On Labor Day, the National Museum of African American Music is scheduled to open its doors in downtown Nashville, a 56,000-square-foot venue honoring the history of black music.
Having a music industry professional and African American music and popular culture expert, Dyana Williams, on the board of the museum is no coincidence given that she, along with Cleveland DJ Ed Wright and Kenny Gamble — of Philadelphia’s famed Gamble and (Leon) Huff production team — created Black Music Month in 1979.
It was decreed that same year by President Jimmy Carter to become an annual celebration (President Barack Obama tweaked the name to African-American Music Appreciation Month in 2009, but it is still referred to in both ways), and its resonance is particularly striking in recent weeks.
On the June 1 kickoff of the 41st annual commemoration of Black Music Month, Williams addressed music listeners online and said that the annual tribute was established, “to highlight the dynamic contributions of music makers.”
Some of those music makers will be spotlighted on V-103 (WVEE) in daily vignettes that morning show host Frank Ski says gives him “the opportunity to look back and remember” some of the classics.
Following the nationwide protests and riots last weekend, the station’s program director Reggie Rouse used the Monday morning show as a platform to spotlight socially searing songs from Childish Gambino, Kendrick Lamar and Tupac Shakur.
“There are songs out there that speak to what’s going on and what’s going on is not new. We’ve been here several times before, and there have always been songs that have come out of it,” Ski said.
The coinciding of this year’s Black Music Month with palpable unrest after the Memorial Day death of George Floyd in Minneapolis is leaving music listeners, including Ski, with balancing deeper listening with comfort material.
“Someone said to me on social media, ‘We need a ‘Self Destruction’ song again,’” Ski said, referencing the 1989 single by the Stop the Violence movement spearheaded by KRS-One. “I wish these newer artists now would get together. We need hip-hop to come together.”
Sean Garrett, the Atlanta-born songwriter behind such smashes as Usher’s “Yeah!” and Beyonce’s “Ring the Alarm” and producer of 18 No. 1 singles, is reflective about current events and the intersection with Black Music Month.
“We must survive this. This is progression. It’s time for change. There was a song called ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ (Sam Cooke) that was written so beautifully back in the ‘60s, so how can we not expect change through music?” Garrett said.
He acknowledged that it’s a “trying time” for the beginning of Black Music Month, but shared that on Sunday he listened to Marvin Gaye’s, “What’s Going On.”
“What’s beautiful about music is that it’s so vivid. It’s so emotionally connected to life, and it says that life repeats itself over and over again,” Garrett said.
Even with all of the current raw emotion, Ski said he also appreciates the value of a heartwarming ballad from Luther Vandross and Patti LaBelle, both of which grabbed his attention last weekend when Ski and his wife watched the Will Packer film, “The Photograph,” which features a soundtrack ripe with classic soul and R&B songs.
“I think that when the pandemic hit and everyone was home, all the DJs, myself included, were on Instagram doing sets, and we were all playing these old school sets and people like that,” Ski said. “I think during Black Music Month, people will want that comfort.”
Here are a few ways to appreciate Black Music Month.
— TV One will air the original documentary, “The Beat Don’t Stop,” at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. June 21. The film highlights the history of go-go music and hails the musician who spearheaded the musical movement, Chuck Brown.
— The National Museum of African American Music crafted a Spotify playlist (“Black & Proud: Black Music Month 2020”) that includes music from Janelle Monáe (“Make Me Feel”), James Brown (“Talkin’ Loud and Sayin’ Nothin’”), LaVern Baker (“Love Me Right”) and Big Freedia (“N.O. Bounce”).
— Bounce TV, which is based in Atlanta, will celebrate Black Music Month throughout June with the airing of films including “Cadillac Records” (featuring Beyoncé as Etta James and Mos Def as Chuck Berry), “Lady Sings the Blues” (Diana Ross as Billie Holiday), “Juice” (starring Tupac Shakur) and “Idlewild” (with Atlanta’s Big Boi and Andre 3000 of Outkast). Visit bouncetv.com for dates and times.
— Brown Sugar, the streaming service affiliated with Bounce TV, will be free to anyone accessing the service through Xfinity X1 from June 15-21. Its programming includes “Al Green: Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” (a 1991 performance); “Michael Jackson: The Journey”; “Prince: A Purple Reign” and “The Winans: The Lost Concert” (a 1984 performance by the gospel pioneers). Visit brownsugar.com for a full list of shows and available platforms.
— The live concert “Let’s Stay (IN) Together: A Benefit for The Apollo Theater” is scheduled to take place on June 4 on apollotheater.org. The show, a co-produced production between Gibson and the Apollo Theater, featured a performance lineup that included “Captain” Kirk Douglas of The Roots, Gary Clark Jr., Kool & The Gang, Robert Randolph, Michael McDonald and Keb Mo, as well as appearances from Dionne Warwick, Doug E. Fresh, Teddy Riley and Roy Wood Jr. The free stream is also available via Tidal.
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