Where, Oh Where Has Black Children’s Music Gone?
Survey Shows Children’s Music is Virtually Non-Existent in the Black Community
Even though he was only six years old, my nephew interjected himself into the adult’s conversation with a passing and lighthearted warning, “Don’t put your business on the internet!” I was taken aback but not surprised that he’d been paying attention to the personal drawbacks of using social media. What was more remarkable was that his statement was relevant to the conversation he overheard between adults. Some would have chastised his remarks as being rude. I, on the other hand, was extremely proud of my nephew and attributed his new precocious wisdom to a song off of the Uncle Devin’s Drum Tales CD that I gifted him a few months earlier.
The Uncle Devin Show is an interactive musical experience for children. The music engages children in learning, movement and experiencing world cultures. Devin Walker, the artist behind The Uncle Devin Show, believes that children’s music offers developmental benefits, which can incorporate life lessons. Therefore, a compelling case can be made for devoting more effort to uplift Black children through music and play.
Turn on the TV or radio and you will see and hear many different programs from news and sports, to food and shopping. What you won’t see or hear is children’s music programming owned, controlled, and performed by Black people for Black communities.
According to a recent survey and study administered by The Uncle Devin Show® (TUDS), 93% of those surveyed stated that music is “very important” to a child's social development. However, the respondents believed that there were not enough programs on Black-owned television and radio stations dedicated to children's music.
The responses of the 96 participants who voluntarily responded to the online survey are consistent with studies around the world that show the positive impact of music on children. In an article authored by Laura Lewis-Brown entitled, The Benefits of Music Education, she asserts that, “Research has found that learning music facilitates learning other subjects and enhances skills that children inevitably use in other areas…the children who were given music lessons over the school year tested on average three IQ points higher than the other groups.”
According to the November 29, 2014 article, Twelve Benefits of Music Education by musedadmin, he contends that, “Recent studies show that students who study the arts are more successful on standardized tests such as the SAT. They also achieve higher grades in high school.”
A troubling reality is that not only are there no national children’s programs that cater specifically to the Black community, but additionally it seems many people don’t know of any nationally-known Black children’s music artists. For example, 56% of those surveyed by TUDS stated that they can name three to five nationally known children’s artists, either past or present. Yet, only 26% of the respondents were able to name Black children’s artists and only 20% of Black respondents in particular were able to name three to five nationally-known Black children’s artists. In contrast, 80% of White respondents surveyed stated they were able to do so.
This should come with little surprise since only one of the 11 “…Best Musical Artists for Children Ages 2 to 4,” are Black, according to children's music expert Warren Truitt. A mother of three and YouTube sensation, Patty Shukla’s, list of “Top 10 Children’s Musicians,” contains no persons of color either.
The online global platform for city happenings known as “Time Out” compiled a list of the best 25 bands for their New York Kids page and they “guarantee you'll want to expose your children to all 25 of these performers.” Guess what? Not one of those 25 artists appears to be a Black musicians.
These sources are not necessarily to blame for such exclusions. While there is certainly a rich tradition of Black musicians who have and still do grace the Kindie music platform, such as legendary First Lady of Children’s Music Ella Jenkins, consummate musicians and storytellers Kim and Reggie Harris, Ziggy Marley, and even blues and folk singer Lead Belly, steady contributions to the platform by Black artists seem to be vanishing on a national level.
To be clear Ella Jenkins is the only one of the aforementioned artists who dedicates the whole of her career to the Kindie music industry. While the contributions of the others should not be minimized, a distinction is that producing children’s music is side work within their careers. A qualification regarding Kim and Reggie Harris, however, is their added admirable and invaluable contribution of dynamic workshops for educators –“Sing to Freedom: Music and Stories of the Underground Railroad,” “Dream Alive!” and “A Celebration of Black History through Music” – all designed to make curriculum connections through music.
It surely cannot be disputed that more such concerted and intentional efforts in the industry, applying the virtues of music to nurture and enlighten, are needed to help address the challenges particular to Black children. Too familiar for Black and/or African people are the matters of cultural appropriation and our historical experiences being told or interpreted by others.
Regarding Black children, Devin Walker of TUDS adds, “When a child gets to see role models on stage that look like them, it is has a large impact not only on their self esteem but it also helps encourage them to succeed socially and academically. For Black children it helps combat inferiority complexes that come as a byproduct of us being enslaved and colonized.”
It should be evident that children relate better to musical experiences that reflect genres they are familiar with at home and have the syntax and inflections of colloquial expression unique to Black culture.
In his seminal 1933 book The Mis-Education of the Negro, Carter G. Woodson explains “…one observes in some of these catalogues numerous courses in art but no well defined course in Negro or African art which early influenced that of the Greeks. Thinkers are now saying that the early culture of the Mediterranean was chiefly African. Most of these colleges do not even direct special attention to Negro music in which the Negro has made his outstanding contribution in America. The unreasonable attitude is that because the whites do not have these things in their schools the Negroes must not have them in theirs. The Catholics and Jews, therefore, are wrong in establishing special schools to teach their principles of religion, and the Germans in America are unwise in having their children taught their mother tongue.”
Part of TUDS’ mission recognizes the need to combine music and education in a way that is entertaining, socially responsible and financially feasible; as well as advocating for the need to have more public funds allocated toward music in schools. The precept “do for self” should compel Black people to shore up efforts like those of TUDS and the Kim and Reggie Harris program to build this industry and social movement.
Black/African people as a whole are ultimately responsible for preserving and creating our own culturally appropriate tools for development. This has to include supporting Black children’s music with Black music genres by Black musicians specializing in children’s music.
Netfa Freeman is a long time Pan-Africanist and internationalist human rights organizer and analyst. He is currently the Events Coordinator for the Institute for Policy Studies and radio host and producer for Voices With Vision on WPFW 89.3 FM in Washington, DC.