It fused the heart of the blues, the energy of jazz and the transcendence of gospel music to become one of the most formidable musical forces in American history.
For legions of musicians and their audiences, both black and white, R&B was the music of the 20th century, a form custom-made to serve as the soundtrack to dramatic social change.
The framework provided by the seductive heavy beats of rhythm and blues turned out to be far more versatile than many might have imagined when the music first evolved from the lively jump-blues of the postwar 1940s. Funk, soul music, rock ‘n’ roll, hip-hop - all ultimately emerged as twists on the basic idea. It might seem like a long leap from Ray Charles to Rihanna, but both that late legend and the young superstar are part of a cohesive musical story that maintains its grip on the American heart.
For black Americans of the 1950s and ‘60s, R&B was the era’s pop: danceable, tuneful, accessible. The blues and jazz were increasingly Grandpa’s music. And though there was ample resistance early on, the black church supplied a stream of musicians who would cross over to secular R&B success.
“A lot of the commercial R&B was influenced by urban lifestyles, as opposed to blues being primarily a rural genre,” says James Stewart, a professor of African-American studies at Pennsylvania State University who has researched the role of social messages in R&B. “The migration from the South to the North, forging a new life in the city, provided the backdrop for the music. As artists and writers came to be able to interpret their own experiences, you start to see their own voices emerging.”
Like the styles that preceded and fueled it, R&B was a creative vehicle that offered room to craft and deliver broader messages of hope, liberation and a sense of community.
But R&B came with a key difference. More than its predecessors, the new music was conscious that it was also playing to white audiences. In a society that was increasingly integrated, or at least slogging to get there, R&B was delivered with a zeal, a poise and self-awareness that had been less intrinsic to the forms once dubbed “race music.”
It made sense, then, that R&B was primed to express the dual anxiety and optimism of the civil rights movement. One of the period’s signature songs came from a musician set to become the movement’s most important musical figure. Sam Cooke, the young, velvet-voiced star who had debuted as a gospel sensation, recorded his signature number, “A Change Is Gonna Come,” shortly before his 1964 death.
A stirring protest song penned as a sister work to Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” - and written several months before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the march on Washington - the hit eventually became a clarion call for the civil rights movement, paving the way for politically themed material .
The song was a deliberate move by Cooke to grow beyond the teen themes that had dominated R&B. Still, it hadn’t always been easy for artists to assert their voices. Met by resistance from corporate executives - even at black-run labels such as Motown Records - singers and songwriters struggled in the early 1960s to push the envelope.
“A lot of the artists had to find compromises,” says Stewart. “I’ve been told that a number of artists would try to sneak one political commentary song onto an album that had more traditional themes. Producers didn’t want to damage the commercial viability.”
It took an innovative dynamo from South Carolina to push musical activism to a different level. James Brown had already cemented his star power by the time he released the 1968 single “Say It Loud - I’m Black and I’m Proud,” but the black power anthem propelled Brown to new heights.
The song drew its strength from more than its lyrics: Like most of Brown’s work, it was powered by the raw force of his trademark funk - a nimble but muscular bottom end whose rhythmic energy would serve as the core of hip-hop music.
Politically, Brown was something of an enigma, an America-Firster who would go on to rub shoulders with Republican presidents. But in stripping R&B of its more melodic, pop-ready frills, Brown asserted a black sound that confidently met the challenge of his 1968 song title.
“It was street music - something you heard in the barbershop, on the corner,” says soul musician Amp Fiddler, who came of age in 1960s Detroit. “It made a lot of people feel proud to be black Americans in a time when that was hard.”
Shoulder to shoulder with Brown in the era’s black-unity movement was Curtis Mayfield, a Chicago high-school dropout who nonetheless emerged as one of soul music’s go-to intellectuals. Having already made his mark on the civil rights movement with the gorgeous, gospel-tinged “People Get Ready,” a 1965 hit with the Impressions, Mayfield launched a solo career that put him at the fore of socially conscious R&B.
With the Vietnam War as a backdrop, Mayfield’s music in the early 1970s featured pro-peace messages and biting looks at the U.S. establishment. But Mayfield was an equal-opportunity commentator, directing many of his messages toward the black community.
His milestone in that regard came with the 1972 “Superfly” soundtrack. It was a subversive work, leveled against what he saw as the movie’s glorification of urban violence and the drug trade. The record conveyed a bleak realism, beseeching its audience to avoid the lure of underworld life while blasting at the apathy of the outside world.
As R&B continued to enjoy a prominent role in the mainstream, filling the Top 40 charts alongside rock and pop, some artists dug deeper. Gil Scott-Heron was a leftist poet and activist whose music was revolutionary in both word and sound. His best-known song, 1974’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” was an epic spoken-word address against consumerism, war and oppression.
The song’s style would be frequently cited a decade later, as hip-hop entrenched itself on the music landscape. Rap had been born as party music on the streets of New York, but it didn’t take long for artists to steer it into more evocative territory. Acts such as Tupac Shakur and Public Enemy would achieve vast fame with their gritty tales of inner-city life - what the latter group’s Chuck D would famously describe as “CNN for black people.”
Pioneering that approach was “The Message,” a 1982 hit for Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Riding a drum-machine beat and infectious keyboard riff, the song challenged urban listeners to “keep from going under.”
“The social commentary evolved from the traditions that had been established in R&B,” says Stewart. “You see similar strategies used. A lot of today’s commercial hip-hop has really moved away from that - sort of feeding on itself to see who can be the most anti-social.”
Today’s socially conscious songs are largely the province of underground hip-hop and the genre known as neo-soul - a movement that has seen songwriters such as Erykah Badu and Jill Scott embracing both the sounds and messages of R&B in what they have often described as a responsibility.
Stewart says R&B’s message songs have drawn much of their power from the genre’s unique place in American culture, as an art form that attracts diverse listeners by crossing lines of race, ethnicity, even age.
“There’s hope - a vision of possibilities for a more harmonious relationship, because R&B was very, very popular outside the black community as well,” says Stewart, 61. “I think my generation saw that as a bridging mechanism: If we can enjoy the same kinds of entertainment, then perhaps we can live together.”
Fiddler, the Detroit musician who has worked with artists from George Clinton to Corinne Bailey Rae, says he feels a duty to examine the world around him and continually push for change.
“We should never miss the fact that there’s something to be talked about in our music,” he says. “Sometimes it takes a wake-up call.”