"City Of Angels" as it is popularly known, Los Angeles, the second most populous city in America is known for its diversity, beauty and robustness. Dubbed "the creative capital of the world" Los Angeles has a lot to offer in terms of entertainment, culture and diversity. Statistics has even shown that one in every six residents of LA works in the creative industry (Nusca, 2009). The creative industry in reference here is the performing arts and the visual industry. Of the many ethnicities in Los Angeles, African Americans are among the first settlers of this city and have been a part of the community since then. From history we get to learn that music and art in general is synonymous to black culture. This paper will illustrate how music has been used to represent African American culture and way of life in Los Angeles, especially focusing on Watts Neighborhood in southern Los Angeles.
Of the many ways to experience African American culture in Los Angeles is participating in Black History month which occurs on the month of February every year. The entire month covers a review of past and present African American culture, visiting of museums art galleries, music theatres and other cultural institutions all over Los Angeles.
The city of Los Angeles has produced some of the world's most acclaimed musicians and produced some of the most famous motion picture works. In fact the city's Hollywood neighborhood is considered the centre of film and cinema industry. Among the acclaimed artists and actors who draw their roots from LA, a large percentage are members of the vibrant black community from this city. Of the many renowned black artists in LA, the name Etta James resonates with many people, especially those who belong to the rock n roll generation. Apart from Etta James other notable musicians from Los Angeles who will be featured in this paper include Tyrese Gibson and the poetry group known as "The Watts Prophets". All of these artist left a notable mark on their societies and used their music to drive powerful messages across different generations of their audiences.
Music, since time immemorial has been considered as a form of expression, a form of passing messages and also as a form of addressing important issues in our lives as human beings. The main reason why African American culture is so much associated with music and poetry is because African Americans used these art forms as a form of expression. During the slave era, African Americans at the time used song and dance as a method of "therapy" way of forgetting about the hard times they were going through. They also used music in later years to bond, to mobilize each other when they were fighting for freedom and equality. Today African Americans use music as a way of raising attention to the social ills against their own, but due to the changing music landscape, black music is now contemporary and focuses on a feel good theme as opposed to earlier educative themes.
Etta James considered the "matriarch of R&B" is an artist with roots from Watts, southern Los Angeles. Etta is well known for bridging the gap between rhythm and blues and rock and roll, she was even inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the year 1993. In most of her works Etta James expressed the love, emotions and pop culture experienced by young African American is Los Angeles. Most of Etta James' songs were about popular city life with themes of love and romance, partying and relationships.
In her eighth album, Tell Mama considered to be her best work by many critics, Etta James brings out the themes of love, romance and relationships. Most of the songs during this time were mainly romantic and love songs. The music scene was adamantly rolling on a romance and feel good theme. Most of her work had a dynamic twist to them that made so many people to fall in love with her and her songs. Moreover, the artist had a way of telling stories in her songs, for example, in her song "I'd Rather Go Blind" Etta James makes us aware of the heartbreak she experiences when her lover leaves her for another woman. This song in a way tells us of the struggles of African American women and women in general during that time. Since the song was set in a time when gender equality was not yet realized in American society, it highlights the aspects of male chauvinism. It shows that men could get away with anything; men could have anything they wanted while the women had no say but to hurt in silence.
Some of Etta's music also highlighted the role that religion, Christianity to be precise played in the lives of many African Americans. Etta James starts her life a gospel prodigy singing in church choirs and singing gospel songs before venturing into the secular world. This shows the vital role that religion plays in African American culture in LA and elsewhere in the country. Most black folk are believers and subscribers of Christian faith with some of the largest churches in USA being African American Churches. It also illustrates how rebellion by youth affects and influences the lives of talented African Americans once the join the secular world. Etta James struggled with Heroin addiction and other forms of drug abuse. It shows the effect fame and money can have on a person raised in a humble background (Sonneborn, 2002).
From Etta's work we can see how music can be used to reflect or represent the lives of African American culture in mid 20th Century Los Angeles. Her music resonate the themes of love, the city life o f partying and having fun which was attributed to the rock and roll culture, which was ingrained in African American culture at the time as well. Etta's music gives its audience a sneak peek of the lifestyle that was during the 70s and the 80s.
