black teenager who was killed by a neighborhood watch captain in 2012. Martin’s death sparked outrage and inspired the Black Lives Matter movement, which highlights oppression experienced by black people.

Lamar uses his voice to call attention to issues and topics that could make the listener uncomfortable — but that’s the point. “To Pimp A Butterfly” serves as an inspiration to the black community because it explicitly tells the story how it is.

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