NewsBlack History Is the Foundation Of American Pop Culture

Black History Is the Foundation Of American Pop Culture

It’s hard to ignore the impact Black history has had on American pop culture

Written by Michele Y. Smith
It’s hard to ignore the impact Black history has had on American pop culture. There’s even an argument to be made that without Black history, American pop culture simply wouldn’t exist. Black voices, art, music, and culture are woven into every aspect of what we consider pop culture today. It is our job to preserve this lineage and ensure that the contributions of the Black community continue to be recognized and celebrated. 
Every day, in my role as CEO of the Museum of Pop Culture (MoPOP) and as a Black woman, I am given a front row seat to the impact the Black community has had and remain dedicated to preserving that impact in everything we do at the museum. It’s a role I take very seriously because as one of the few Black women at the helm of such an institution, my journey has been heavily influenced by the Black leaders who came before me. My mother was my first mentor, instilling in me a deep appreciation for arts and culture from a young age. She was a trailblazer in her own right, one of the first Black ballerinas to dance professionally in Philadelphia, and the woman to whom I owe much of my success.
It’s legacies such as these that shape the pop culture we know today. At MoPOP, we make it a point to honor and celebrate the trailblazers of Black culture, showcasing their immense talent and vibrant contributions to the zeitgeist. Take Bo Diddley, for example, whose bold and innovative music inspired generations of artists, including icons like Elvis Presley and Jimi Hendrix. Fast forward to today and Beyoncé’s career has spanned over three decades, positioning her as one of the most influential figures in contemporary pop culture, known for her empowering music, activism, and entrepreneurship. Their impact on pop culture cannot be overstated.
Showcasing the power Black art has in history 
Along with recognizing the influence the Black community has had on pop culture, I also strive to dispel the misconception that classical or fine art are better than or even different from pop culture. It’s worth arguing that pop culture has had an even more profound impact on American history than some of its fine art counterparts. This is especially true when considering the counterculture movements and civil rights struggles from the 1960s, which gradually led to a broader acceptance of diversity in cultural expression. Music from that era, like Richie Havens’ “Freedom,” which he soulfully performed at the Woodstock Festival in ’69, had empowering lyrics that called for solidarity and liberation. Nina Simone’s iconic song, Mississippi Goddam,was a response to the assassination of civil rights activist Medgar Evers and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, which killed four young Black girls. The song became an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement and a powerful expression of frustration and anger at the systemic racism and violence prevalent in the United States at the time. It’s these moments that have reshaped the framework of American culture. 
To understand its impact, we must preserve Black pop culture. It’s imperative we conserve the diverse cultural expressions of different communities and protect their heritage and identity. By doing so, we can continue to provide a platform for marginalized communities to share their stories, fostering inclusivity and greater acceptance.
One of our most successful exhibitions featured the work of Ruth E. Carter, who developed the costumes and styling for films, Black Panther, Malcom X, Selma, and Do the Right Thing. Her vibrancy and attention to detail in costuming is integral to translating stories of race, politics, and culture to the big screen. Ruth Carter has been helping style the Afrofuturism movement for almost 40 years. Afrofuturism is an incredibly important movement in pop culture, as it provides a platform for Black artists, writers, and creators to reimagine history and envision futures where Black people play central roles as heroes, innovators, and leaders. By centering Black experiences, Afrofuturism challenges dominant cultural narratives that marginalize or erase Black contributions to society.
Understanding hip-hop and its impact 
We can’t discuss the impact of the Black community on pop culture without acknowledging the powerhouse that is hip-hop. I’m proud to lead an institution that was at the forefront of recognizing hip-hop as a cultural art form. MoPOP has been collecting hip-hop artifacts since before the museum officially opened in 2000, and we were among the first museums to host an exhibit on hip-hop. Fast forward 24 years later, and we boast one of the largest collections of hip-hop artifacts in our permanent collection, showcasing the genre’s profound influence on music writ large. Our past exhibit, “Contact High: A Visual History of Hip-Hop,” curated four decades of iconic photography, highlighting shifts across music, politics, racial relationships, fashion, and broader societal culture.
Hip-hop has undeniably reshaped the landscape of American music, transcending its origins as a marginalized urban art form to become a dominant force in global culture. Its influence extends far beyond the confines of the music industry, permeating into various aspects of society and inspiring countless artists across genres. From its roots in the Bronx in the 1970s to its current status as a billion-dollar industry, hip-hop has continually pushed boundaries, challenged norms, and amplified the voices of marginalized communities. Its sampling techniques, rhythmic patterns, and lyrical storytelling can be found in mainstream music, shaping the sound of pop, R&B, rock, and even country. Hip-hop’s impact on American music as a whole is undeniable, as it has revolutionized how we create, consume, and understand music in the modern era.
While Black History Month often pays tribute to the challenges and accomplishments of the past, it’s essential to apply these lessons to the future. Pop culture bridges the gap between timelines, serving as an influential and widespread channel for propelling the visibility of Black contributions across society. It is my mission and life’s work to make sure we continue to acknowledge the importance of preserving, teaching, and celebrating Black culture.


Photo by Natalie Post
Michele Y. Smith is Chief Executive Officer at MoPOP. Smith is a mission-focused leader with extensive experience in business development, operations, and finance in the nonprofit industry. She has a people-centered leadership style and approach to help drive an aligned vision and mission.


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Source: Black Enterprise


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