President Jimmy Carter delared June “Black Music Month” in 1979 as a way to pay homage to the many Black musicians who have significantly impacted America and the world with their creative contributions.

From the beginning, these musicians played a significant role in the political and social aspects of America. When Black music took hold in America, slavery was over but segregation (and its Ku Klux Klan protectors) was a violent reality. Despite lurking danger while traveling the Chittlin’ Circuit, Black musicians still played their music.

Unlike Black Music Month, Black History Month, which was originally “Negro History Week” (the second week in February) was created in 1926 by the Black historian Carter G. Woodson. Negro History Week was officially expanded to Black History Month by President Gerard Ford in 1976 as part of the United States bicentennial.

Ford urged that Americans “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” That should have also been the moment for him to announce that the government would be doing everything in its power to knock down the walls of institutional racism and become a just democratic society. It seems the extension was the easier alternative.

The question is, why did it become Black History Month as opposed to African-American History Month? In 2009, President Barack Obama, after only one year in office, changed the name of Black Music Month to African-American Music Appreciation Month. Some were upset with the name change.

Actually, Black music has more of an edge, like “Black power” or “the Black Panthers.” It is “America’s original art form,” a term that usually describes jazz, but jazz is Black music. Black music is a large family that includes Negro spirituals, gospel, R&B, rock and roll, blues, jazz, funk, bebop, do wop and hip–hop.

Black music came from Africa, the music of the ancestors. It was the drum played during wedding ceremonies and tribal ceremonial dances. It gave warnings of danger. It was the oral word, call and response. It was more than music; it was a way of life in African culture, in the way people moved, danced, communicated and dressed.

Black music traveled on slave ships. There was no dancing or improvisation; they were chained and introduced to the whip. Black music wanted to die, but its rhythms were much too strong; it hung on.

The Black music family arrived in America as slaves, as property, with no rights and no respect (there was no term “African-American”). They were sold. There were no flowing rhythms, no drum. Working in the cotton fields introduced call and response, and at night, their grieving hearts had to attempt to sing. Black music found a safe home in the church before it branched out to juke joints, houses of ill repute, clubs, concert halls and the like.

Black music is the struggle; it’s nappy and funky, but it always swings. It will tell you a story that may make you laugh, cry and dance in a rhythmic flow. Long before Black Music Month, Black music was there as America’s soundtrack.

If you want to know what was going on in America at a certain point, just check the music. The O’Jays summed it up best in their album and title track “Message in the Music” (Philadelphia International Records). The album cover features a tribe of African drummers.

“Jazz. Covers. Politics: Album Art in an Age of Activism” wasn’t planned for Black Music Month, but the Nathan Cummings Foundation is currently running this significant, potent exhibition now through Aug. 23 at its offices, located at 475 10th Ave. (36th and 37th streets), 14th floor, in Midtown Manhattan.

“The covers of jazz make the politics visible. Consider Max Roach’s landmark album [with] the Freedom Now Suite, ‘We Insist!,’ where Black men sitting at a white lunch counter turn to look at the camera and, with a challenge to join their movement for freedom, at us,” wrote curator Robert O’Meally in the exhibit’s brochure.

In today’s technological society, where MP3s, iPhones, iPads and downloading dominate, the total artistic concept of album cover artwork is completely lost.

“Album covers and their art are the visual devices that trigger our memory and remind us of the beauty of our music and the richness of our culture,” stated C. Daniel Dawson, a curator of the exhibit. “In addition, they contained cultural and political inspiration and direction, as well as historical records of the radical and racial consciousness of our community.”

Such noted Black artists as Romare Bearden, Roy DeCarava and Jacob Lawrence have all done works for album covers. The album exhibition is divided into various categories such as “Celebrating Blackness,” which includes albums like Miles Davis’ “A Tribute to Jack Johnson” and Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father,” and “We Wear the Masks,” which explores the concept of donning masks that was prevalent from the days of blackface to Stepin Fetchit (aka comedian Lincoln Theodore Monroe Andrew Perry).

The exhibit quotes Ralph Ellison: “We wear the masks for purposes of aggression as well as for defense.”

Duke Ellington noted, “We can say things on the trumpet or the piano which we could not say in spoken language.”

“Amen Corner” recognizes the importance of music in the Black church, as well as blues songs, reggae protest songs and some hip–hop with a political edge. “Black to the Future” highlights Ellington’s “Black, Brown and Beige” and “Liberian Suite” and Davis’ “Bitches Brew.” There are album covers from Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone.

The exhibition “Jazz. Covers. Politics: Album Art in an Age of Activism” celebrates the family of Black music. The bright, colorful album covers make this exhibit a perfect learning experience for young people. The exhibition was organized by the Romare Bearden Foundation and curated by Diedra Harris-Kelley, C. Daniel Dawson and Robert G. O’Meally. The exhibit can be viewed by appointment only Monday through Friday. Please email

The On Site Opera and Harlem Opera Theater’s production of the jazz opera “Blue Monday” at the Cotton Club (626 W. 125th St.) has been extended until June 20. Doors open at 7 p.m. For more information, please call 347-394-3050.

For me, it’s all Black music, whether its called Black Music Month or African-American Music Awareness Month. But to be sure, Black music has that revolutionary ring. What matters most is that the history is told correctly and shared. Enjoy the music and listen to its story.