June is Black Music Month in the United States – even though we should celebrate Black Music Month every day because of its profound influence on American culture. In his useful study Lift Every Voice: The History of African American Music (2009), Burton W. Peretti wrote,
“African American music is one of the treasures of the United States. Spirituals, ragtime, the blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, gospel, soul and hip hop –among other styles—are some of the richest and most distinctive products of our national culture. Developed in the face of centuries of racial discrimination, poverty and other challenges, this music testifies to the resilience of African and Caribbean musical origins and the creativity of individuals, families, and communities.”
Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) played an important role in nurturing the artists that created Black music. Like the plantations that spawned the great blues artists of the early twentieth century, or the inner cities from which came the dulcet tones of soul, the improvisational experiments of jazz, and the pulsing beats of funk, HBCUs have produced an extensive roster of distinguished graduates.
In fact, HBCU graduates have made their mark across the entire musical spectrum and in every genre, but have been most influential in popular music. A brief list of these HBCU grads proves the significant role that they have played in shaping the sound of American music:
- Lionel Richie, singer-songwriter, producer, and musician, began his musical career when he met fellow freshman at Tuskegee University and formed the Commodores, who would reach chart-topping success. Richie later pursued a solo career that made him one of the best- selling musical artists of all time. A multiple Grammy winner, he co-authored and performed on the best-selling single “We Are the World,” which raised money for famine relief in Africa.
- Common (birth name Lonnie Rashid Lynn, Jr.) attended Florida A&M University under an academic scholarship and earned a degree in business administration before he followed his passion to rap. He currently performs and promotes education programs through his Common Ground Foundation.
- Roberta Flack won a music scholarship to Howard University and taught music and sang in clubs before she got a number one hit with what would become her signature song, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” She collaborated with fellow Howard alum Donny Hathaway on several other hit records and won multiple Grammy Awards.
- Cassandra Wilson earned a degree in mass communications from Jackson State University before she went on to become one of the most successful jazz singers of the modern era. She has won Grammys, been honored by Down Beat magazine and the Montreal Jazz Festival, and been included in the Mississippi Blues Trail.
In addition to these artist, there are many more Black musicians who chose to pursue their musical careers rather than complete their degrees, but still count their time at HBCUs as decisive influences on their artistic development, including singer and producer Deniece Williams (Morgan State University), rapper and entrepreneur Sean “Diddy” Combs (Howard University), and neo-soul pioneer Erykah Badu (Grambling State University).
It’s long been obvious that Historically Black Colleges and Universities produce great scholars, scientists, and leaders, but it’s important to recognize that HBCUs create an environment in which creativity can be expressed in multiple ways. The many musical contributions from HBCU alums show just how well HBCUs foster an environment in which the pursuit of excellence in all fields is encouraged. The next time you find yourself in class, look around at your classmates: who in the room might be the next great singer, composer, or musician? Will it be you?
If I’m not mistaken, I thought Common didn’t actually graduate from FAMU, although he attended for a couple years. He speaks on his experience in his book “One Day It’ll All Make Sense” but clearly notes that he ended up leaving FAMU.