What evidence can you find of the effect of racism in the 50s on Rock and Roll? Look at the audience, the music business, parents, governments, etc. Did Rock and Roll have any effect on changing...

What evidence can you find of the effect of racism in the 50s on Rock and Roll? Look at the audience, the music business, parents, governments, etc. Did Rock and Roll have any effect on changing attitudes between whites and blacks?

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pnrjulius eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Rock and roll was not just a style of music---it was also very much a social movement. The ethos of rock and roll was about liberation, individuality, and personal freedom in all things---famously with regard to sexuality, but also in many other respects as well, including liberation from racial discrimination.

The music style originated from Rhythm and Blues (R&B), which in turn had arisen as a synthesis of African and European musical styles created primarily by Black people in the US. R&B was heavily influenced by folk songs and chants that Black slaves sang when working on plantations, and some of these rhythmic sounds carried over into rock and roll.

Early rock and roll artists were almost all themselves Black, Rock and Roll didn't become really commercially successful until White artists began taking up the sound. This was, to be honest, probably very much the result of racism; but once it happened, rock actually began to break down a lot of racist barriers that had stood in the US for a long time. Rock was one of the first types of media that had wide audiences who were both White and Black, and thanks to rock and roll a number of Black artists gained mainstream recognition as well, such as Little Richard and Chuck Barry. It is probably not a coincidence that rock and roll became popular around the same time as the Civil Rights movement began to make major successes desegregating schools and businesses and reducing racial discrimination under the law.

The government also took notice of the effect of rock and roll on teenagers' attitudes toward race and sexuality, and often attempted to crack down on the music, calling it "tribalistic" and "jungle stuff". Many parents were scandalized by its message of liberation and the implications for racial integration.

In the late 1950s, major music studios realized they would be better off profiting from rock and roll rather than resisting it, and instead hired White artists to play "cover versions" of songs originally written and performed by Black artists. This allowed them to sell it to radio and TV stations as "White music" instead of "Black music". Here again we can see the pervasive influence of racism. But many of these White artists turned the tables later by talking openly about the Black artists who influenced them, drawing a number of those artists out of obscurity and into the mainstream. They were able to do this because of the creation of rock stars, by now a general term for someone famous, but at that time quite new: a few rock and roll artists became so popular and so profitable that they began to hold the reins of their producers instead of the other way around.

In all, I do think rock and roll made a major positive contribution toward improving race relations and supporting the Civil Rights movement in the US. Of course many other factors were involved as well, not least the heroic sacrifices of thousands of protesters; but rock and roll had a unifying effect on America (and particularly American youth) that broke down a lot of racial barriers that had previously been quite intractable.