The Music of Black History Month: A Data Journey Through Detroit, Memphis, and Baltimore

Chartmetric celebrates Black History Month with the music data of historically Black cities. Discover Detroit music, Memphis music, Baltimore music, and the histories of each.

The Music of Black History Month: A Data Journey Through Detroit, Memphis, and Baltimore
Jason Joven
Jason Joven
February 26, 20219 min read
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Video caption: The Staple Singers - I'll Take You There (1972)

Editor’s Note: During US Black History Month, Chartmetric continues to honor Black artists in the context of what we normally do: nerd out on music, data, and culture.

Our December installment focused on how Black Gospel music’s nearly century-old tradition continues today, honoring its influence on artists around the world.

Here, we take direction from the theme of February 2021 Black History Month, "The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity," and explore the diaspora of African American families in the US, the music those cities listen to, and how the old leads into the new.

We all require and want respect, man or woman, black or white. It's our basic human right.

— Detroit and Memphis Soul legend Aretha Franklin

Black Lives Matter.

A Baltimore, Maryland family, the Deans, buying their Easter shoes. They were part of the Great Migration of Black families into northern US cities in the mid-20th century. (Baltimore Magazine)

To most people, Washington, DC, is primarily known as the capital of the United States. Home of the White House, Capitol Building, and the President of the United States. What many may not know is that DC continues to be the home of one of the strongest Black communities in the country. Until 2011, DC was more than 50 percent Black, according to the US Census. It was also the first city to claim the moniker "Chocolate City," when local radio DJs in the 1970s first coined the term, and Parliament's 1975 album of the same name made it stick.

As Black History Month in the US wraps up, it is important to remember its 2021 theme: “Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity.” This annual theme is renewed by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), a DC-based non-profit organization dedicated to celebrating these Americans. This year's theme explores the African diaspora and the spread of Black families across the United States.

So, in celebration of the Black Americans that continue to enrich our world of music, we will explore the musical tastes of other "Chocolate Cities" in the States, see how the diaspora of African Americans affects these cities' music tastes, and remember the impossible circumstances they overcame.


A 1939 Home Owners' Loan Corporation map of Detroit "redlining" many Black neighborhoods, which made it hard for families there to secure home loans. (Michigan Radio)
There’s an old adage that in the South: You can be close ... but you can’t be equal. In the North, the old adage goes that you can be equal, because we in the North don’t like to discriminate, but you can’t be close.

— Peter Hammer, Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, reflecting on Detroit's race relations

Detroit in the post-World War II era had a dual personality: On one hand, it was a new home for many Black Americans escaping racist Jim Crow laws in the American South during what is now known as the Great Migration; on the other hand, Detroit was a city with only more of the same unfair treatment, with local banks, housing organizations, and employers forcing its newest citizens into the worst jobs, neighborhoods, and positions to excel.

For example, a more insidious form of discrimination came from the federal Home Owners' Loan Corporation, a housing body formed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. It was in charge of judging which parts of the country were too risky for home loans, and frequently, Black neighborhoods were unjustly targeted "without regard to the residents' qualifications or credit worthiness." These map areas — used by local Detroit financial institutions as well — were often shown in red, hence the term as it's known now, "redlining." It prevented Black families from securing generational wealth and was considered a major factor in causing the 1967 Detroit Riots.

Detroit legends the Supremes perform their hit "Come See About Me" on the 1964 Ed Sullivan Show.

However, out of this environment came music mogul Berry Gordy and the legendary Motown Records label, the Supremes, Aretha Franklin, and the Four Tops — as well as current stars Big Sean, Tee Grizzley, and Curtis Roach. According to the 2010 US Census, 84 percent of the city identified as Black, and today, the overall city population hovers at 674K people, creating one of the largest concentrations of Black Americans in the US — the only exceptions being cities with populations of 1M+ (New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia).

Detroit's Top 3 artists by current Spotify Monthly Listeners (MLs) and daily YouTube Views (over the past week) fit the American city standard — mostly a mix of Rap and Pop — though Detroit leans toward the former. Drake (213K MLs), DaBaby (169K MLs), and Juice WRLD (169K MLs) top out on Spotify, with Lil Durk (3M views), YoungBoy Never Broke Again (2.4M views), and Lil Baby (1.8M views) leading Motor City's YouTube preferences.

