Walk This Way: The Influence of African Americans in Popular Music


By Jevon Daly

The influence of African Americans in popular music has had a huge impact on all of our lives. As part of Black History Month, I will delve into what kind of impression black singers, songwriters and entertainers have had on me.

I’m sure a lot of you out there have experienced some of the same feelings I have. The more I hear people talk about how different we all are in America these days—choosing sides and becoming angry—it makes me sad. This article—and most of the ones I write—will continue to celebrate one of the things that has and will continue to bring us together and make us feel like one big family, despite our different colors, religions and politicin’: MUSIC.

I think the first real music I got into when I was young was Run-DMC. My cousin Maria must have had a tape when she came down to visit in 1984. I heard the rapping and the simple beats and was instantly a fan. It was new music back then. There was no Vanilla Ice or gangsta rap out at that time. It was fun, but also had an underlying message about the streets far away from my Hilton Head Island home. The struggle was in the music, but these guys had fun, too. Fat shoelaces and Kangol hats, man! Super chemistry when MCing on the microphone was great.

There was an explosion of hip hop culture, and I’m trying to piece all the early stuff I saw on TV together in my brain without using Google. When did I see the movie “Beat Street”? I somehow got some Adidas and had to learn to break dance a little. My brother Gavan was better at both breakdancing and surfing, but I had fun and it made me who I am today: a music fan. A fan of style. A fan of culture. And a fan of rapping.

I recently interviewed Charlie Daniels for South magazine, and when I mentioned that “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” may have been the first rap/country hybrid, he paused. He then told me they were just going for something new. Is it rap? If I was an alien visitor, I would probably say yes.

The clothing and slang has become a part of how America speaks. Moms tell their kids to “chill.” It’s household terminology nowadays. Disagreeing with me is fine until you have a few beers at the bonfire and find yourself blasting Drake or Nelly on the way home from the game.

I also heard guys like Muddy Waters at my house. The blues is something I think “bores” a lot of people out there, but without it there would be no Jimmy Buffett. No Faith Hill. No funk, no jazz, no rock—the blues is the Father Daddy Boss. Muddy Waters and dudes like B.B. King and Buddy Guy paved the way for Pink Floyd guitar player David Gilmour. Led Zeppelin ripped riffs right off of recordings they heard by Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon. Keith Richards might live forever, but he owes the devil more than just his life…he owes him for the gift of the blues. Spooky, sometimes hypnotic, groove music that was later smoothed out and homogenized for white audiences and repackaged with cool haircuts and beards (yuck)!

After high school, I gave jazz a chance and was blown away by the rock and jazz fusion album, “Bitches Brew.” The album had the beat. The cover freaked me out a little. The trumpet blown by Miles Davis blew my head clean off—poof! I was a changed man, again. Another thing to get into. The wild solos and frenetic piano I heard from guys like Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner left classical piano music in the dust, as far as I was concerned. This piano I was hearing from Monk was alive, breathing and red hot. I know nowadays jazz has kind of been softened and plays mostly during cocktail hours at weddings, but men like William Parker and Craig Taborn are still moving forward. Sucker MCs must call them sire.

Miles Davis had a real issue with his own demons as he aged. But he also found himself falling in love with Jimi Hendrix, jamming with Prince and stealing Sly and the Family Stone rhythms and beats for his own music. Michael Jackson came along and thrilled us all with dancing and exceptional music from the time he was 7 or 8, up until he put on the red jacket and did the zombie shake.

This article could just go on and on. From Robert Johnson to modern-day cowboys like D’Angelo and Questlove, it just keeps on tickin’. The beat of a different drummer we can all dance to. Black music will always be. Walk this way or dance that way—it’s all the same big beat rockin’ down the street.