How Black Artists Became Mainstream In America

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Motor city, Detroit, Michigan, had long been known as the automobile centre of America but by the end of the 1960s Detroit was equally as famous for being the home of Motown records the launch pad for many black artists to become successful in mainstream America.

Because of the appeal of the automobile trade and the many jobs there were in Detroit during this period, many black people moved to Detroit. ‘The black population in Detroit increased from 1.2 percent in 1910 to 28.9 percent by I960. Racism dominated social planning and dictated where blacks lived, the jobs they held, and the schools they attended.’ The city was divided into two by Woodward Avenue ‘the white neighbourhood was west of the street and the black community was just east of it’ This shows a physical racial divide and is an example of segregation that existed in America during the 1960s.

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Without the advent of Motown many artists such as Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye may never have had the opportunity to be heard not only in America but across the world.

The man behind the meteoric rise of Motown records was Berry Gordy Jr. He started Motown records in 1959 with a loan from his family. At this time in Detroit, racial segregation was a major issue. ‘Steeped in a history of racial conflict and a hardworking lower class, Detroit had a sense about it that no other major recording city had.’ As a result many black artists found it difficult to break through into the record industry. This was part of the inspiration why he set up Motown records, to give black artists the chance to not only make music but to give them an avenue to share their talent with the world.

Gordy believed in Hiring whoever was best for the job, so although he supported black artist’s he also hired many white people. Some of the black community frowned upon Gordy for this decision as they felt it was going against the civil rights movement and everything it stood for. However, Gordy didn’t want his record label to be political and he wanted to be neutral so in his eyes it wasn’t a problem hiring white people, he was just doing what was financially best for his company.

One of the first and most important white people he hired was Barney Ales. He was part of the sales team that enabled Motown to cross over to mainstream America. Motown couldn’t get ‘race music’ onto white radio stations so relied heavily on record shops and DJ’s to promote their records to individual distributors. This played a role in how popular a song was going to be depending on how much airplay it would get.

Motown had major success in its first 12 years. For example, ‘Between 1964 and 1967 Motown records accounted for, in Nelson George's summary (1986, p.103) a total of sixty top fifteen pop chart hits including fourteen number ones.’ This clearly shows the success of Motown records and how Berry Gordy Jr managed to transform a small business loan from his family into a multi award-winning record label.

Although Motown records and the artists signed to it were doing exceptionally well in the charts and were making progress in raising the profile of black artists and their work, however America was still a powder keg of racial tension and civil rights protests.

One of the occasions where the racial segregation was quite obvious was when Mary Wells, from The Supremes, was on tour in New Orleans. ‘She thought that people in the city hall were staring at her because she was Motown superstar Mary Wells. Suddenly it dawned on her that they were staring because she'd just sipped water from a 'whites only' drinking fountain.’ This shows that many people still had issues with the colour of people’s skin and it still made black people feel less important further fuelling the civil rights movement.

In 1962 on the same tour, there was an increase in racial tensions and violence towards the civil rights movement. ‘When Motown artists went to the South, they and their bus, which resembled a Freedom Riders bus, were frequently harassed and attacked. In Birmingham, Alabama, for example, their bus was shot at by angry white supremacists.’ Many of the artists weren’t used to this type of hatred and were shocked at how horrific the racism in America had become. As a result of what they had seen on tour, many artists pleaded to Berry Gordy Jr to let them sing about these issues in their music. Despite his initially reluctance he eventually agreed to let them highlight this issue through their music.

At the end of the 1950s in America there was virtually no representation of Black artists on mainstream radio and television. By the end of the 1960s there was a multitude of successful Black artists who were not only successful in America, but worldwide. The ability of black artists to reach mainstream America became an important factor in encouraging those involved in the civil rights movement to keep pushing for change, even to this day.


  1. Perry, Vincent. ‘Unsung Heroes: Recreating the Ensemble Dynamic of Motown’s Funk Brothers.’ In Popular Music, Stars and Stardom, edited by Loy Stephen, Rickwood Julie, and Bennet Samantha, 95-114. Australia: ANU Press, 2018. Accessed October 15, 2020.
  2. McCarthy, Marie. ‘The Young Musicians of Motown: A Success Story of Urban Music Education.’ Music Educators Journal 99, no. 3 (2013): 35-42. Accessed October 15, 2020.
  3. Fitzgerald, Jon. ‘Motown Crossover Hits 1963-1966 and the Creative Process.’ Popular Music 14, no. 1 (1995): 1-11. Accessed October 15, 2020.
  4. Keizer, Garret. ‘Love Is Here and Now You're Gone: A Motown Requiem.’ The Virginia Quarterly Review 89, no. 4 (2013): 44-59. Accessed October 15, 2020.
  5. Fleetwood, Nicole R. ‘Giving Face: Diana Ross and the Black Celebrity as Icon.’ In on Racial Icons: Blackness and the Public Imagination, 55-80. Rutgers University Press, 2015. Accessed October 15, 2020.
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