African American History in the Music Classroom

African American History in the Music Classroom

Addressing Social Issues, History, and Genres

By NAfME Member Sharen Bolder

This year during African American History Month, in my middle school general music classes, we did a chronological survey of eleven African American performing artists (see sample schedule at the end of this article):

  • Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong
  • Nat King Cole
  • Ella Fitzgerald
  • James Brown
  • Aretha Franklin
  • Marvin Gaye
  • Tina Turner
  • Whitney Houston
  • Michael Jackson
  • Beyoncé
  • Anthony Hamilton

Each artist was introduced within historical context and social issues. Using YouTube videos to first expose students to the artists’ most popular songs, we then researched biographical facts of each artist.

African American
New York City, United States – September 3, 2014: Ella Fitzgerald paving slab in front of famous Apollo theatre in Harlem New York City. Photo: | kaarsten


I could have required students to use computers to research on their own, however, I simply opened the site and projected it on the board for students to find the following information and write the information in their notebooks.

  1. Date / Place of Birth
  2. Date / Place of Death
  3. Talent / Type of Performer
  4. Popular Songs
  5. Interesting facts about the artist’s life
  6. Awards
  7. Genre

As closure, students used their findings/class notes to create a five-sentence, biographical paragraph about the artist on paper I provided. The short bios were used for my bulletin board in the hallway. My bulletin board had pictures of each of the performers (with dates). I posted a few of the paragraphs on the bulletin board. Students enjoyed the unit.


Delicate Social Issues and Important Conversations

You may be wondering how I connected the delicate social issues of 1900-2018 American history with the lives of these African American performing artists. I must say that this is probably easier to discuss in a truly integrated school. I would say that you should probably take the students’ lead and only bring up issues in response to student statements or questions. My school has a very diverse student body (i.e., Eastern Indian, African, Russian, Hispanic), and there were a lot of questions asked. But you’d be surprised how much some students know from parents and grandparents. I had to be sure to always emphasize how people thought at the time and the progress we have made regarding acceptance in our country.

Louis Armstrong
Los Angeles, USA – April 18, 2014: Louis Armstrong star on Hollywood Walk of Fame in Hollywood, California. This star is located on Hollywood Blvd. and is one of over 2000 celebrity stars embedded in the sidewalk. Photo: | Alphotographic

Their questions led to discussions of: slavery; the Civil War; poor treatment of African American performers causing many Jazz artists to leave the country and move to Europe where they were accepted; drug dealers taking advantage of the constant flow of cash; many jazz artists dying young; the civil rights movement; attempts to hide talent; Jim Crow laws and artists forced to use the back door; Vietnam War; heroin and other drug addictions; TV, Band Stand, and Soul Train; instrumental accompaniment; big bands; the origin of MTV; rap music and digitally produced beats. Remember, we are showing antiquated videos (some black and white) and talking to students who were born in the last two decades.

While introducing Louis Armstrong, it was important to point out that he was among a few African Americans allowed to perform for white audiences. Though slavery was over, black people (called “colored” then) were still being treated poorly. So, it was significant that he was accepted and that Nat King Cole was the first African American to have a TV show. I also showed him and his daughter Natalie performing together after his death—a new media idea at the time. A little note of intrigue: I think Louis Armstrong was my elementary school bus driver when I was child. I remember the driver singing “Baby It’s Cold Outside” with a distinct voice on my way from Brooklyn to P.S. 91 in Queens during integration in the late 1960s, possibly 1970s. I told students this story, telling them I couldn’t be sure.

Apollo Theatre
New York City, USA – September 3, 2014: Apollo theatre in Harlem, New York City. Photo: | kaarsten


The introduction of Ella Fitzgerald ushered in a discussing of jazz musicians and other blacks defecting to Europe where they were accepted, drug abuse, and the early demise of several artists. We listened to some of the classics, as well as Ella and Mel Torme scatting at the Grammys. A student brought up the Harlem Renaissance. So, the topic of the Apollo Theatre came up.

Moving through History and Genres

James Brown was a civil rights supporter, and his music reflected it. This is where Jim Crow Laws became a part of the unit. James Brown’s life story was very interesting to the students—especially how he was expelled from school because he was wearing inappropriate clothing and wound up in jail at age sixteen. Students knew a lot about the civil rights movement and had a lot of input.

