Black Creativity & Exploitation: Ragtime

mauludSADIQ
The Brothers
4 min readDec 10, 2023

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“…this was a music neither by nor for the white man. It was the music of a race that he had long oppressed — a music born in captivity and nurtured by an unlettered people — that now made its way to the urban center.” Russel Roth

Although this statement could easily be about what we call “Hip-Hop,” it’s really about Jazz; the genre that captured the imagination of the world; a genre that even to this day has a name that many of the practitioners resist. There’s no smoking gun that can be used to pin the origin date of the music (like Kool Herc’s August 11, 1973 party). In fact, the term Jazz wasn’t initially applied to the music. Nope. The first time we see the word “Jazz” it’s used as a synonym for “enthusiastic, lively” (LA Times, 2 April 1912, part III, pg. 2, col. 1) and it was applied to baseball.

We’ll get back to Jazz. Because this isn’t just about music, it’s about commerce and if we’re going to talk commerce then we have to start with another popular genre that began with Black people. One that was equally Black and equally marginalized. It began as music played in saloons, brothels, and gambling houses but eventually became one of America’s first musical exports. That music was called Ragtime.

Before there was the recording industry — an industry based on the recording and selling of live music — the most prominent industry was the sheet music industry. In this industry, the notes of songs and/or lyrics of songs were printed out and sold to the public who would recreate the tunes. Opera and classical were the dominant genres in America until Ragtime developed which was a piano-based music built on syncopated melodies.

Although the music was played throughout the south, most musicians migrated to Missouri, the place that historians now consider the home of the genre. Composers like Charles Hunter, Thomas Turpin, Louis Chauvin, Charles L. Johnson, and the most popular of the bunch, Scott Joplin churned out tune after tune (Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” was the first written music to sell a million copies) but it was the songs of Ernest Hogan that captured the imagination of white America and spawned a Ragtime sub-genre called Coon Songs.

Hogan, a Black man, was using coon loosely (sometimes coon was replaced with boy) but that unleashed a slew of white “imitators.” Ragtime and Coon Songs sold tons of sheet music and even drove the sales of pianos. Unfortunately, once the songs were sold, Hogan and other Black artists lost control of the music. Publishers accented the stereotypical images: bug eyes, big red lips, and the disparity of who benefited was easily recognizable. Check this quote:

“The colored man writes the ‘coon’ song, the colored singer sings the ‘coon’ song, the colored race is compelled to stand for the belittling and ignominy of the ‘coon’ song, but the money from the ‘coon’ song flows with ceaseless activity into the white man’s pockets.” (Indianapolis Freeman, 1901)

That’s why we had to include that. Because as we know, energy can neither be created nor destroyed it just changes form. In this case, that energy is the spirit of creativity. The spirit that created Ragtime was the spirit that morphed into the music that would become known as Jazz. Similarly, the spirit that created the exploitation of Ragtime in the form of sheet music morphed into the spirit that exploited what would become Jazz and all subsequent Black music — the record industry. You will find, dear reader, wherever there is a Black creation, there is white exploitation. What also isn’t new — the reason that we turn to these bastions of exploitation — lack of capital.

Recording equipment at that time was new, big, expensive, and owned exclusively by white folk. As an example, Elridge Johnson, the owner of the Victor record label, invested the equivalent of $1.5 million of today’s dollars to buy his way into the recording industry. These white labels weren’t interested in Black artists which is why the first recording that could be classified as Jazz was done by a white group, The Original Dixie Jazz Band in May of 1917. Meanwhile, pioneers like Buddy Boldon never recorded and it would be six years before Jelly Roll Morton or King Oliver were finally put on wax.

The Honorable Elijah Muhammad teaches us that if we want to understand a thing we must get to its roots and that’s why we had to examine Ragtime and the early days of Jazz. The industry may have changed (physical recordings are a novelty now, not a necessity) but the nature of the business is still the same — Exploitation.

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mauludSADIQ
The Brothers

b-boy, Hip-Hop Investigating, music lovin’ Muslim