Blacks in entertainment

Feb 142007
Authors: Michelle Zilis

Blacks play it out loud for music history

Blacks’ influence on music stretches through centuries and across genres, according to many music scholars. Black spirituals gave birth to the blues and jazz which blossomed in the early 1800s and continues to be a part of our musical society. During the mid-1900s combinations of spirituals with blues and jazz paved the way for rock ‘n’ roll.

“American music from the 20th century on is strongly African-American influenced in general,” said Peter Sommer, professor of jazz and saxophone. “It is hard to find a music that wasn’t influenced by it, even country music has blues elements.”

Each of these genres had leading men and women who helped pave the way for other artists.

The blues claim roots in the traditional field hollers from plantation work in the South. The blues laid the groundwork for practically every type of music that has come out of the industry since. W.C. Handy – the proclaimed “Father of Blues,” – Robert Johnson – the legendary man who sold his soul to the devil to be the best guitar player ever – and Bessie Smith – one of the greatest classic blues singers of all time – helped lay the foundation of the genre.

Many more followed in later years including Ray Charles, B.B. King and Muddy Waters who helped pave the way for many other types of music.

“One of my teachers once said ‘blues is the roots, and everything else is the fruit,'” said Jesse Askeland, a junior American studies major. Askeland then added that he believed that the blues were the forgotten roots of music.

The only music form Americans can claim as truly their own is jazz, which originated in the 1800s. The “Jazz Ambassador” Louis Armstrong was one of the first to pave the way in this new improvisational-type music and his music is still celebrated and listened to today. Mainly singing and playing the trumpet, Armstrong left his mark on jazz and many say he shaped the popular genre into what it is today.

Sommer said Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis were very significant in the jazz movements.

“Each played a significant role as innovators of every jazz movement,” Sommer said.

Sommer attributes Armstrong as the first significant jazz soloist with early jazz, Ellington as the most significant big band composer, Parker as one of the “fathers of modern jazz,” and Davis as being involved in every movement in jazz after bee-bop.

Jazz also was graced with another songbird/pianist in the mid-1900s, Nat King Cole. Some of Cole’s greatest hits are still popular today, such as “Straighten Up and Fly Right.” Cole used his fame to help combat racism as well, at one point suing many hotels and casinos in Las Vegas that banned him and his members, according to NPR.

From the merger of blues and jazz, rock ‘n’ roll was created in the 1950s, and is still widely popular today. Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix all made new sounds that captivated audiences and propelled the genre to what it has become today.

As rock ‘n’ roll continues to be a large contributor to the American Billboards today, one more genre with a huge impact from black culture must be considered: Rap. This 1980s phenomenon began in the 70s in New York City primarily with black teenagers; in a short time rap spread to many urban areas before becoming mainstream, according to World Book.

While rap is sometimes criticized and considered controversial, many of the topic matters relate to social issues blacks still face. “Rapper’s Delight” by Sugar Hill Gang was the first hit rap song, and was followed by rappers such as Grandmaster Flash, Run D.M.C., Dr. Dre, Public Enemy and N.W.A.

Staff writer Michelle Zilis can be reached at

Reeling back to African-American film

By Brian Park

Black cinema has a long and storied history within the larger realm of American film. From the “The Homesteader,” the first feature-length all black cast film made in 1919, to the chance for history to be made at this year’s 79th Annual Academy Awards, black actors and actresses are a vital part of the cinematic world.

While sometimes represented in a racist and unrealistic manner, like D.W. Griffith’s 1915 movie “The Birth of a Nation” and the minstrel movies of the 1930s, black thespians are now some of the most respected and famous film stars in the world. Denzel Washington, Halle Berry and Morgan Freeman to name just a few.

Denzel Washington might not be my favorite actor, but he’s my favorite black actor, said Reed, a junior animal science and agricultural business major who refused to give his last name. Reed said Washington has the ability to play a vast array of characters, plus he was a “bad-ass” in “Remember the Titans.”

“Stifler is always going to be Stifler (referring to Seann William Scott in American Pie),” Reed said. “But Denzel fits his character every time. He can be a bad guy or a good guy, that’s the best thing about him.”

And on Feb. 25 at the Oscars, if Forest Whitaker or Will Smith, Jennifer Hudson, and Eddie Murphy or Djimon Hounsou ends the night with a golden statue in their palms, it will add to a small, but ever increasing list of black actors and actresses who have won an Academy Award. Never before has three out of the four acting categories been awarded to blacks.

Whitaker is nominated for “The Last King of Scotland,” Smith for the “The Pursuit of Happyness,” both in the Best Actor category. Hounsou is nominated for his supporting acting in “Blood Diamond,” while Hudson and Murphy are nominated for their supporting roles in the musical “Dreamgirls.”

