Segregated Sound at the Museum of the City of New York

By Gigi LaBelle

Last Friday the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY) held a public forum on the topic of race relations and music titled, “Segregated Sound? African American Music and American Popular Song.”

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MCNY has been a premier destination of all things art, culture, and history, regarding both past and present NYC.  The program was being held in conjunction to the museum’s current exhibition, which honors Harlem’s Apollo Theater.

The Apollo Theater started out as a small ballroom and dance club in the early 1870s, and over the course of a century, it became one of the world’s most famous musical venues, primarily showcasing African-American talent.  It is a historical landmark in NYC, and has been the birthplace of a multitude of today’s, and yesteryear’s biggest names in show business.  In fact, one night, a 17-year-old Ella Fitzgerald walked in off the street, and right onto the stage during Amateur Night, and was pretty much “discovered” on the spot after her performance.  It’s no wonder the Apollo Theater is known as a place “where stars are born, and legends are made”.

What makes the Apollo Theater so unique is that it is one of the few venues in NYC that embraces all musical forms found throughout American culture.   Rock & Roll legend Jimi Hendrix won first prize for his 1964 Amateur Night performance, and in 2009, Paul McCartney of the Beatles performed there as well.  The Apollo Theater can easily be coined as one of the birthplaces of Rock & Roll as it was an outlet for black musicians to come out and showcase their amazing instrumental capabilities.

The main focus of the panel was that prior to the advent of commercialized music, blacks and whites listened to the same types of music.  However, once radio and television became prominent, music became categorized and segmented for marketing purposes. Genres such as Rock & Roll, which was created and played primarily by blacks became “white music”, while Rhythm & Blues (R&B) became “black music”.  At this point music became a place where institutional racism was reinforced.  Ironically, it is through sound that racial lines can be blurred in order to allow people to submerge themselves into various ethnic groups and cultures.

The Apollo Theater was, and still is a venue that combats institutional racism.  It is an institution in and of itself, which has helped build Harlem, and NYC into a “melting pot” within the performance arts community.  Its presence became a pillar of strength for musicians who would otherwise be pigeonholed into one genre. Simultaneously, it has exposed people of all races across America [and the world] to all kinds of music created by blacks.  It is because of this heritage, that artists from all musical and racial backgrounds have been able to perform, and gain their chance at stardom.  From Ella Fitzgerald, to Jimi Hendrix, to Michael Jackson, to Aretha Franklin, to James Brown, to Lauren Hill, to Jazmine Sullivan, and countless others, the Apollo Theater has been a mainstay for black music and American culture.

On the panel were Maureen Mahon, professor at NYU and author of Right to Rock: The Black Rock Coalition and the Cultural Politics of Race (Duke University Press, 2004), Patrick Burke, and professor, and author of Come in & Hear the Truth: Jazz and Race on 52nd Street (University of Chicago Press, 2008), and Martha Redbone, an award winning African-American and Native-American singer/songwriter, teacher, and community activist.  Historian, Ryan J. Carey of the Museum of the City of New York hosted the panel discussion.  The exhibition is titled Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing: How the Apollo Shaped American Entertainment and is running from Feb. 8, 2011-May 1, 2011.

The Museum of the City of New York
1220 Fifth Avenue @ 103 Street
New York, New York 10029
(212) 534-1672

Museum Hours: Tuesday-Sunday: 10am-5pm


3 thoughts on “Segregated Sound at the Museum of the City of New York

  1. Did anyone touch upon house music and its unifying force among racial groups and former mayor Guiliani’s club and dance crackdown (which didn’t affect bars in Harlem), in order to stop the intergration of dance music lovers? This led to the formation of The Dance Parade in NYC.

    • Actually yes! That was definitely something that was discussed. Many of the panel members and audience members discussed how nightclubs such as the Palladium, CBGB’s and Nells brought a wide array of New Yorkers together. However, As of late, establishments like the Palladium have been converted into housing dorms for NYU students. Sahara, I wish you were able to make it to this discussion, you would have enjoyed it, & thank you for your comment!

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