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Music Performance



Popular Music Theory: African American Influences and Ways of Listening to Music


The establishment of an artists’ identity is immensely significant in the process of constructing empowering songs. This will be explained in two sections. First, the importance of jazz and soul history, with their origins in the African slave trade. This will be highlighted to demonstrate the second section; how Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin have used this oppression and transformed it into empowerment. Cooke’s, ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ and Franklin’s repertoired, ‘Respect’ will be analysed in regards to this transformation. Through the analysis of these songs, it will become evident how they are songs of empowerment most prominently for minority groups. 


The history of jazz and soul lie in their roots of oppression regarding the African slave trade. Asante describes how ‘nommo’ is an ‘Afro-centric’ term, inspired by African religious practices and emphasises the value of sound in creating reality though music (1942, 95). Asante ties this in with the discussion of the anti-literacy laws during this period and how Africans in America were not permitted to learn to read or write English. The oppressive nature of such restrictive communication limited any potential means for desired expression from one African in America to another. However, despite the lack of universal linguistic backgrounds, the significance of anti-literacy and sound value became important forces because they both went on to serve as major contributions towards ‘orature’. ‘Orature’ was the idea of verbal communication being of immense merit in expressing ideas and stories. Verbal communication became the most prominent way of pronouncing and translating ideas with the absence and lack of accessibility to literacy. “The African in America early cultivated the natural fascination with nommo… a singular appreciation for subtitles, pleasures and potentials of the spoken word” (Asante 1942, 95), placing emphasis on sound and how something is being said would often be more significant than what was actually being said. ‘Potentials’ refer to how original inspirations for jazz, soul and blues came from these African-American histories, with words not being used as prominently as sounds were, in regard to the differing linguistic backgrounds. The idea of ‘nommo’ has developed jazz, soul and blues to be genres of improvisation and spirit, because it came from oppression. These African-Americans however, did not allow the prevention of communication to conclude them. 


This oppressive history became a significant source of inspiration for artists, Aretha Franklin and Sam Cooke. Cooke (1931 - 1964), was a prominent pop, jazz and blues singer, who wrote ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ in 1964 as an empowering turn for black oppression. He was known as both “the man who invented blues” (Burford 2012, 115) but also as a mainstream pop artist. Cooke is consequentially, an important ‘cross-over’ artist as his music was enjoyed by both black and white audiences, “the tango of black gospel and ‘white’ pop singing has dominated discussions of Cooke’s life and art” (Burford 2012, 114). Although his fame came from his popularity amongst a white audience in the pop charts, he maintained a connection with his black audience too, as the pleasure for “many African American listeners derived from the recognisability of his gospel background despite its pop context” (Burford 2012, 136). Cooke was able to utilise this oppressive history and tie gospel into his pop career, which was such a significant genre because of its roots in the slave trade and how it was born from oppression. Cooke was so significant because he used the gospel genre even in his pop singing career right up until his death. Werner describes gospel as a genre that “helps people experience themselves in relation to [others] rather than on their own” (cited in Trigg 2010, 996-997), emphasising its prevalence in times of oppression as it was a force to unite people. ‘A Change is Gonna Come’, also tries to unite its audience by merging gospel and blues together and this was significant in being able to use a history of oppression in what was made to be a song of empowerment (Trigg 2010, 997). Cooke created a space for jazz, blues and gospel music to exist across different social backgrounds of both class and race. As a result, Cooke has woven meaning into his music by making it something that transcended race, also providing connotations for the future of these genres. The connotations included these genres becoming available across cultures and different types of people; it wasn’t music exclusive to a particular audience. Cooke was able to exist as a pop artist whilst maintaining significant structures of his own gospel background, which kept a theme of identity strong in Cooke’s music career. 


This establishment of identity was also so crucial in the process of creating empowering music relevant not only for the time period but also for today. Barack Obama said in his electoral victory speech, “it’s been a long time comin but… a change has come to America” (Burford 2012, 113), which is immensely significant. Obama’s words alluded to Cooke’s, ‘A Change is Gonna Come’, which released the same year as his death. This was a song written during the civil rights movement, and later became its anthem, “the civil rights song” (Burford 2012, 141) as it was often described. The song had such an empowering impact in being able to express hope and anticipation for better black futures. Cooke’s history of being a ‘cross-over’ artist was analysed above to express how releasing a song like this with such strong black empowerment implications was massively controversial to his career. The significance however in him doing so had massive repercussions as seen with the civil rights movement and Obama bringing this idea back to life. Cooke was able to take this historical oppression and use the establishment of his identity in his music to release a song so empowered for its time. 


