Why the documentary is key to stopping Black music erasure

OPINION: With Black Music Month coming to a close, theGrio talks about how Black music documentaries have been essential tools to reveal the buried truth about innovative Black artists and events.

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Black American music has always been subject to a formulaic cycle once confronted by white gatekeepers. Condemn; co-opt; commodify; homogenize; mass-produce. Be it jazz, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll, disco or pop; this has always been the way. 

Black creatives innovate Black music to serve the collective community. White media and critics then condemn it as guttural, unintelligent and dangerous. The white-led corporations find a way they can do it for a mass audience. Once they do so, they profit from it, after which they begin to water it down, give it to the people and claim ownership over time. 

This is an act of artistic and cultural colonization. 

If these powers-that-be had it their way, so much of the history of Black music would go unknown or severely altered and diluted. But thanks to the power of the films and the diligence of the filmmakers and producers, some of the most important artifacts of Black music history are being preserved. 

We have seen many great documentaries that detail beloved Black artists and institutions like Spike Lee’s “Bad25” or Nelson George’s “Finding the Funk.” But there has been so much about Black music that millions would’ve thought never happened until films about them were released. 

Over the past 15 years, numerous documentaries have surfaced that either shed light on Black musical subjects and genres or have uncovered a monumental event that should be commonplace in the history books, the archives and consciousness of modern popular culture. 

Films like “Mr. Soul!,” “Soul Power” and “Summer of Soul” have helped re-educate a community on events that galvanized a generation at the time, while movies like “A Band Called Death” and “For Love & Country” reveal the truth about the innovation of genres that are claimed by white culture. 

“Soul Power,” a 2008 film by Jeff Levy-Hinte, unearthed a long-forgotten music festival from 1974. Originally filmed with the intent to release it theatrically soon after, “Soul Power’s footage captured participants of a music festival meant to coincide with the infamous heavyweight championship bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, dubbed “Rumble in the Jungle.”

The open juxtaposition of African artists with American titans of color like James Brown, Bill Withers, The Spinners, Sister Sledge and Celia Cruz and Fania All-Stars, was as inspiring as it was funky. 

From 1968 to 1973, PBS aired “Soul!,” a Black talk show that was a platform for a great many Black performers, activists and poets like Al Green, LaBelle, The Last Poets, Sonya Sanchez, Earth, Wind & Fire, Stevie Wonder, Cicely Tyson, Amiri Baraka, James Baldwin and Stokely Carmichael. The fact that such a cornerstone public television program existed for six years and more than 50 years later, it took Melissa Haizlip’s 2018 documentary, “Mr. Soul!,” to inform the public of its existence is purely frightening about how easy it was to erase something of such historical value. 

Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for his directorial debut, 2021’s “Summer of Soul.” Like “Soul Power,” the film dug up lost footage of another vital gathering, the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Featuring stars like Nina Simone, Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips and Mahalia Jackson — to name a few  — the film not only showed how Harlemites came together to celebrate each other, but big corporations thought very little of the festival footage. So much so that it was left unreleased for more than five decades.

As mentioned earlier, there are many musical genres and subgenres that are associated with white culture and white artists because of the commodification and erasure of Black innovators. Thankfully, these documentaries have shed light on the real origins. 

When you think of punk music, you think of bands like The Ramones and The Sex Pistols. In 2012, a film called “A Band Called Death” illustrated that it was a Black band that predated them and others. Mark Christopher Covino and Jeff Howlett’s film told the story of three brothers, Bobby, Dannis and David Hackney, from Detroit, Michigan, who started a band in 1971. Their approach to hard rock was a template for what became punk music. Thanks to the film, history can be corrected. 

Country music is synonymous with Nashville, Tennessee, dominated by white players, writers, singers, producers and executives. Because of Joshua Kissi’s 2022 film, “For Love & Country,” fans will now learn the history of how much Black artists contributed to the formation and growth of country music. And with today’s new, emerging Black country stars like Mickey Guyton, Darius Rucker, Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen, the past and the future can now be connected. 

Black music documentaries have become essential tools for education about Black music history. Hopefully, they are inspiring not only more films of this nature but also leading viewers to independently research and investigate.

One thing is sure: Black music history cannot be taken at face value anymore.These films and future films are the proof. 

Matthew Allen is a Brooklyn-based TV producer, director and award-winning music journalist. He’s interviewed the likes of Quincy Jones, Jill Scott, Smokey Robinson and more for publications such as Ebony, Jet, The Root, Village Voice, Wax Poetics, Revive Music and Soulhead. His video work can be seen on PBS/All Arts, Brooklyn Free Speech TV and BRIC TV.

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