Another famous music artist from Los Angeles is Tyrese Gibson. Although the artist is now more focused on his acting career, it is his music that brought him to the lime light.
Tyrese Gibson was born and raised in Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles California, where he started his musical career through a high school audition for coca cola. After the audition his music career blossomed from then onwards till when he ventured into the film industry. In his album "2000 watts" Tyrese uses a picture of Watts Towers as his music cover. This is symbolic in that it is a way of showing tribute to his neighborhood. Using a tower symbolizing his home, Tyrese symbolically tells a story of where he started out. He tells his audience of his roots, the ghetto where he drew his inspiration from.
Just like Etta James, most of Tyrese's music have a theme for love, romance and relationships. It expresses the life of a young black male as he matures in a society where he has access to a lot of privileges as a man, but not as a black man. In the song
'just a baby boy" Tyrese sings about his lifestyle having fun, wearing fancy clothes and causing trouble. This shows the allure that was associated with male celebrities at that time. Tyrese sings of spending their time doing crazy stuff like abusing alcohol, debauchery and drug abuse. The song shed a light to the moral corruption of the characters of young men once they get access to money and fame. It shows the significance of drug use in black culture, depicting a large percentage of black youth being into drug use.
Moreover, he talks about his cousin being a felon, highlighting the high levels of unemployment and criminal behavior among black youth. Since most of the youth in his neighborhood dropped out of school, they end up engaging in crimes and end up serving jail terms for the crimes they have committed. Some of them end up being drug peddlers and drug dealers.
In other lines in the song, Tyrese talks about having a baby up the street, meaning that he has had a number of children out of wedlock. This symbolizes the prevalence of unplanned childbirths in black communities. It also shows the lack of responsibility and respect for marriage among the young generation in Watts.
"The Watts Prophets" a group of poets and musicians originating from Watts in South Los Angeles, is another group of artists who use music to tell about their culture as a black community and as a ghetto culture. This group of artists combined the use of jazz and spoken word in their work. This trio was considered to be the forerunners of modern hip hop through their style of poetry and spoken word.
Inspired by the wake of the Watts Riots, most of the work done by "The Watts Prophets" tends to address civil rights issues and racial discrimination. The group released two albums, one in 1969 titled "The Black Voices: On The Streets of Watts" and a second one in 1971 titled, "Rappin'Black in a White World". Both of these albums established a tendency toward social commentary and earned the group a reputation of militancy.
Music and poetry done by The Watts Prophets had a direct approach to discussing important issues affecting the African American community in Watts, Los Angeles. They used their music to raise attention to the social injustices that Black people were being subjected to close to a century after the civil war. The music and poetry served the purpose of making its audience aware of the existence of racial prejudice in 1970 Los Angeles. Through the analysis of the songs such inside their second album, one can see a black culture where people are struggling.
Black folk in watts are struggling; they are struggling with inequality and racism, struggling with drug abuse, crime, unemployment, prostitution and pain. From this album alone one learns of the hardships experienced by black folk in their small neighborhood of watts. The pain and suffering that resonates from the songs in the album makes the listener to relate with these struggles. The songs make the feeling of the people of Watts, their emotions tangible even up to date.
Looking at the examples provided above we get to see how music can help illuminate the culture, the emotions and the struggles of Black people in Los Angeles. Listening to the songs alone proves sufficient enough to make a listener relate to the struggles and the emotions of the people being sang about in the songs. Indeed, music illuminates the culture of the people it represents.
Sonneborn, Liz (2002). A to Z of American Women in the Performing Arts. Infobase Publishing. p. 116. Retrieved May 22, 2011.
Nusca, Andrew. "Is Los Angeles really the creative capital of the world? Report says yes." ZDNet. 19th November 2009. Web. 05 April 2008
Tyrese Gibson. Just a Baby Boy.
"Etta James Biography - Facts, Birthday, Life Story - Biography.com." Famous Biographies & TV Shows - Biography.com, www.biography.com/people/etta-james-9542558?page=1.
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