Why Black Music Month Still Matters

12th annual Phillies African-American Heritage Celebration
Mitchell Leff

Dexter Wansel, Kenneth Gamble, Eddie Levert, Eric Grant, Jean Carne, Walter Williams, Leon Huff and Billy Paul during the 12th annual Phillies African-American Heritage Celebration. 

Industry icon Kenny Gamble cites "tough times" for the genre, as he and co-architect Dyana Williams revisit the 1979 launch of the annual observance.

Back in 1979, President Jimmy Carter christened June as Black Music Month. President Barack Obama now proclaims the national observance as African-American Music Appreciation Month. But the mission behind the annual celebration hasn't changed: to recognize the rich and influential legacy of black music.

Two upcoming television specials will do just that. Legends Aretha Franklin and Shirley Caesar are among the performers featured on The Gospel Tradition: In Performance at the White House. Taped in April with T Bone Burnett as executive music director, the gospel tribute will air on PBS stations nationwide -- with TV One simulcasting -- on June 26. Then on June 28, the BET Awards will celebrate its 15th anniversary with initially announced performers Kendrick Lamar and Chris Brown.

Ahead of those events, Billboard checks in with two of Black Music Month's co-architects: Philadelphia International co-founder (with Leon Huff)/Grammy winner Kenny Gamble and artist development/media strategist Dyana Williams (Rihanna, T.I., Pitbull, A$AP Rocky). The pair reflects on what sparked the campaign and why it's still relevant 36 years later.

On reasons for establishing the observance:

Williams: Kenny, Cleveland radio DJ Ed Wright and myself wanted to advocate a period of time to celebrate all those involved in the creation and promotion of black music. In addition to being one of America's most influential and inspiring indigenous art forms, black music is also a viable economic resource to the tune of billions of dollars -- and one of our greatest exports around the world.

Gamble: It was time for something new and more inclusive of all black music industry professionals. The Country Music Association (CMA), which established October as Country Music Month, was a model we looked at. Under the Black Music Association (BMA) banner, we created four divisions: marketing/merchandising, record company executives, communications (DJs, TV executives/personalities and journalists) and entertainers/artists). The independent industry was collapsing into the major companies and they [Columbia, Warner, RCA] and others saw the viability of black music. We were able to get a lot of support from them. They started black music divisions and the sales of black music increased. Initially, Black Music Month started as an economic program more than anything else. We picked June as the time when we could concentrate on recognizing and celebrating the economic and cultural power of black music as well as those who made and promoted it. Our slogan then: "Black Music Is Green." 

On the first Black Music Month event on June 7, 1979 at the White House:

Gamble:  We'd noticed that the CMA had been to the White House several times, so we were like, "Why can't we go?" I called [former Motown president] Clarence Avant … he knows everybody. He called (former Warners Bros./Elektra-Asylum/Capitol president] Joe Smith and others and petitioned President Carter. Andrae Crouch and Chuck Berry performed and a lot of people were there that day. It was a great, uplifting moment for African-American music people. For so long, black folks had been pushed into a hole, like we didn't count.

Williams: After writing President Bill Clinton in 1998 to invite him to host a Black Music Month event at the White House, I was informed that while President Carter had declared June as Black Music Month, he did not sign a presidential proclamation. The White House suggested that I lobby Congress to obtain that legislation. Congressman Chaka Fattah of Philadelphia became my primary champion in introducing the African American Music Bill to the House of Representatives. I contributed to the draft language and ultimately we were victorious in securing the passage of House Resolution 509.

Courtesy Photo

On why the annual observance is still relevant:

Gamble: It's more important today than ever before; a reminder of what a great art form black music is. Our legacy and present contributions still encourage those of future generations. It's a cultural expression of multiple American genres; the basis for most other forms of music. We need to keep it going. As a community, we need to support black music, teach it in schools and every place you can think of.

Williams: From the Fisk University Jubilee singers who toured in 1871 to the great Mahalia Jackson, the first gospel artist to sell a million records in 1940, to Frank Ocean, we have lots of reasons to celebrate the diversity of black music in all its manifestations. At one point black-owned record companies such as Motown, Stax, Philadelphia International, LaFace and So So Def dominated radio, retail, touring and more. With the exception of Roc Nation, Cash Money/Young Money and emerging newcomers like Top Dawg, there are fewer successful black-owned labels and fewer African-American executives in key positions at major labels. We need to be more proactive than ever.

On the demise of the BMA in the mid-'80s:

Williams: After a couple of amazing years, respect and unity are what were lacking in the BMA. The BMA wasn't able to withstand splintered agendas in the leadership. That plus dissension about the organization's direction ultimately led to its demise. There's still the need for an organization that galvanizes all the styles of black music and also advocates the advancement of black music overall for this and future generations.

Courtesy Photo

On the current state of the industry in relation to black music:

Gamble: The whole culture of the music industry has changed. With fewer black executives or dedicated black divisions like back in the day, there are many A&R people at these companies who don't know anything about black music. But they still sign those artists. From my vantage point, it appears that investment in black artists is pretty much at a standstill. There has been a systematic dismantling and ongoing cultural appropriation of black culture. 

With the exception of trade publication Urban Network, there aren't any music conferences or trade associations for black music. And the few trade publications around seem to have abolished editorial space for artists unless they're among the few that have elevated to the top like Beyonce, Jay Z and Rihanna. What about the new artists? Who is breaking them? The labels don't appear to really be developing black artists. And black-oriented radio is part of the problem: many major broadcast companies aren't playing new music. In fact, some have flipped stations into old school R&B/hip-hop formats. That doesn't afford much airplay for new or established artists. These are tough times. I do think the international market is the most lucrative arena for black artists. There's still a great respect for them overseas. But I will keep working on the promotion and preservation of our music until I can't work anymore.