Black Music: How Michigan Launched Musical Revolutions

Any local will tell you, a visit to the Motown Museum is a must – not only to pay tribute to musical legends but also to understand Detroit’s deep influence on the music industry. Explore further, and you’ll learn about the legacies of Black musicians across several genres

The Motown Museum in Detroit
Motown Museum in Detroit | Photo Courtesy of Midwest Living

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Did you know that in the era between Motown and disco, Detroit became the birthplace of punk? David, Bobby and Dannis Hackney, three brothers from Detroit, founded the band Death as teenagers. Heavily influenced in the 1970s by musical artists like Alice Cooper and The Who, Death struggled to find footing in the music industry. Record labels were disenchanted by the band's name and unsure of how to market the three Black hard rockers from Detroit, but David's unwavering vision kept them together until 1977 when they found greater success as gospel rock artists. Decades later, the rediscovery of Death's music led to the proto-punk band being recognized as the originator of the punk rock movement.

In the following decade, another genre of music emerged straight from the Detroit suburb of Belleville—a testament to the spirit of innovation that defines the city’s communities. Forming The Belleville Three, high school friends Juan Atkins, Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson used their synthesizers and predilection for Kraftwerk to create what is now known as Detroit techno. Forging an indelible connection between Berlin and Detroit, these three Black teenagers created a music genre that became a global force.

“Music has always been a key force for Black people,” says Lisa Knight, chair of the Grand Rapids African American Arts & Music Festival (GRAAMF). “Whether it’s a time of mourning or a time of joy, music is something we gather around, are strengthened by and encouraged by. The rhythms, beat and lyrics all have deep meaning.”

Knight recalls how Idlewild, a historic resort community, once known as the “Black Eden of Michigan,” was a transformative hub for jazz and blues musicians. GRAAMF, which she now oversees, has also been a part of Michigan’s history for more than 40 years. From jazz to classical to hip hop, the annual event celebrates all styles of music and performance and is inclusive of vendors from underrepresented communities. 

In Kalamazoo, the Black Arts Festival has been celebrating Black performers and artists since 1986. Run by the Black Arts & Cultural Center, this annual event has evolved to encompass a variety of music from southwest Michigan and provides a safe, inclusive space for people of color.

“Relevant to Black art in general, you’d be surprised by what you see,” says Sydney Davis, executive director of the Black Arts & Cultural Center. “It isn’t always historical; it isn’t always African or cultural. It can look classical, contemporary or risqué. Art that is representative comes in many shapes and forms and textures.”

You can explore the legacies of Black musicians—past and present—in venues and events all across Michigan.

The Grand Rapids African American Arts & Music Festival will have several summer events leading up to the big festival, starting with a Summer Carnival on June 15, Paint and Create on June 20, and Back to School on August 17, 2023.

Stop by GRNoir Wine and Jazz, a Black-owned wine bar in Grand Rapids where you can pair live jazz and spoken word with wine and small plates. Co-owner Shatawn Brigham is a Level II sommelier, certified by Napa Valley Wine Academy.

The Black Arts Festival in Kalamazoo takes place in summer, and you can visit the Black Arts & Cultural Center for ongoing exhibitions and special events celebrating the works of Black artists all year.

Movement Detroit takes place every Memorial Day weekend, bringing together enthusiasts from all over the globe to the birthplace of Detroit techno. Tickets are on sale now for this world-class event that celebrates the legends and emerging voices of techno.

Raven Lounge & Restaurant is one of the oldest blues bars in the state. First opened in 1966, this Detroit institution once welcomed legends like Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday and continues to host live music every Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

Flood's Bar & Grille has a long history in Detroit, known for its delicious soul food and live music and DJ sets.

Next to Detroit’s Siren Hotel, Paramita Sound is a popular record shop and wine bar that brings the community together over a shared love for dance, hip hop and jazz genres.