If you ever find
lost and surrounded
who won’t let you
speak in your own language who destroy your statues
& instruments, who ban
your omm bomm ba boom
then you are in trouble
they ban your
own boom ba boom
you in deep deep
probably take you several hundred years
— Amiri Baraka, “Wise I”
Black music is almost as old as America itself, yet the month-long celebration that commemorates it—Black Music Month, beginning in June—was only created in 1979. How did it come about? Who is behind it? And why do we need it when Black music has been a dominant cultural force around the globe for centuries?
Music-industry icon and radio personality Dyana Williams, along with her ex-husband, Kenny Gamble, founder and owner of Philadelphia International, were the architects behind Black Music Month.
Williams began her music career while she was a student at City College of New York at the radio station WCCR-AM. There she fell in love with the records, the microphones, the turntables and saw herself running things. After learning the basics of the board, she became the music director. She eventually became the producer and would book shows. She had dreams of becoming a jazz musician and studied with Jimmy Heath. She hosted her own show called Ebony Moonbeams. Ebony Moonbeams would become her radio handle when she eventually landed at WHUR-FM in Washington, D.C. as a radio deejay. She would go on to work at major market stations like WBLS-FM in New York and WDAS-FM in Philadelphia. In 1990, she along with Sheila Eldridge launched the Association of African American Music and co-wrote House Concurrent Bill 509 which helped establish Black Music Month.
Williams, who is called the Godmother of Black Music Month, cites Black music, culture and artistry as being among the greatest U.S. exports, all to the tune of several billion dollars around the globe. “For the month, we just take time aside to say these are the people that generate this great cultural, majestic resource that’s indigenous to America and is also one of our greatest exports from America, because it’s not just music; we’re exporting culture with the music, fashion and language,” she says.
In a candid conversation with music journalist Ericka Blount Danois, Williams talks about Black Music Month’s origin story.
Ericka Blount Danois: We all know Black Music Month exists, but a lot of people don’t know how it actually all started.
Dyana Williams: Kenny Gamble is the father of Black Music Month, and when we were a couple, we conceived the idea. Gamble established the Black Music Association, and one time he made a trip to Nashville, Tennessee, and observed the Country Music Association and how they had created an entire industry and city and made it known for being the capital of country music. Gamble was inspired by that idea. He was inspired by the unity of country artists and wanted to replicate that in the Black community.
The BMA was an organization of retailers, industry executives, educators, producers, songwriters, engineers, artists, with everybody from Dionne Warwick to Barry White, Isaac Hayes, Stevie Wonder and Bob Marley. Gamble had an incredible relationship with artists because at the time, Philly International was a dominant label. Philly International was the first independent Black-owned label to establish a relationship with a major label with CBS. It
became a major player in the game. Gamble was a great influencer at a high level. And everybody was calling my phone for him.
I remember one night, I picked up the phone, it was Coretta Scott King calling for Gamble. He was very close to her. He produced Michael Jackson and his brothers. So, Michael would call him in the middle of the night.
Gamble reached out to Clarence Avant, the godfather of Black music, who has always had strong relationships with the major players. And through the efforts of Clarence Avant, through Jules Malamud, who was part of the BMA, they petitioned Jimmy Carter to host this reception.
On June 7, 1979, President Jimmy Carter hosted the first Black Music Month at the White House. Nothing like that had ever happened at the White House. Chuck Berry, Frankie Crocker, all the who’s who in the music industry were there. It was a great day.
EBD: That was the beginning of Black Music Month?
DW: The discussions had started before then. The effort was to get the president to say June is Black Music Month, which he did.
Fast-forward to the late 1990s. I wrote President Clinton and asked him to host a similar reception like Carter had done because we were taking the International Association of African American Music Foundation to D.C., and the White House said OK. They said Carter did host this event with all these influential people; however, he did not sign a presidential proclamation to name the month Black Music Month.
But we had been celebrating the month for years. Record companies had been doing campaigns, major companies were doing campaigns. It was an oversight that needed to be corrected.
They told me go lobby Congress and, “Once you get some legislation, we’ll do something at the White House.” So, I put on some real comfortable shoes and I started calling people. I didn’t know anything about the legislative process. All I knew was that I was passionate about Black music, Black people and Black culture.
I wrote to Congressman Chaka Fattah of Philly and asked him to be my ally. And Chaka was the one who said yes and Sen. Arlen Specter, the Republican senator from Pennsylvania, wrote the president on my behalf and supported my efforts in the Senate
In 2000, I got the call from Lydia Sermons, Fattah’s right-hand person. She said he was on the floor and introducing the bill for a vote. They called me back and said the African American Music Bill had passed. I get chill bumps now remembering that moment. And at that point I reached back to the White House and said, “Hey, look, you said if it passed through legislation …” We met President Clinton in a private meeting. He requested that I bring the Isley Brothers. They gave him a guitar signed by all of them.
Black music—often imitated, but never well—continues to evolve and move the culture, influencing everything from fashion to film. This month, we not only pay homage to the brilliant musicians that have created the soundtracks to many of our lives, but to Dyana Williams, the woman, the legend, who fought to make sure our ‘omm bomm ba boom’ would forever be recognized as the genius that it is.