The Social Impact of Motown Music in American Culture

The Social Impact of Motown Music in American Culture

Music echoes social changes, and as such, it bears the weight of the expression of the people. In the 1950s, in the fear of racial segregation, black communities were still fighting for their right to social freedom. The founding of Motown Records in Detroit in 1959 joined the ardent opposition of the civil rights movement to racial, social, economic, and political discrimination and individual, police, and mass violence against black people.

By assembling an impressive roster of talented artists, Motown managed to break down the social and racial barriers and become the most important independent record label of the early 1960s in the history of music.

Racism was extremely present in the lives and careers of American black artists and musicians in the 1950s. However, even before Motown, there had been examples of successful black musicians such as Jackie Wilson, who had topped the Billboard Top 40 chart countless times between 1958 and 1963, and Ruth Brown, who had sold more albums than any other artist in the 1950s with Atlantic Records. But Motown managed to bring all available talent together under one record label and, at the same time, to associate its birth and success with the broader socio-political setting of its era.

Echoing the frustration of black people in the turbulent setting of the mid-1950s in the United States, Motown associated music with the black civil rights struggle by being the first record label owned by an African American.

Under the leadership of Berry Gordy Jr., who aspired to bridge the gap of racial discrimination by producing music that could appeal to all people, regardless of the color of their skin, Motown became a vehicle of black pride and self-expression. Besides, the broad appeal of Motown integrated the political and cultural aspects of the broader socio-political environment and associated music and the right of black communities to social equality.

Berry Gordy and Rhythm and Blues Music

Berry Gordy Junior was born in Detroit on November 28, 1929. He was the next to the youngest child of Berry Gordy Senior and his wife Bertha. Berry dropped out of high school to become a professional boxer. He was then recruited into the Army in 1950.

When his hitch in the Army ended three years later, Berry Gordy returned home and married his sweetheart, a girl named Thelma Coleman. Instead of returning to the boxing ring, Berry Junior decided to concentrate on his second love, which was writing songs. His big break came when singer Jackie Wilson recorded a song titled “Reet Petite.” It was co-written by Gordy, his sister Gwen, and Billy Davis. The song became fairly popular, and it led Gordy to co-write four more songs for Wilson.

From songwriting, Berry Gordy turned to producing records. He founded Smokey Robinson and The Miracles in 1957. Then, in 1959, he started a new record label, Tamla Records. His company centered on rhythm and blues songs. Gordy then started the Motown record label in 1959. (The name was derived from the words “motor town,” a term that described Detroit.) When Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ number one hit, “Shop Around” reached the top of the charts in 1960, the exposure gave Motown the notice it needed to become established.

Through the creation of a distinctive soul sound with obvious elements of pop influence, Motown produced unique dance music featuring artists such as The Jackson Five, The Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and many others. What became known as The Motown Sound was much more than great music full of energy and emotion. The tambourines that enhanced the backbeat, the melodic bass guitar slides that anchored the gospel vocals, and the chord and horn sections, all orchestrated in innovative pop production techniques, were the way for the black community to artistic expression and financial freedom.

Motown’s recording of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, delivered on August 28, 1963, in Detroit on ‘The Great March for Freedom,’ is considered the most important contribution of Motown to the civil rights struggle. King declared the March as ‘the largest and greatest demonstration for freedom ever held in the United States,’ and Gordy realized the historical importance of that March before taking its historical place with the American Revolution.

That recording was made so that every American child, black or white, could listen to history. Although, until then, Motown was not really involved in political issues, in the altering political climate, it released ‘Down To Earth’ by Stevie Wonder (1966), ‘Love Child’ by The Supremes (1968), ‘War,’ by Edwin Starr (1969), and ‘What’s Going On?’ by Marvin Gaye (1971), beginning a trend for message songs.

The 1967 Detroit riots led Motown to the production of music that could evoke radical sentiments and drastic action. However, because the city upheavals had rather a class than racial character, which undermined to a certain extent Motown’s aspiration of being a vehicle of improvement for the black community, they actually marked the end of an incredible era.

The decline of Detroit and the auto industry as a result of the struggle of the poor against the rich was bound up with the decreasing energy of the people who produced the Motown Sound. Marvin Gaye’s surprise, ‘With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?’ echoed the reality of an era full of social problems and contradictions that were evolving with explosive energy.

In reality, Motown created the grounds on which broader cultural integration would follow in the 1970s with the emergence of hip-hop as a massive cultural phenomenon. Through the mixing of astonishing percussion riffs and rhythmic drum breaks of funk and disco elements, hip-hop expressed political speech and opposition to social inequality and discrimination against African Americans. For many, Motown has emphasized race relations and community life as a means to create an impact on popular music and social structure.

Nancy Vawter
Nancy Vawter

Nancy Vawter has been a reporter and writer since shortly after her graduation from the University of Arizona. She spent seven years with the New York Post, working as a national feature writer in New York. She later taught journalism as an assistant professor at American University in Washington.