On June 7, 1979, President Jimmy Carter issued a decree to honor the extraordinary contributions made by black musicians across the United States. After petitioning the Carter administration for a year, the now defunct Black Music Association was successful in securing the first Black music event at the White House. Through the arduous efforts of music industry stalwarts Dyana Williams, Kenny Gamble, and Ed Wright, Black Music Month finally came to fruition.
EBONY recently sat down with Dyana Williams to learn how Black Music Month started, her role in shaping it, and its future relevance to the world community.
EBONY: When did you conceptualize the vision for Black Music Month and who were some of the key individuals that helped construct the blueprint in its early stages?
Dyana Williams: The concept for Black Music Month was originated by my ex-husband Kenny Gamble. I was active in the local Black Music Association (BMA) chapter as well as the national chapter. Kenny Gamble and Ed Wright were the initiators of Black Music Month, but [Gamble] being my life partner at that time, we worked on Black Music Month together. And years later, I wrote President Clinton asking him to host a reception at the White House in the same way President Jimmy Carter did in 1979. The White House responded by saying they saw where they had hosted that event at the White House, but President Carter never signed a proclamation so why don’t you get some legislation passed, and then come back to us and we’ll do something. So – I was like, “Okay. No problem.” I had no idea what was involved in getting legislation passed in Congress. It took several years. I lobbied senators and Congressmen. I actually went from office to office on Capitol Hill explaining why black Music and Black Music Month needed to be acknowledged by Congress. I wrote the draft that eventually became the legislation that was passed in Congress called the African American Music Bill and included in that language is the fact that June is Black Music Month.
While it was declared by President Carter in 1979, as far as the US government was concerned, it didn’t become official until 2000. People refer to me as the “Mother of Black Music Month” because of my work in getting Black Music Month legislatively recognized by Congress. I also established an organization called the International Association of African American Music Foundation (IAAAMF). Through this foundation, we enacted this legislation. It was a very proud moment when they called me and said the bill was going up for a vote. Congressman Chaka Fattah from Philadelphia was the individual I worked with to get the legislation passed. He was the one, who introduced it on the floor of the House of Representatives.
EBONY: Can you take me through the process of securing the Black Music Month event at the White House with President Carter? This was unprecedented when it happened in 1979.
DW: The Black Music Month event with President Carter was done through the Black Music Association, which is no longer in existence. There were a host of people behind the scenes like Clarence Avant and Jules Malamud, who was the founder of NARM. It was a collective effort by the BMA and Kenny Gamble to request of the President that he acknowledge black music. Black music had never been performed at the White House in that fashion before. It was a big event. From that point on, there was some recognition of black music throughout the country at record labels and various corporations. The diversity of our music is so immense. It has impacted economics and culture. Black music is a multi-billion dollar business.
EBONY: When you were lobbying for Black Music Month, were you doing that on your own?
DW: Yes, I was by myself. I put on a very comfortable pair of shoes and I went up to Capitol Hill. I knew nothing about lobbying or the process of it. But I’m passionate. So I know a lot about articulating what I believe in and going hard for it. For instance, around that same time, I wrote an editorial in Billboard magazine that was published talking about why it was important for us to get this legislation passed and why it was important to celebrate Black Music Month. I had two private meetings in the oval office with President Clinton. The first one was with my former partner Sheila Eldridge, Jeff Sharp, President Clinton, and I. This was during the Monica Lewinsky affair. [laughs] Then, I went back to the oval office after receiving a call from the White House stating that the President wanted to meet with me again. He wanted me to bring the Isley Brothers. I agreed. He was a huge fan of the Isley Brothers. So I brought Hiram Hicks, who was the president of Island Records, Ronald Isley, his then wife Angela Winbush, and Ernie Isley to the White House. They brought a gift to the President and it was a guitar signed by all the living brothers from the group.
EBONY: What can current artists do to enrich not only Black Music Month, but black music as a whole for generations to come?
DW: The artists can encourage their consumers to do their homework and learn about their influences. While I’m on TV and radio, my core business is celebrity strategizing and coaching. For the past 20 years, I’ve been doing artist development. I tell my clients all the time to do their homework. Who are your influences? If that particular artist is your influence, go back and study their catalogs. You’d be surprised that some artists don’t know these classic artists. I’ll mention Donny Hathaway and they’ll say, “Who?” Then I’m like, “Okay, if you don’t know who Donny Hathaway is, you don’t belong in the music business.” Especially with my young artists, I always tell them to go back and look at the showmanship and stage presence of a Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and Cab Calloway. There was an art form there that has been lost in recent generations because these kids don’t have a sense of what came before them. I also explain to them that black music is a universal language that’s really felt. The lyrics may not be understood, but it’s felt by all people from different cultures.
EBONY: Why is it important to continue to celebrate Black Music Month in the future?
DW: It is important to celebrate Black Music Month because it’s a recognition and ownership of our culture. It’s something that we need to be proud of. If you ask artists from different cultures, they’ll tell you how influential black music has been to them. Ask Mick Jagger. Ask Paul McCartney. Ask Eric Clapton. Ask Kid Rock. Ask them how much black music influenced their careers. The Rolling Stones got their group name from an old Muddy Waters record. In some cases, most White artists know our music better than we do. It’s important to know because it’s a source of inspiration and a motivating factor. It enhances our overall life experience and that’s why I’m so passionate about this music. It serves as a source of pride and a source of great history as well. How can you not be proud when you look at the timeline of our musical history? We’ve struggled and our music has paralleled those struggles in America. It tells our stories of enslavement, our desire for freedom, and our victories and defeats. It’s the soundtrack to our experience in this country.
Chris Williams is an internationally published writer. You can follow him on Twitter @CWmsWrites.