Black History? Black Future!

Once a year, music educators consider how to engage in Black History month as a learning opportunity for all. It typically shows itself in posters, videos, and classroom conversations.

Black students in our classes need representation in their music education, and all students need to see the whole color wheel. Music classes provide a unique window. When introducing contributions of Black artists in popular music genres, you could cull from any guitarist/bass guitarist on this list: Joan Armatrading, George Benson, Chuck Berry, Elizabeth Cotten, Arianna Giddens, Jimi Hendrix, Robert Johnson, Stanley Jordan, B.B. King, Led Belly, Curtis Mayfield, Memphis Minnie, Meshell Ndegeocello, Odetta, Wes Montgomery, Prince, Esperanza Spalding, Sister Rosetta Tharpe,Thundercat, Muddy Waters…

But why stop with a list of Black Americans when you can add Jamaica’s Bob Marley, Mali’s Ali Farka Touré, Zimbabwe’s Louis Mhlanga, the Congo’s Luambo Makiadi, or Brazil’s Gilberto Gil.

And then there are the producers. Quincy Jones, Berry Gordy, Gamble & Huff, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Nile Rodgers, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Dr. Dre, Ashford & Simpson, Nile Rodgers, Sean “Diddy” Combs…

It’s a challenging theme to navigate without falling back on stereotypical arenas –  pop genres like blues, soul, gospel, R&B, jazz, hip-hop, reggae…  while ignoring Black contributions in the classical realm.

We also need to be careful in telling the stories of artists who were marginalized, oppressed, or exploited. In telling the story of Black artists, we should characterize them as victors, not victims.

But representation shouldn’t simply be about helping Black students see performers and producers who look like them – musicians who paved the way in the world of performing arts. Representation should also be about helping these students see themselves in a variety of music professions, where they, too, might be a pioneer.

And that’s where representation cuts across all fields. The music industry needs Black representation in management roles. And Black students need to see a possible future in the field of publishing.

They need to see that maybe there’s a future for them as Music Critic, or Publicist, or Luthier.

Students may feel called to be an agent, or promoter. An archivist or librarian.

We might also inspire more of them to become music educators.

Black students need to know about people like Katina Bynum, Executive VP of East Coast Labels, Bosco, Founder of Slug Records, and Ray Daniels, Senior VP A&R, Warner Records, CEO of RAYDAR Management.

Understanding Black history is important, but it’s one side of the coin. We need to address Black future.

How? By initiating conversations with our colleagues on arranging panel discussions for our students, led by local industry experts. Or working with our high school college/career centers on organizing an industry-specific career fair that helps students, particularly Black students, find paths to this future – paths that begin with strategies and goals that lead to a successful high school experience, but do not end there.

We make our classroom more welcoming, inclusive, and engaging for Black students. We set goals for higher graduation rates, and pat ourselves on the back for seeing more Black students walk the stage on high school graduation night.

But high school music education should not be a world unto itself where students learn how to successfully get to their senior year. There are many ways to pursue a rewarding musical life in the professional world. And if a change is gonna come, it’s going to need more than the next generation of artists. We need to help inspire and prepare them for a world that needs their participation and leadership. It’s one thing to have a place at the mike. It’s another to have a place at the table.

Don’t just take it from another old white music educator. Fiona Aber-Taruona, Operations Manager at Printworks, says it best and with more authority in this October 21st piece from an October Vice Media Group.


In this month’s Academic news, Marques L. A. Garrett, Assistant Professor of Music in Choral Activities at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, issues a warning about Black History fall-backs and stereotypes.

This month I hand over the Artist Features to Fabi Reyna who has an eye on the future.

Our Library recommends a terrific book on Black music – tracing connections from Africa to America.

And check out Trade Publications to learn what Guitar Gabby has to say about the importance of learning guitar history.