Aretha Franklin (1942 - 2018) similarly created prominent identity in her music and used this to transform oppression into empowerment. She did this by providing a powerful and reformed voice for women and black minorities, with her “emergent cultural position as the Queen of Soul” (Malawey 2014, 185). This powerful music reformation was first established with Franklin’s transition from a Repertoire singer to a song ‘owner’. This notion of song ‘ownership’ was ironically conceptualised by a critique of her repertoired, ‘Respect’. Porter discusses how the “problem is that jazz criticism is often confused with jazz research”, which is extremely significant as it references how an accurate portrayal of jazz and soul music reality is not always being presented as it is muddled with opinion. Nathan writes a critique of Franklin’s version of ‘Respect’ saying it, “is not Aretha. It is Otis, because it is his song” (Smith 1997, pg. 18-19 cited in Malawey 2014, 205), implying that this concept of song ownership is present and existing. History has situated ‘Respect’ into a bubble of confusion between whether association is better suited with the ‘song writer’, or the ‘made popular by’. With ‘Respect’, it is clear that Franklin has used an already established song with its own personality and made it her own with a new and empowered voice.


This establishment of such prominent identity in Franklin’s ‘Respect’ was a powerful tool in being able to give a reformed voice to empower a history of oppression, with regards to women and black minorities (Carter 2018). The song majorly “gives agency to a female perspective speaking within the language of soul” and appealed to so many audiences because it was empowering for minorities and marginalised groups. The way that Malawey describes her version is of a ‘gendered re-authoring’, which describes the female voice that is now being given to the song. The reason Malawey has described it like this is because it resonates so much with themes of “sexual empowerment” and “racial equality” (Malawey 2014, 185). Franklin has used a history of oppression aimed towards woman, and especially woman of colour by creating a narrative that contrasted the original in Redding’s version. It was originally written and sung as a jazz song about a woman who would do anything for her man, and him expecting that she will respect him regardless. A ‘call and response’ effect kind of took place when the Franklin repertoire in 1967 with a much more blues energy, contrasted a financially dependent character with the financially independent character that she created. Oppression has been transformed into empowerment as seen with Franklin’s powerful repertoire to give people a voice and an outlet to feel powerful despite circumstance. This is also the power that identity establishment has in translating music to public audiences.  


This essay has demonstrated a history of black oppression which artists, Cooke and Franklin have been able to transform into empowerment. This was investigated through the songs, ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ and ‘Respect’ to highlight a new sense of empowerment in music inspired by an oppressive history. 


Works Cited: 


Asante, Molefi Kete. 1991. "The Afrocentric Idea In Education". The Journal Of Negro Education 60 (2): 170.


Burford, Mark. 2012. "Sam Cooke As Pop Album Artist—A Reinvention In Three Songs". Journal Of The American Musicological Society 65 (1): 113-178.


Carter, Kelley L. 2018. "Aretha Franklin's 'Respect': How Sassy Song Became Anthem For An Era". Detroit Free Press.


Malawey, Victoria. 2014. "‘Find Out What It Means To Me’: Aretha Franklin’s Gendered Re-Authoring Of Otis Redding’s ‘Respect’". Cambridge University Press 33 (2): 185-207.


Porter, Lewis. 1988, 'Some Problems in Jazz Research' in Black Music Research Journal, 8:2, pp. 195-206


Trigg, Christopher. 2010. "A Change Ain't Gonna Come: Sam Cooke And The Protest Song". University Of Toronto Quarterly 79 (3): 991-1003.




Music has been transformed by technology. It will be analysed the repercussions that emerged from the establishment of recording music, regarding a significant technological change. These repercussions include firstly, how the transformation of music by technology and the enablement of recording have commodified music. The way that the commodification of music is often confused with cultural development will also be highlighted to supplement this argument. Secondly, how recording technology has changed personal experience in terms of control and space. Individualism will be discussed as a change in control experience and portable music as a change in space experience. 


There was once a time when the physical and live playing of music was the only translation of music from people to people. Now, music exists in an exceptionally different way because of music recording and its technology. Recording technology has transformed music into something that is now commercially commodified. A commodity is defined as a product that can be bought and sold. The emergence of the music industry after recording took place emphasises this buying and selling premise as being very much alive. "Once upon a time, everyday people made music for themselves. Then along came the phonograph, and they stopped making music and started buying it instead" (Taylor 2007, 281), expressing how music is a commodity because as said above, it was being bought and sold. After music started being recorded, ‘goods’ were essentially created, as now music was something that people could quantitively account for. Taylor uses Marx’s ideology and capitalist theories to explain this transition of music into a commodity. Marx describes something only becoming a commodity "when it enters the system of capitalist exchange, when it can be used to generate surplus value" (cited in Taylor 2007, 281), which is what has happened to music when recording and technology came into the picture. Music created an industry where the achievement of surplus value became possible, which was a major consequence of music recording and the growth of new technology. 


It must also be acknowledged that in light of music commodification, the way that it took place had differences too. “Music-commodity has to be understood as always in flux, always caught up in historical, cultural and social forces" (Taylor 2007, 283), because music is a difficult form of commodity. This difficulty emerges from the unique nature of music commodity as it has major cultural implications. It is not a simple commodity as cereal or makeup is for example, as they way these are bought and sold have obvious differences to music. The cultural aspect of music questions it as a commodity as it puts music in a confused circle of being both a commodity and also a branch of current popular culture. Bull discuses how the iPod reforms the urban experience of seeing life through advertising technologies and commodity culture because it enables a much more lived element of music (2005, 347). This lived and experienced element of music almost transcends commodification because "the user is rather saturated with the privatised sounds of the iPod - the cultural imperative, fully commoditised, lies in the contents of the iPod itself, not in the city streets" (Bull 2013, 497). What is being explained here is that music is also an experience and the aspect of commodity in this regard is difficult to label. Music is more than just something to sell. The controversy however arises because in spite of that it has still been sold anyways.   


