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My Life in Black Music

Posted 01/20/21 by Rhonda B. Sewell

As we usher in Black History Month in February, a time to recognize the historical contributions of American Black influencers and across the diaspora, many may be unaware of an annual summer observance for Black music.

The 39th U.S. President Jimmy Carter first decreed the month of June in 1979 as Black Music Month. The observance’s name was updated to African American Appreciation Month in 2009 by 44th U.S. President Barack Obama and is still recognized today.

From my lens, the deep impact and role that Black music has played in the experiences of the underrepresented, in social justice, celebrations, faith, as a unifying force, and for all people globally, deserves recognition 365 days of the year.

As a child of the 1970s, my parents exposed me to music of all types, from the rock sounds heard on the former CKLW Windsor radio station and R&B tunes on the Black-owned WKLR, to the range of 45s purchased from the former Peaches Records and Sound Asylum record stores.

My parents and I travelled annually during summer breaks to Kentucky to visit my grandmother, and the lack of Black radio stations in the South left my family recording WKLR tunes prior to our trips and labelling them on giant 8-track tapes in preparation for our drive down Interstate 75. I found joy in being allowed to shove the tapes in the large slot, familiar to most Gen Xers, in our avocado green Opel station wagon. When I pressed play, the collective singing would begin accompanying the familiar tunes of Earth, Wind and Fire, Natalie Cole, Cheryl Lynn, Con Funk Shun, Sister Sledge, The Bar-Kays, Stevie Wonder and so much more.

As an elementary school student, my Dad once packed up my Casio electronic piano and brought it to my Catholic school so that I could compete in an upper-class talent show playing the Gold single hit from 1958 titled Tequila by The Champs. Although not a Black band, the Latin horn sound and call and response aspect of the soulful tune was familiar and had me hooked.

As a pre-teen, my friends and I competed in the St. Ursula Academy Cherry Blossom Festival talent show and danced energetically, styled with a combination of Afro puffs and fluffy Farah Fawcett flipped hair, wide-legged bell bottoms, and red bandannas hanging from our back pockets as we danced an intricately choreographed and well-rehearsed series to the popular 1975 funk single Love Rollercoaster by the Ohio Players. Even the nuns appeared to enjoy our performance.

These were the memorable sounds of my youth. But my respect for Black music was solidified later as an adult, during my18 years of work as a newspaper journalist. There, I interviewed and rubbed shoulders with celebrities, designers, political figures, authors and various influential Black musicians, including Usher, Frankie Beverly, Jamie Foxx, Lyfe Jennings, Brian McKnight, the late Father of Vocalese Jon Hendricks, Marion Meadows, and Lil Wayne to name a random few.

Today, I’m engrossed with my Rhonda Jams list on the music streaming service Spotify, which includes R&B/funk hits from Chaka Khan, Kleer, Tom Browne, Pleasure, and Foster Sylvers. I also entertain my old school vibes by every now and then playing several 33 1/3 rpm vinyl albums on a Victrola record player, including Prince’s Purple Rain and Earth, Wind & Fire’s That's The Way of the World.

My vast interest in other genres of music, Classical, Folk, Hip Hop, Smooth Jazz, Classic Jazz, Heavy Metal, Pop, and Neo-Soul, are endearing, but my preference if this were a contest, would hands down be the Black Music sounds of the 1970s from my youth.

In addition to listening to Black music and musicians, I suggest reading books to celebrate next month’s Black History Month, and to prepare for African American Appreciation Month this summer.

Here are a few recommendations from the Toledo Lucas County Public Library catalog:

Cover of Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the United States

Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the United States

Cover of Sweat the Technique: Revelations on Creativity from the Lyrical Genius

Sweat the Technique: Revelations on Creativity from the Lyrical Genius

Cover of On This Day in Black Music History

On This Day in Black Music History

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