We talked about the change in genre with each artist. James Brown ushered in Soul Music and use of the guitar (Loop), which led to funk music. “Bumpin’ Good Time” was a good example of soul-funk. We watched one video that highlighted many of his performances and discussed how James Brown’s style and dance moves influence Michael Jackson and Prince. His song “I’m Black and I’m Proud” needed some, but little, explanation.

James Brown
New York City, United States – September 3, 2014: James Brown paving slab in front of famous Apollo theatre in Harlem New York City. Photo: | kaarsten


“The Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin’s performances for Obama’s inauguration and end of term concert were used for this icon. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” was used to highlight the Vietnam War and other violent and socio-economic issues.  All of the above performers used live instrumental music.

When we studied Tina Turner and watched an MTV video, students could not understand why she was walking around the street talking to everybody. This led to the first music videos, digital sounds, Band Stand and Soul Train.

Students were more familiar with Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson. The fact that her movie The Body Guard introduced an interracial love on the screen was taught as a positive step forward. Students were singing along, but I had to remind them about concert etiquette. When we watched Michael Jackson, students were shocked at the number of fans crying and passing out during his concerts. I pointed out that he too was better loved and appreciated in other countries than he was here in America.

blues | Marbury

Students know about Beyoncé and Anthony Hamilton (who lives in Charlotte, near us). We ended the unit with Doug E. Fresh as the original “Human Beat Box”: “Ladi Dadi—Snoop Dogg and Doug E. Fresh Live.” Snoop Dogg gives a brief introduction, explaining that he was influenced by Doug. Students noticed the similarity to the theme song from “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.”

Other Approaches

There is no one way to recognize or celebrate African American History Month. In the past I have recognized African American History month with performances. My first teaching experience was as a 6th grade and then 5th grade classroom teacher, respectively. We learned about W. C. Handy, Eubie Blake, Scott Joplin, Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, and Michael Jackson. I remember, though this was in 1984, that we gave a narrative before singing and/or dancing to a song from each musician. The students did some break-dancing, and we created a dance to “Thriller.” We also did Stevie Wonder’s “Ebony and Ivory” to discuss acceptance. These were popular at the time. 

When I was teaching chorus, I would sometimes schedule my concert for the month of February and sing songs like “Swing Low” that represent African American cultural music. Kindergarten students at my present school did projects, dressed as Harriet Tubman, etc., and presented their project to parents in the cafeteria.

Lastly, I think it is important to stress togetherness to avoid bitterness when teaching such a unit.


Sample schedule:


Show videos of Louis Armstrong 

Ella Fitzgerald scatting

Display biography of both performing artists for students to gather requested information.


Show videos of at Nat King Cole 

James Brown

Display biography of both performing artists for students to gather requested information.


Show videos of Aretha Franklin

Marvin Gaye

Discuss copyright infringement

Display biography of both performing artists for students to gather requested information.


Show videos of Whitney Houston

Display biography of performing artist for students to gather requested information.


Show videos of Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, and Anthony Hamilton

Display biography of both performing artists for students to gather requested information.

Download this sample schedule.

About the author:

band director

NAfME member Sharen W. Bolder has over 30 years’ experience in music and music education. She is presently the band director at Charter Schools USA (CSUSA) Union Preparatory Academy.

Prior experiences include: Western Harnett Middle School Band /General Music/Chorus/Theatre Arts, John Griffin Middle School Band/General Music, Overhills Middle School Band/Orchestra/Chorus, Dodea Schools on Fort Bragg Army Base General Music Chorus, East Elementary School General Music, Sanctuary pianist/organist/orchestra conductor and arranger, and private music instruction.

Mrs. Bolder’s middle school band, chorus, and orchestra students have participated in Solo and Ensemble Festivals, State MPAs, and county and district honors ensembles in North Carolina.

Honors include being nominated as Ambassador for Music Educators by NAfME, as well as being nominated to Marquis’ “Who’s Who Among African American Women.” Other honors include appointments to leadership positions such as: cultural arts Team Leader, Lead Mentor Teacher, SASC/CASI Co-Chair for School Accreditation for Overhills Middle School, clinician and accompanist for honors bands and choruses, and an invitation to play at the Presidential Inauguration ball.

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