Three notable insights: Homegrown Detroit Trap rapper Sada Baby comes in at No. 4 on YouTube (1.8M views); besides Detroit's Eminem (No. 8) on YouTube, both Top 10 lists are all Black artists; and though Detroit Techno was born here in the 1980s, it is too underground to appear at the top of these lists.

Like we've seen before in international Trigger Cities, Instagram can be a relatively local platform, even in the States. Detroit Trap artist 42 Dugg (No. 2 at 169K followers), rapper Kash Doll (No. 3 at 126K followers), Big Sean (No. 4 at 121K followers), Sada Baby (No. 5 at 119K followers), and rapper DeJ Loaf (No. 8 at 92K followers) are all hometown heroes that take up half of the Top 10 artists by local Instagram followers.


Black buildings burning during the Memphis Riots of 1866. (University of Memphis)

With 64 percent (in 2010) of the Memphis, Tennessee, population of 651K being Black, it's another American city rich in Black history and culture. Unfortunately, that history is rooted in the Antebellum South, which lasted nearly a century before the 1860s US Civil War that would eventually lead to the abolition of slavery.

Even though emancipation was theoretically on the horizon, reality moved much slower: the Memphis Massacre of 1866 (immediately after the Civil War) saw many Irish immigrants (at the time, also considered an ethnic minority) getting into conflict with newly freed Black people for local employment. Actions of Irish immigrants and white members of the local police force, city government, and local newspaper exacerbated relations with Black US Army soldiers patrolling the city in an effort to restore order. Ultimately, more than 200 Black people were killed, injured, robbed, or raped in the Massacre, and 89 Black homes, four Black churches, and 12 Black schools were burned to the ground.

No arrests were made.

Memphis' Otis Redding, tearing it up with "Mr. Pitiful," flanked by the happiest dancers ever.

Despite such an ugly point in the city's history, Black people survived and thrived in the local music scene, creating the indelible sound of Memphis Soul. It was largely driven by Memphis-based Stax Records, igniting the careers of now-greats Otis Redding, The Staple Singers ("I'll Take You There"), and Isaac Hayes. The backbone of the Stax sound and house band of the label, Booker T. and the M.G.'s, later became Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees themselves. Memphis-based label Hi Records also launched American legend Al Green. Though Memphis, for many, is also the home of Elvis Presley's Graceland, his legacy is greyed by increasing consciousness of white performers benefiting from Black culture.

Today, the Memphis Soul era still breathes in the city, evident in the fact that R&B/Soul music was the No. 2 most Shazam'd genre in the past month (Hip-Hop & Rap is still No. 1). Though Detroit also featured R&B/Soul (No. 3 Shazam'd genre) recently, it gets overshadowed by Pop, while Memphis listeners lean toward Soul-inspired tracks like "Track Star" by Mooski, "LIKE I WANT YOU" by Giveon, and "So Done" by Alicia Keys and Khalid.

Memphis' love for hometown heroes is strong: The Top 10 Spotify performers by Monthly Listeners are much more local than Detroit's, led by hometown rappers Moneybagg Yo (No. 1 at 30K MLs), Pooh Shiesty (No. 3 at 23K MLs), Key Glock (No. 6 at 16K MLs), and BIG30 (No. 7 at 11K MLs). On Instagram, another four Memphis artists take Top 10 spots, with Big Scarr (No. 1 at 170K followers), Pooh Shiesty (No. 3 at 145K followers), Moneybagg Yo (No. 4 at 135K followers), and Yo Gotti (No. 10 at 75K followers) also making appearances.


A New York Times Sunday Magazine clipping regarding the Baltimore segregation ordinances in 1910. (Sunday Magazine)
On May 15, 1911, Baltimore Mayor J. Barry Mahool, who was known as an earnest advocate of good government, women's suffrage, and social justice, signed into law "lain ordinance for preserving peace, preventing conflict and ill feeling between the white and colored races in Baltimore city, and promoting the general welfare of the city by providing, so far as practicable, for the use of separate blocks by white and colored people for residences, churches, and schools.

