By Art Goodson/Staff Writer
States, it may be surprising that there has historically been a large African American influence on media. For example, it may be a surprise to many people that the banjo, an instrument typically associated only with rural whites, was actually first an invention of enslaved Africans in the United States. The instrument was one of the first examples of the influence of African Americans in the American musical tradition, though unfortunately it originally spread through blackface minstrel shows.
In the early twentieth century, the growing influence of African Americans on American music continued as genres like jazz and blues became popular, largely through performances in front of mostly white audiences. The influence of African Americans on American music would continue in the genre of rock and roll through blues and R&B performers like Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry. Both the famous rock and roll band the Rolling Stones , and the long running music magazine Rolling Stone owe their name to one of Chuck Berry’s most famous songs: Rolling Stone. Legendary rock and roll groups like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles both have named Chuck Berry as one of their earliest influences.
As anyone who listens to the radio knows, this influence on music has continued today. According to ZDnet, if you combine the sales of the R&B and rap genres (two genres mostly populated by African American artists) the two would combine for a larger portion of sales than any other musical genre in 2007.
African Americans have been major players in the movie industry as well. Beginning with actors like Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier there have long been black movie stars. Now, arguably the world’s biggest movie star, Will Smith, is black. Of the nine movies Will Smith has starred in since 2002, only one has grossed less than $100 million, and according to imdb.com he commonly is paid $20 million to star in films.
All of this artistic influence brings up another important question though: how much of a say do African Americans have in what movies, albums, or TV shows are made? Though African Americans clearly hold a large influence in the style of media, it is hard to find many African Americans in positions of corporate media power. There are Black label heads at multiple different music labels, but most are subsidiaries of larger media companies. There are a few examples of high level media control by African Americans in film or TV, like Tyler Perry or Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey has her own magazine and production company, and will soon have her own TV network.
The lack of African American corporate leadership in media has led some people to speculate that it is to blame for many of the negative or idiotic mainstream portrayals of black Americans in reality shows like Flavor of Love, or gangster rap music. This ignores that while corporate leadership has much to say about what shows, movies, or albums get made, it is consumers who have the most important vote on the issue of media content.
A few years ago, you almost never heard about vampires in popular media and now it seems like they’re everywhere because consumers started buying media about vampires at a rapid rate. For whatever reason, it seems like people love stupid entertainment and it is not confined only to African Americans. No one would ever accuse the television show Jersey Shore of being highbrow complex entertainment and it has been a huge hit. No one would say that the movie Jackass 3-D was complex intellectual theatre either, but it opened as the number one movie in the United States.
African Americans have a long history of influencing popular media, and it’s unfortunate that there is not a larger corporate influence on the portrayals of black people in the mainstream. Despite of this, the most important corporate interest is money, and if people want the mainstream portrayal of black Americans or anyone else to change, then consumers need to vote for different types of entertainment with their wallets.