Arts and Entertainment

Blacksound: How Blackface Shaped the U.S. Music Industry


When Diane Warren criticized Renaissance, Beyoncé’s latest album, she questioned on Twitter how one song could have 24 authors when all of her tracks only had one: herself. Warren’s statement highlights how in the U.S. music industry, only those who developed the original score — producers and composers — gain credit and compensation for the project, often times leaving the performer uncredited and underpaid. In his 2019 article for the Journal of the American Musicological Society, Matthew D. Morrison explains how eurocentric conceptions of what defines music and intellectual property underlie this logic. By theorizing Blacksound, Morrison asserts that the legacy of blackface performance and aesthetic informs the commercialization of U.S. popular music, especially in terms of intellectual property.

I learned about Morrison’s article while reading “Black Soundwork,” by Sonja Thomas. Thomas’s article debunks what she describes as the African/Irish fusion theory of tap dance. This theory purports that Black and Irish laborers working on the railroad developed the “tap challenge,” a type of back and forth improvisational tap dance. Jason Samuels Smith, a Black tapmaster whom Thomas cites in her article, explains in the documentary Lost in the Shuffle that tap dance derives from the “Sabar” dance tradition in Senegal as well as mimics West African drum sounds. Thomas cites Morrison to explain how Irish American white blackface minstrels mocked these movements.

While the piece does not concentrate on intellectual property, Thomas notes that, as folk music, tap dancing can’t be copyrighted. Before reading Thomas’s article, I reflected on how copyright and intellectual property affect Black cultural creators in the context of digital media content, which I write about regarding the virtual sojourner. However, Morrison’s piece provided further context that will definitely inspire my thinking down the line. Through Blacksound, Morrison inspires me to think about how we can see what Saidiya Hartman calls the “afterlife of slavery” in contemporary cultural industries.

Blackface in the U.S. as Popular Entertainment

In the early 19th century, blackface and minstrel performances featured white men that performed racist caricatures of Black people. By the 20th century, blackface performances occurred in cinema, television, and even radio, inspiring characters such as Kingfish and Sapphire Stevens on Amos ‘n’ Andy. Morrison’s article examines how blackface in the U.S. impacted popular music as a commercial industry:

Blacksound” refers to the legacies, sounds, and movements of African American bodies—both real and imagined—on which blackface performance and popular entertainment were based. It also refers to the sonic and embodied performances of one’s own (nonblack) racial or ethnic identity as a vehicle for self-imagination and the construction of race within the nation’s racial caste system.
– Morrison (2019:796)

According to Morrison, Irish and English working-class American men ridiculed Black Americans through performance to blackface sheet music. Blackface performances also included the banjo, an African instrument associated with working-class Americans after Anglo-Celtic immigrants encountered Black people in the Upper South and adopted it. Still, blackface had a white European foundation in its melody and its movements. To substantiate this claim, Morrison analyzes sheet music for the 1834 blackface tune “Zip Coon” and the Celtic fiddle songs “The Glasgow Hornpipe” and “The Post Office.” [Note: the versions posted here may differ from the ones analyzed by Morrison.] 

Morrison references “Zip Coon” by Firth and Hall (1834). In it, performers ridicule upwardly mobile black migrants as inauthentic compared to the white middle or upper class. By conveying a degree of similarity with middle-class white people and a vast difference from Black Americans, the Zip Coon caricature affirmed that Black people were below the white working class. Blackface performers popularized this and other caricatures such as Jim Crow, which mocked enslaved black men, and Lucy Long, which mocked black women not only through blackface but also through drag. Furthermore, Morrison notes that performers like T.D. Rice and George Washington Dixon were popular not only in the south but also in northern states like New York and in England.

Blacksound: Racism and Intellectual Property Right in the U.S. Music Industry

Morrison explains that Blacksound is comprised of several elements, including: stage personae, sheet music, character descriptions, and performance scripts. These elements circulated within and beyond blackface, marginalizing Black people as white Americans exploited popular music and performance as a venue to not only manufacture whiteness, but also further social inequity through Jim Crow segregation. Blacksound fueled the rise of the U.S. popular music industrial complex, explaining transformations in the business as Black people gained entry. Once they had access, ideas about intellectual property changed:

Taking this into account, Blacksound reveals how the racialization of sound and shifting notions of intellectual property throughout the nineteenth century made popular music a space in which to hear, see, and interrogate the circulation and commodification of the black performance property that serves as the aesthetic basis of the industry and identity formation.
– Morrison (2019:817)

Blacksound, thus, not only illuminates the reasons why tap dancing cannot be copyrighted, as Thomas argues, but also illustrates the devaluation of the Black cultural practices that inspired Renaissance. Singer-songwriter Terius Nash, also known as The Dream, explains as much in his response to Diane Warren’s tweet:

Warren’s criticsm reflects how the U.S. music industry compensates composers through financial and social capital. Historically, practices of hip-hop music production such as mixing, beatboxing, sampling, etc. are traditionally exempt from songwriting credit, a practice Beyoncé defies by extending it to those she sampled. Morrison argues that popularizing blackface music necessitated the transmission of sheet music, which later became the standard for claims of intellectual property. Therefore, those who are not considered songwriters and composers—such as performers—are traditionally uncredited. Ultimately, this lack of credit has material implications that further perpetuate anti-Black racism.