Paper Stars

The story behind American music is as such: a white man stumbles upon a black man -a slave- working with a horse. This man was singing a wordless tune never heard before by this man. At the time, most music was coming in from Europe. It was mainly Italian operas or English theatre music. This was different, it was new, and the white man decided people needed to hear it. He went home and found a way to paint his face black (modern term: black face), put some words to the tune, and performed it. People loved it! This new kind of music blew up, and soon white people all around were getting in blackface and performing these minstrel shows. The people performing were almost entirely white and with this new form of entertainment came this idea of African culture made up by white people. Soon black people found themselves having to fit into this made up culture to get anywhere. They would even perform their own shows with paint on their already black skin to get the attention they deserved. 

The music made in these shows and performances have set the base of American music where it is today. With mixes of instruments from Europe and Africa the music has become popular even into today. Later in history it became easier for black people to make music, but blackface continued in American history for a long time. People alive today have still been involved in the act which is now considered deeply politically incorrect. 

Source: “Episode 3: The Birth of American Music.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 6 Sept. 2019,

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As a musician I see this story as scandalous for more than just the obvious reasons of immense racism and other political problems. I find it horrifying that someone stole another persons music and performed it with no given recognition or credit to the original person. This is coming from a musical standpoint. I do understand that realistically that would not happen in the years it took place, in which the racism was just day to day life for both the white people thriving and the slaves working. Stealing someones music is screwed up, that’s all I’m saying. 

Over the past few days I have been making a collection of 63 individual paper stars. My fingers hurt, but it’s for a good reason because I have made a diagram to describe that shows the series of events leading to modern music (to a certain scale)—

The colours of the stars correspond with the race of the people they are representing, and the white ones coloured in are representing white people in black face. 

The diagram shows the chain reaction of how ideas and creative processes happen. Sometimes it shuts down and sometimes the chain reaction causes mass interest and creates a whole new era of music. 

As scandalized as I am by the story of music in America, I also find it extremely interesting since it is the music I listen to and study and play all the time. I really enjoyed listening to the 1619 podcast about black American music appropriation and highly recommend it. 

Thanks for reading,

—T.S. Lee

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