Old Negro spirituals. Gospel. Jazz. The blues. R&B. Rock ’n’ roll. Funk. Hip-hop.
Black music is almost as old as America itself, yet the monthlong celebration that commemorates it—Black Music Month, celebrated in June—was only created in 1979. How did it come about? Who is behind it? And why do we need it when black music has been a dominant cultural force around the globe for centuries?
Music-industry icon and radio personality Dyana Williams, along with her ex-husband, Kenny Gamble, founder and owner of Philadelphia International, were the architects behind Black Music Month.
Williams cites black music, culture and artistry as being among the greatest American exports, all to the tune of several billion dollars around the globe. “For the month, we just take time aside to say these are the people that generate this great cultural, majestic resource that’s indigenous to America and is also one of our greatest exports from America, because it’s not just music; we’re exporting culture with the music, fashion and language,” she says.
On June 7, 1979, President Jimmy Carter hosted the first Black Music Month at the White House. Since then, Williams has met with every president around the celebration of the month, except for President Barack Obama, which she says has deeply disappointed her.
Williams, current president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Recording Academy and life coach for everyone from D’Angelo to A$AP Rocky and the Zac Brown Band, spoke with The Root about the beginnings of Black Music Month and where we are today:
The Root: You just came back from Florence, Italy, to participate in a panel about black music and Black Music Month?
Dyana Williams: I was talking about Gamble and Huff as the architects of the Sound of Philadelphia. They were known for the message in their music. But they also put it down when it came to romance, and they created a blueprint when it came to intimate exchanges. We made love to those songs and made babies to those songs and got married to those songs. We broke up to them. Lou Rawls singing, “You’ll never find a love like mine.” We had affairs to those songs: “Me and Mrs. Jones.” Jerry Butler: “Never Gonna Give You Up” and “Hey, Western Union Man.” Labelle, Dusty Springfield. The Supremes: “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” which Gamble wrote with Jerry Ross.
TR: We all know Black Music Month exists, but a lot of people don’t know how it actually all started.
DW: Gamble is the father of Black Music Month, and when we were a couple, we conceived the idea. Gamble established the Black Music Association, and one time he made a trip to Nashville[, Tenn.,] and observed the Country Music Association and how they had created an entire industry and city and made it known for being the capital of country music. Gamble was inspired by that idea. He was inspired by the unity of country artists and wanted to replicate that in the black community.
The BMA was an organization of retailers, industry executives, educators, producers, songwriters, engineers, artists, with everybody from Dionne Warwick to Barry White, Isaac Hayes, Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley. Gamble had an incredible relationship with artists because at the time, Philly International was a dominant label. Philly International was the first independent black-owned label to establish a relationship with a major label with CBS. It became a major player in the game. Gamble was a great influencer at a high level. And everybody was calling my phone for him.
I remember one night, I picked up the phone, it was Coretta Scott King calling for Gamble. He was very close to her. He produced Michael Jackson and his brothers. So Michael would call him in the middle of the night.
Gamble reached out to Clarence Avant, the godfather of black music, who has always had strong relationships with the major players. And through the efforts of Clarence Avant, through Jules Malamud, who was part of the BMA, they petitioned Jimmy Carter to host this reception.
Nothing like that had ever happened at the White House. Chuck Berry, Frankie Crocker, all of the who’s who in the music industry were there. It was a great day.
TR: That was the beginning of Black Music Month?
DW: The discussions had started before then. The effort was to get the president to say June is Black Music Month, which he did.
Fast-forward to the late 1990s. I wrote President Clinton and asked him to host a similar reception like Carter had done because we were taking the International Association of African American Music Foundation to D.C., and the White House said OK. They said Carter did host this event with all of these influential people; however he did not sign a presidential proclamation to name the month Black Music Month.
But we had been celebrating the month for years. Record companies had been doing campaigns, major companies were doing campaigns. It was an oversight that needed to be corrected.
They told me go lobby Congress and, “Once you get some legislation, we’ll do something at the White House.” So I put on some real comfortable shoes and I started calling people. I didn’t know anything about the legislative process. All I knew was that I was passionate about black music, black people and black culture.
I wrote to Congressman Chaka Fattah of Philly and asked him to be my ally. And Chaka was the one who said yes and Sen. Arlen Specter, the Republican senator from Pennsylvania, wrote the president on my behalf and supported my efforts in the Senate. Several years later, I wrote an editorial in Billboard magazine about the importance of black music and why this legislation needed to be supported.
In 2000 I got the call from Lydia Sermons, the right-hand person for Chaka Fattah. She said he was on the floor and introducing the bill for a vote. I get chill bumps now remembering that moment. They called me back and they said it passed. The African American Music Bill is what it was called. And at that point I reached back to the White House and said, “Hey, look, you said if it passed through legislation … ” We met President Clinton in a private meeting. He requested that I bring the Isley Brothers. They gave him a guitar signed by all of them.
TR: Have you met with all of the presidents?
DW: I have, with the exception of President Obama. I met him when he was a senator. I have petitioned the White House since he has been in office, and I have not had any success. The White House has said that the president and Mrs. Obama celebrate black music all the time.
In meetings with Clinton, we talked about the importance of supporting the black music industry and black artists. For the Bush administration, I was there for Black Music Month. I sat with Bob Johnson and I invited Kevin Liles as my guest, and John Platt sat with me as my guest.
For black people, music is like breathing. It’s part of our experience, from field hollers to the hip-hop of today and every genre in between, because we have influenced everybody from the Rolling Stones to the Beatles to Eric Clapton, who cite black music as their wellspring. We are talking about America’s indigenous music that just happens to be black.