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Exploring the rich musical history of Harlem


Why Harlem? What is it that made this neighbourhood in Upper Manhattan, nestled alongside the Hudson river, such fertile ground for music? You’d be forgiven for thinking that the area’s first inhabitants threaded the soil with some special seed that, for more than a hundred years now, it has yielded some of the most pioneering, innovative, and joyful music on the planet. But, of course, the truth is much more interesting than that.

Harlem’s musical history begins with The Great Migration of the early 20th century. It saw more than six million African Americans leave the rural Southern United States and relocate to the urban Northeast, Midwest and West to make a new life for themselves away from the Jim Crow South, where racially-motivated lynchings were commonplace. By the time the First World War broke out, what had once been a predominantly white neighbourhood occupied by Jewish and Italian migrants was now a melting pot of Black Americans from the deep south, Caribbean expatriates, and Puerto Ricans. And by 1920, it was the cultural epicentre of America, home to what came to be known as ‘The Harlem Renaissance’.

The Harlem Renaissance was not, it should be said, a purely musical phenomenon. It was an all-encompassing explosion of artistic and political ideas that formed the bedrock of what would become the civil rights movement in the 1940s and ’50s, and which saw a proliferation of artists working in a variety of fields including literature, (Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes) and art (Augusta Savage, James Van Der Zee). Music, however, was the beating heart of the Harlem Renaissance and essentially defined the sound of the ‘Jazz Age’, with the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday all emerging around this time. But Harlem offered up more than just horn-blowing. 

Thanks to Mamie Smith’s recording of ‘Crazy Blues’ in 1920, blues singers like Alberta Hunter and Ma Rainey, who had been performing in cabarets, clubs, and circus tents for years, were suddenly hot property. The music of the Renaissance was not only a celebration of heritage; it was a way of reconceptualising the stereotypical image white America had of its Black population at that time. Jazz soaked up and bled into everything around it, embracing the bustling vibrancy of city streets as well as informing the literature, art, theatre, and fashion that seemed to drip from every street corner.

“Melting pot Harlem-Harlem of honey and chocolate and caramel and rum and vinegar and lemon and lime and gall. Dusky dream Harlem rumbling into a nightmare tunnel where the subway from the Bronx keeps right on downtown.” Langston Hughes.

Then came the 1960s, one of the most turbulent periods in Harlem’s history, one that saw shocking levels of police brutality, inhospitable living conditions, and numerous race riots, including those of 1964, which were sparked after a white off-duty police officer shot and killed a Black teenager. Six years later, Harlem would find itself hosting one of the most important and shamefully ignored music festivals of all time, The Harlem Cultural Festival. Organised by the St. Kitts-born singer and actor Tony Lawrence, by 1969, the festival had already been running for three years. 

During that time, it gradually became one of the most politically and culturally important stages for Black artists. B.B. King, Mongo Santamaría, David Ruffin, the Chambers Brothers, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Gladys Knight and the Pips, and Chuck Jackson all took to The Harlem Cultural Festival stage. An estimated 300,000 people attended, numbers which rival even those of Woodstock. But the very next year, everything went quiet. The festival’s sudden collapse, according to Lawrence, was due to the fraudulent dealings of his white investors. All we know for sure is that, over the next decade, Woodstock took on iconic status while Harlem Cultural Fesitval was almost entirely forgotten. As Lawrence said of the long-forgotten shows: “The only time the white press concerns itself with the black community is during a riot or major disturbance.”

Demonstrators carrying photographs of Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan. (Credit: Dick DeMarsico)

The same year as the last Harlem Cultural Festival, a recession sent New York tumbling headfirst into an era defined by poverty and violence. Harlem was one of the worst affected areas, meaning that anyone who could afford to quickly left in search of better education and a better life, just as their parents and grandparents had 50 years earlier. The kids who stayed chose to distract themselves from the violent tumult outside their windows by creating a new form of music that hinged on the isolated breakbeats of old funk and disco records.

In cramped apartments all over Harlem and the Bronx, MCs and DJs honed their craft, utilising new technologies like drum machines and samplers to bring futuristic textures and irresistible grooves to their fans. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, the second generation of artists came of age in the form of The Diplomats and Tupac Shakur. They continued the work started by those first innovators of the Harlem Renaissance, using their music as a form of political expression. Shakur, in many ways, was the perfect embodiment of his neighbourhood’s cultural heritage. Harlem has been pursuing artistic excellence and using that art to comment on the state of race relations in America for over 100 years. Shakur’s socially conscious form of rap continued that tradition.

So why Harlem? There are many contributing factors as to why this neighbourhood in uptown New York has been such an important cultural centre for so long, but surely one of the most important is its people. It is Harlem’s residents who, in those early days of the 20th century, engaged with their society in such a way that they were able to expand its boundaries. By debating, exchanging ideas, and – importantly – throwing parties, the Harlemites of the 1920s exploded the concrete sidewalks of the city landscape and replaced them with a fertile landscape of exploratory political and artistic ideas that have acted as the bedrock of a continually innovative mindset that is still producing some of the world’s most influential musicians. From Ma Rainey to A$AP Rocky, we have Harlem to thank.

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