— Garrett Power on the Baltimore segregation ordinances of 1910 (Maryland Law Review)

Baltimore's residential segregation ordinances of 1910 were the first of many US city laws (later, cities in Georgia, North and South Carolina, Virginia, and Kentucky followed suit) ensuring that white neighborhoods would remain untouched by Black citizens looking to find proper homes for their families. Every one of these laws pre-dated South Africa's apartheid by several decades.

Thankfully, the Supreme Court case Buchanan v. Warley (1917) struck down such city ordinances nationwide, but the effects of urban redlining, racially-biased bank loan practices, and other forms of embedded discrimination continued throughout the 20th century. Today, Baltimore's 65 percent (in 2010) Black population in a city of approximately 609K people still deals with difficult issues involving crime, drug use, and homicide rates far above the national averages.

Baltimore's Billie Holiday performs "Strange Fruit" in 1959.

But the music of Baltimore has always flourished. American greats Chick Webb, Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, and Eubie Blake all contributed to making Baltimore a center of jazz excellence. Though no longer there, the black-owned Royal Theatre in Baltimore served as a major point in the "Chitlin' Circuit," a series of venues throughout the eastern half of the US that nurtured African American singers, musicians, and comedians up through the 1960s. The Doo-Wop genre also found its initial roots here, as homegrown vocal group The Orioles scored Doo-Wop's first No. 1 on Billboard's "Race Records" chart in 1948 and became the first Black group to chart on the Pop charts.

Today, Baltimore's sonic preferences are similar to Memphis'. While Rap is currently the No. 1 most Shazam'd genre, R&B is No. 2, and Pop is No. 3. There are less Baltimore artists garnering attention at the national level, despite the city's rich musical history and it being the home of Johns Hopkins University's Peabody Institute, an elite music and dance conservatory. Having said that, Wale makes a "nearby" hometown appearance in the Top 10 of Spotify, YouTube, or Instagram. The Washington, DC, rapper places No. 8 in the top Spotify artists most listened to by Baltimoreans.

Young Moose, a true Baltimore artist, places No. 11 in local Instagram Followers, but the Top 10s are mostly national names in Rap: Lil Baby and Moneybagg Yo appear in all three lists currently, with Megan Thee Stallion, Kevin Gates, Lil Durk, and YoungBoy Never Broke Again making two of them.

Interestingly, three Spanish-language artists make the YouTube Top 10 (Bad Bunny, Anuel AA, and Ozuna), each garnering 1M+ daily YouTube views locally, despite the city being less than 5 percent of Latin descent (Salvadoran, Mexican, Puerto Rican, or Honduran). This suggests that these three artists' music is also streamed by a significant portion of Black listeners. This may be due to taste alone, or in part due to Baltimore also hosting one of the largest populations of Caribbean American populations in the US.

On the other hand, Baltimore also plays host to one of the largest Nigerian populations in the country — so much so that in 2019, Yoruba, a native Nigerian language, was the second most prevalent foreign language spoken in local schools (behind Spanish). So, it would make sense that West African music and Nigerian artists — Burna Boy, DaVido, and WizKid are all making international fame for themselves nowadays — would over-index here. Yet, either due to taste or listeners using other platforms, none makes an appearance.

Black History Is American History

This month's theme of "Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity" inspired us to take a moment and appreciate the musical contributions that these Black mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters made in these three cities. It's important to recognize the hard roads these artists paved for the chart-topping Black artists these cities listen to today.

Not only do some of these cultural icons deck music halls of fame, others fill our digital playlists and go viral on TikTok. The fact that all of this was achieved in the same country that continues to treat Black people so unfairly in so many ways is a testament to African American beauty and strength.

The joy we've received as Americans — as well as fans around the world — is a gift these trailblazers have given us. As much as they are iconoclastic artists and entrepreneurs, they are also fellow countrymen and women. As we move forward and try to fix the worst our humanity has to offer, maybe it will help to do so while remembering the best it has to give.