The Common Good
February 2004

Keeping it Real

by Danny Duncan Collum | February 2004

Sam Phillips spread the blues, broke racial barriers - and left a mixed legacy.

It was way back in October 2003. Everyone was talking about the Cubs-Red Sox series that never happened. It was around the same time that U.S. deaths during the occupation of Iraq exceeded those suffered during the conquest. So the real historic event of the month may have passed you by. It was in the week of October 9 that, for the first time in history, the top 10 singles on the Billboard pop music chart were all recorded by African-American artists, nine of them rappers.

Sun Records founder Sam Phillips died the month before, so he may or may not have heard the news. And that’s too bad, because the final, complete triumph of African-American music in U.S. culture represented the fruition of a pop cultural process that Phillips helped set in motion more than 50 years ago. Phillips grew up in north Alabama, working in the cotton fields alongside his black neighbors and other poor whites like himself. In the early ’50s, he came to Memphis convinced of two revolutionary facts: that black people and poor white people were equal to each other, and to anyone else, and that black music was one of the highest forms of artistic expression in all of human history. Along the way, Phillips also conceived a suspicion that broad, mass exposure of black music to white audiences might do something to improve race relations in the society at large.

Those ideas led him to start a recording studio that, for several years, specialized in Delta blues and the emerging forms of urban rhythm and blues. He recorded Howling Wolf, Ike Turner, Rufus Thomas, and dozens of others. And he began his storied quest for "a white man with the Negro feel" who could break down America’s racial barriers and, yes, "make a million dollars."

Well, it worked. Phillips and Elvis Presley opened a door, and, within weeks, white America was confronted with the likes of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Bo Diddley. And finally, in October 2003, with the semi-centennial of Elvis’ first Sun sessions drawing nigh, the circle was completed. The charts were not just full of black music (that’s been true for most weeks since 1956), but they were completely dominated by black artists.

Phillips was equally committed to spreading the gospel of the blues and making that million. And both parts of that ambiguous legacy remain in full effect. When rap began in the late 1970s, it sounded like the "blackest" music ever recorded in America. It made no concessions to Euro- pean song conventions. It was all rhythm and texture and emotion. And it still is. Sonically speaking, today’s rappers have "kept it real." For the first several years, very few white people even knew rap existed. Today, white kids buy 70 percent of rap records. You could say that signals a racial revolution in American culture, and you’d be right. But you could also point out that the rising white market for rap has coincided with a rise in degrading sex and violence in rap lyrics and videos, and you’d be right again. We could be looking at a situation in which the music industry is driven by a voyeuristic white demand for commodified images of black sexuality and criminality. And it’s hard to call that progress.

But amid all the sleaze and consumerism of contemporary hip-hop, the rebel heart of rock and roll is still beating there. I’ll give the last word to a young black man, calling himself CARSONATL, who posted the following to a message board on bet.com after the story on the first all-black top 10: "Who Cares?" he titled his rant. "Will it make a difference in the black community? A couple more got rich, so what? Maybe they will be elevated to the status of being featured on MTV cribs. Whoopie! ‘Look at all the crap I got, and none of y’all will ever know what it’s like because you’re too busy spending your savings on my CD.’ I think we should concentrate on black people who actually effect change for the better...not change for their pockets! ...Pawns, all pawns you are. Wake up! These people on the Billboard top 10 don’t give a crap about you, us, or our problems."

Danny Duncan Collum, a

Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.
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