Wasn’t the USA supposed to be in the twilight of its 15 minutes of fame, ready to cede influence to Brazil or India? While California is driving the business world with its entrepreneurial culture in overdrive, African-American culture has been the driver of world pop culture for 80 years, not only in music, but in dance, fashion, and art. Often where white America has been slow to catch the innovations, Europe has picked up the slack, without the filter of American racism. (Just as Japan adores Flamenco, without the baggage of Spain’s gypsy racism. A whole article could be written about parallels between gypsy culture and African-American culture.)
Often the young Europeans come back from their year in New York bursting with the new ideas. The British youth especially have their eye on African-American culture, from the Beatles to Banksy. Or the Americans, like Josephine Baker, come to Europe. There have even been artists who have had a good career pretending to be African-American. (The ’80s group, Boney M, actually originated in Germany, unknown in the USA.)
Revolutions in music, such as blues, jazz, and rock, have always extended to dance and fashion. The global reach of these movements has been profound. With the ease of travel and now the internet, the more recent revolution of hip-hop culture has spread even faster. In the 60’s in the USA, mass migrations of the (mainly white) middle class to the suburbs took place, leaving (mainly ethnic) poor communities in the cities, now with little local tax revenues and sliced apart by newly built highway overpasses leading to the suburbs. These dislocated communities were the origins to youth actions that got collectively denominated “hip-hop” culture in the 70’s, and then found their way to the rest of the world in the 80’s.
Four elements were incorporated in the hip-hop package: graffiti, DJing, MCing, and b-boying (breakdancing). These elements continue their ripple effect as they merge with other forms, finding their influence, for example, on music movements of the 80’s and 90’s, such as house and rave music. 80’s African-American world ambassadors, such as basketball stars and pop stars (Michael Jackson, for one) left a huge impact on world fashion, from shaved heads to low-cut pants to big sneakers. Graffiti morphed into street art, which this decade has turned into an explosion in mural-painting festivals, as City Halls discover that murals can help build community and even attract tourists, forcing them to re-consider the source and open up legal walls for young graffiti artists. Street art has driven art out of the museums and back into the community. So much for portraits of kings, so much for the framed rectangle.
With the internet, African Americans are not just the drivers of Western culture, they are influencing culture around the world. I for one am happy to follow. I fell for Billie Holiday long ago, still loving that decade for its African American musical brilliance.
See this article: black influence on pop culture