Music Notes

Black History Month–African Americans and the Arts

February 20, 2024
Inside HR
Diversity and Inclusion
Read time: 2 mins

"African Americans and the Arts" is the 2024 theme of Black History Month. As you listen to contemporary music, enjoy a great read, find inspiration or solace in poetry, or enjoy another art form, it has likely been influenced by one or more African American artists. Smithsonian Music makes the following statement referencing their impact on music:

African-American influences are so fundamental to American music that there would be no American music without them.

From 1910 to 1920, African Americans migrated in large numbers from the South to the North, making their homes in cities such as New York, Chicago, Detroit, and Pittsburgh. The History Channel reports that by 1920, approximately 300,000 African Americans had relocated north, many to the New York City neighborhood of Harlem. This geographic movement proved significant for various reasons—particularly as it began a moment in Black art history called the Harlem Renaissance. These decades (1920s and 1930s) supported and brought recognition to hundreds of Black artists, including writers, musicians, actors, singers, painters, and poets, whose work continues to inform and influence arts and literature today.

Just a few of the notable artists of the Harlem Renaissance include author Zora Neale Hurston, poet and writer Langston Hughes, sculptor Augusta Savage, actor and singer Paul Robeson, and painter Alma Thomas, whose vibrant artwork sold in 2023 at auction for just under $4 million.

Harlem Renaissance musicians brought new forms of music that continue to influence contemporary artists today. Be it the jazz greats Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, singers Bessie Smith ("Empress of the Blues"), Ma Rainey (the "Mother of the Blues"), or noted bluesman Robert Johnson (the "King of the Delta Blues Singers"), their inspiration continues for contemporary artists.

Next time you read the powerful poetry of Amanda Gorman (the young poet at President Biden’s inauguration), listen to an Eric Clapton guitar riff, or sing along to Beyonce or Prince, thank the Harlem Renaissance for starting it all!