Music has always been part of Black history. Whether it’s spirituals, jazz, or hip-hop, Black music has had a vast impact on art and culture around the world. From Duke Ellington to Quincy Jones, the presence of Black composers in film and television has consistently seemed to win over the music world in its entirety.
The 20th century sparked a revolution with Black artists placing their work on the forefront. Creating their own categorizations was crucial to the making of a movement that would change the course of musical history. The Harlem Renaissance generated a profusion of Black talent in the 1920s and 30s. The movement involved the likes of Duke Ellington (Black and Tan, Anatomy of a Murder), Bessie Smith (Back-Water Blues, Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out), and Cab Calloway (Jitterbug, Reefer Man). This ensemble of Black artists, writers, and musicians not only celebrated their heritage but also paved the way for the future of Black art.
A new era for the Academy
About thirty years later in the 60s and 70s, a few Black film and television composers began to thrive in leagues of their own, with Quincy Jones leading the way by being the first African American to be nominated for an Academy Award for his hit song “The Eyes of Love” from the 1967 film Banning. His musical talent radiates through a plethora of films, television shows, and albums alike. He meticulously arranged acclaimed soundtracks for some of the biggest hit shows and films of the time including Sanford & Son (1972), Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), The Wiz (1978), and Spielberg’s The Color Purple (1985).
Jones’s musical flair didn’t stop at film and television. He produced songs and albums for some of the biggest names in music including Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson, and Celine Dion. Although he is to this day considered a legend in film and television composition, alongside Jones, was another contemporary who broke boundaries in the film and music industry.
A meshing of genres
Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, a co-founder of New York’s Symphony of the New World in 1965, happened to find his niche in the film world by contributing beautiful scores to various 70s films such as A Warm December (1973), Amazing Grace (1974), and The Education of Sonny Carson (1974). He set the bar not only for Black orchestrators but for orchestras as a whole. Perkinson tended to incorporate a collective of genres into his compositions including classical, folk, and blues. His dreamy symphonies are still praised and performed by both amateur and professional orchestras around the world. Composers such as Jones and Perkinson essentially served as catalysts, and laid the foundation, for current-day Black composers.
The new generation
Contemporary Black composers are continuing what was started years ago by supplying their musical strengths to today’s top shows, films, and sometimes even opera houses. Terence Blanchard and Labrinth have greatly contributed to today’s film and television scores as well as other ventures. Blanchard recently made history as the first African American composer to stage an opera at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City.
His debut opera titled “Fire Shut Up in my Bones” which he interprets as “opera in jazz” premiered during the 2021-2022 season. He’s a prominent figure in Spike Lee’s film catalog as well, having created the scores for films such as Do the Right Thing (1989), Da 5 Bloods (2020), and BlacKkKlansman (2018). Over the years, Blanchard has been nominated for a Golden Globe Award and two Academy Awards, and has won five Grammys.
Born Timothy Lee Mckenzie, Labrinth has also broken barriers around the world. The British producer, singer, and rapper started as a solo artist and producer in the late 2000s. Shortly after, he was featured on the debut track “Pass Out” with fellow UK artist Tinie Tempah in 2010.
Labrinth’s career swiftly took off following the release of the single. He achieved placements on music charts in Australia, Ireland, Scotland, and the UK. As his career soared even further, he leaned even more towards music production and composed songs for artists such as Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, and The Weeknd. Back in 2018, he founded the group “LSD” with Sia and Diplo, two fellow thriving artists in the music industry. Labrinth’s most recent project is his incredible work scoring HBO’s hit teen-drama Euphoria. His entrancing beats and haunting vocals throughout the project have enthralled audiences of the show since its release in 2019.
From singers to orchestrators, to producers, to rappers, Black music artists have been and are continuing to set the bar with their crafts. The impact of Black film and television composers can be seen over a wide range of entertainment including films, music samples, and the present-day composers who use their predecessors as inspiration to this day. One after the other, Black artists continue to create to honor their culture as well as influence artists for generations to come.