Furthermore, the recording technology and then progressively, the streaming technology that surrounds music allows it to be consumed in so many different ways. Music is not always being bought and sold, as streaming and downloading free music has removed this factor of capitalist surplus. Further technological advancements allow people to ‘hack’ the system and listen to music for free without paying. Gomes describes how music has perhaps lost its value and commodity nature not because of the music itself but because of the music industry. He believes that this high level of accessibility to music through technology has removed this element of commodity because ironically, “the average downloader is almost certainly wealthier than those not on the Internet" (Katz 2004, 165 cited in Gomes 2016, 6). People are not paying for music anymore and the lack of any strategic business plan to support the change of music accessibility in terms of industry now feel the consequences (Gomes 2016, 11). However, what Gomes has failed out to point out is the prevalent commodification of music concerts. This is a method that many artists have taken on to curve around free streaming music. It allows them to still make money and commodify their music, but in a different way. It is important to highlight that the recording of music with new technology transformed the existence of music and made it both a commodity but also a continuation of culture, which is where confusion arose. Both aspects much be acknowledged in light of recorded music because both are prevalent in the way that music currently exists.  


The establishment of music recording has in also in turn changed the personal experience of music. One way this changed personal experience is through the aspect of control and the consequential individualisation of music. This idea of individualisation revolves around having something tailored to a specific person, which created a space for personal choice to exist more prominently in music than it had before. These technological advancements build choice because people now have greater access to more music. The recording of music has progressively grown and has introduced new genres and subsequent sub-genres too. It has also introduced a variety of music platforms that makes access to these new styles of music easier and more efficient. This has constructed a sense of individual control over personal taste and helps with individualisation because people have the freedom of choice. This changed music experience allowed for greater elements of control, which was also due to the fact that what you listened to, was not decided by the industry anymore. This change in regards to music recording is especially significant because all formats before the MP3 “were all planned and controlled by the industry… this was the revolutionary aspect brought by the combination of MP3 and the internet” (Gomes 2016, 2-3). Now, there are many more platforms available and the variety of music has spread so much that it is difficult to control and hold back what music people listen to. The MP3 and the Internet have joined forces to create a world of music that is endless and accessible and this enlarged space of music options enables more personal choices to be made. In relation to this individualisation, Gomes discusses how this acquired control over personal music is also demonstrated through the creation of different playlists that are created for different moods, weathers, memories, etc. This massively reflects the establishment of individualisation and control in music as a subsequent reality of the birth of music recording. 


Current technology and music recording have also changed personal experience through the idea of space. Bull references how a garden he visited alluded to the soundtrack of a film he had seen, serving significant value because “this small personal anecdote illustrates the power of music in the transformation of our sense of place and space" (2013, 497). Music has associations with places that we know, and vice versa, as it occupies the spaces that we know because it is assimilated into everyday lives. Bull discusses this argument in his earlier work describing the contemporary urban experience as an “accompanied solitude in which people walk to the personalised sounds of their personal stereos" (2004, 343). His description of music taking over the concept of space can be boiled down to three main aspects: portable, personal and private. Music is now portable allowing for the potential to listen to music wherever you go, building on the notion of freedom of space. This is also enhanced by the smaller sizes of iPods and listening devices. You wouldn’t carry a jukebox around and now you don’t even have to. The personal and private aspects refer to the variant music genres available and how it is specifically up to you what you listen to, and is not based on family decision. This changes the way people live their lives because portable music has become to soundtrack to people’s everyday. Gomes refers to this theory as ‘no dead air’, which examines the seamless auditory experience and how music is so assimilated into our daily lives and majorly alters the concept of space. 


Once music started to be recorded, it established significant social changes. Two major changes were discussed in reference to the emergence of new technological power in music. The first change was the commodification of music, which also brought about confusion over whether music was more cultural progression or a commodity. The second change was how recording technology changed personal experience regarding both sense of control and concepts of space. 



Works Cited:


Bull, Michael. 2005. "No Dead Air! The Ipod And The Culture Of Mobile Listening". Leisure Studies 24 (4): 343-355. doi:10.1080/0261436052000330447.


Bull, Michael. 2013. "Ipod Use: An Urban Aesthetics Of Sonic Ubiquity". Continuum 27 (4): 495-504. doi:10.1080/10304312.2013.803300.


Gomes, Ricardo Milani. Audio Quality x Accessibility: How Digital Technology Changed The Way We Listen and Consume Popular Music. Revista Vórtex, Curitiba, v.4, n.2, 2016, p.1-14 


Taylor, Timothy D. 2007. "The Commodification Of Music At The Dawn Of The Era Of "Mechanical Music"". Ethnomusicology Vol. 51 (No. 2): 281-305.


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