The first thing that comes into my mind about black film is Beyonce Knowles, but she is not my favorite actress, said Katie Freudenthal, a junior sociology major.

“Will Smith is my favorite just because he has a type of charisma even when he’s off-screen,” Freudenthal said. “He’s a family man and a positive influence.”

The history of black cinema does not just include the Academy Awards, but numerous other influential people, directors and eras, all which left their mark on film. Paul Robeson while being a civil rights advocate, singer and athlete, was also an actor who appeared in 11 films between 1925 and 1942. Spike Lee has directed over 15 films, including “Do the Right Thing,” “Malcolm X” and recently the documentary “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts,” about Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans. And the Blaxploitation era of 1970s produced such movies as “Shaft,” the Richard Roundtree version, “Foxy Brown” and “Superfly.”

“I really liked “Bamboozled,” I’ve never seen a movie like it,” said Beth Nichols, a sophomore associates of science major at the Larimer Campus of Front Range Community College. “It’s about black actors and how the media portray them, its somewhat of a farce and great.”

Other notable Academy Award winners include Hattie McDaniel, Best Supporting Actress for “Gone With the Wind” in 1939; Sidney Poitier, Best Actor for “Lilies of the Field” in 1963; and Halle Berry, Best Actress for “Monster’s Ball” in 2001. All awards were the first time a black actor or actress had won in that respective category.

Staff writer Brian Park can be reached at

A glance at black literature

By Elena Ulyanova

Whether it is as recent as Illinois Senator Barack Obama’s new book, “The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream,” or dating back more than 200 years to the first published works of black slaves in the United States, black literature has dwelled at the heart of American literature for most of the nation’s history.

At the foundation of black literature rests the compelling works written by slaves and abolitionists in a time when their experiences triggered strong emotions and opinions, and motivated some of the most gripping works in history.

“No matter if you are reading a black author or a white author, it’s going to be their experiences that color what they write,” Lori Oling, Morgan Library Reference librarian said. “And it is not only based on their cultural history, but also what they have experienced personally.”

Oling believes that by understanding the experiences of others, people can become more open minded through identification with an authors first hand experiences.

Phillis Wheatley is one such historic writer whose experiences shaped the meaning of her work.

Wheatley was a house slave of a Boston merchant, and has been deemed the first significant black writer in the United States. Her work created a stir in society when her book, “Poems on Various Subjects,” was published in 1773 after the merchant’s wife recognized and supported her talent and intellect.

Her work was so appalling to the public that a letter signed by the governor was included in the book to prove that she had been “examined” and was thought to be “qualified” to have written the work.

“Slaves weren’t allowed to be educated and in society at that time they believed that people of African American decent weren’t capable of reading and writing because they didn’t have the opportunity to go to school, so it definitely came as a shock because people weren’t expecting that,” said Angelica Riley, sophomore technical journalism major.

Frederick Douglass, one of the key leaders in the abolitionist movement, is also recognized as an extremely notable black writer of his time. Accompanying his many other distinguished accomplishments, Douglass gained worldwide acknowledgment after his autobiography, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass” was published in 1845. His life story depicted the experiences of a two-time runaway slave. Subsequently, Douglass went on to circulate an anti-slavery newspaper called the North Star.

At the turn on the 20th century authors such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington published works that encouraged blacks, who now had more opportunities, to seek their true potential and better their place in society.

With the 1920s Harlem Renaissance in full blast, black writers such as Langston Hughes, probably the most distinguished author of that period, compiled poetry works that complemented the groundbreaking artistic movement. Hughes published a compilation of his poetry in his 1926 poetry collection, “The Weary Blues,” as well as the novel “Not Without Laughter” in 1930. Such works continued to influence other prominent black writers such as Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison in the following decades.

“The artistic freedom in the Harlem Renaissance was the same in literature, artistic writing flourished along with everything else,” Riley said. “It reflected the times, and the times reflected the writing; whatever is going on at the time is going to be reflected in art and literature.”

A majority of African-American literature during this time period directly reflected the thoughts and feelings of the current situation that these authors found themselves in.

“Artists are going to be writing with what they are concerned with, and black literature came about and reflected the civil rights movement, they fed off of each other,” Riley said.

The generations following the civil rights movement were reminiscent of historic issues in black history and were depicted through works such as Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Beloved,” a social commentary that uses magical realism to demonstrate that consequences of repressing issues from the past..

Today black literature continues to maintain its significance in the whole of American literature, and many writers still refer to past generations of black writers to gain inspiration and learn from the issues that occupied these writers historically.

“The idea of ‘breaking chains’ is an image that is still seen in a lot of African-American art and literature,” Riley said. “It is symbolic of how important freedom and individualism still is in our community today.”

Staff writer Michelle Zilis can be reached at

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