Harlem Renaissance

The cultural revolution that took place in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City during 1920’s and 30’s changed the face of the artistic communities not only in the area but also around the world.
The city of Harlem was originally designed for white businessmen who would find it necessary to travel into New York city for work. However, due to poor transportation, the commute to the city was unrealistic and the town was largely ignored for this reason. The neighborhood that was intended for white suburbia then, due to cultural prejudice, allowed black realty agencies to purchase properties and even allowed black tenants in their housing. Once this happened an avalanche of black culture began; many of the affluent and influential individuals flocked to Harlem.

Originally called the Negro Renaissance, the Harlem Renaissance was a literary and art culture movement instigated in Harlem in the 1920s and 30s. The Harlem Renaissance represented an important cultural movement for the African American population that encouraged the development of an identity for African-Americans throughout America. Artistic individuals were generally white and the art going community at the time was primarily white and not accepting of diverse points of view. Alternately regarded as a “failure” and a “blossoming,” the driving force behind the Harlem Renaissance was an attempt at establishing a kind of African-American racial identity and unity (Hutchinson 1). This literary movement was highly self-conscious, and even the authors and players themselves disagreed
Pictured here are Langston Hughes (far left) with (left to right:) Charles S. Johnson, E. Franklin Frazier, Rudolph Fisher and Hubert T. Delaney, on a Harlem rooftop on the occasion of a party in Hughes' honor, 1924.

over what the ideology of the Harlem Renaissance was, or if it even possessed one (7). The NAACP was founded during the course of the Harlem Renaissance and facilitated the coming together of a black community in America with self-determination and fight that would work for racial equality and allow for individuals to have their voices heard.

Although there is much debate as to the lifespan of the cultural renaissance, the popular scholarly opinion is that the movement grew out of the culmination of World War I. The gruesomeness of the Great War undermined the cult of “white” rationality and progress. Black soldiers who had fought overseas and still experienced more freedom than in America were then returning to the States and its racist laws, ready to demand their rights as citizens and veterans. (6). With WW I also came the Russian Revolution. The socialist Soviet overthrow ultimately led to the formation of the Soviet Union, a political and social model much more tempting to disenfranchised Americans than the western models which seemed to only perpetuate racism (6). Marxist ideals held a very big influence over many black writers in the period.

Key Figures

  • W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963)- Author, civil rights activist, publisher, historian
  • Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)- author, anthropologist
  • Claude McKay (1889-1948)- author, poet
  • Marcus Garvey (1887-1940)- Publisher, journalist, orator, staunch supporter of Black Nationalism
  • Alain Locke (1885-1954)- philosopher, educator, writer
  • Langston Hughes (1902-1967)- poet, essayist, dramatist


Aaron Douglas (1899-1979)[1]


The following are songs that probably wouldn’t have been written without the cultural emancipation that the Harlem Renaissance allowed.
Ella Fitzgerald – Cry Me A River

Sam Cooke – Cupid [Buy]

James Brown – Night Train [Buy]

Artists' Music as an Adaptation of Harlem Renaissance

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Sam Cooke can be considered as one of the most defining artists of Soul music. He was a singer songwriter, who had many hits including “A Change is Gonna Come,” “Wonderful World,” and “You Send Me.” Amazingly, these songs have sustained their popularity and recognition today. Many consider Cooke’s compositions to fit well into the genre of soul and/or R&B music, which are two of the main genres of music that fueled the sound of the Harlem Renaissance. Sam Cooke made a great contribution to the Harlem music scene with his performance at the Harlem Square Club. Some of the performance is in part improvised( See Improvisation) , which makes it to be even more remarkable. The recorded performance went on to be considered one of the greatest albums of all time, and is arguably an adaptation of the birth of Harlem sound in the 1920’s and 30’s.

Cooke live at Harlem Square Club

James Brown is a name every American has heard, and possibly has been dubbed the best (and most) nicknames in entertainment history, including “Soul Brother Number One,” “Sex Machine,” “Mr. Dynamite,” “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” “The King of Funk,” “Minister of The New New Super Heavy Funk,” “Mr. Please Please Please Please Her,” “The Boss and foremost the Godfather of Soul.” To say the least, James Brown made a major impact on funk music and the entertainment industry. Because of the fact that the Harlem Renaissance was often considered a melting pot of genres, like Rock and Roll, Soul, R&B, and Funk, the previous existence of the Harlem music scene is what conceived the many artists that came as a result. James Brown embodies the genre of funk, and would have never been possible without the whirlpool of creation that was Harlem Renaissance.
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Ella Fitzgerald, often called “The First Lady of Song” was one of the most prolific jazz singers of her time. She worked with famous jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and Nat King Cole. When she was younger, Fitzgerald and friends would ride the train from Yonkers to Harlem to watch concerts. When she was only seventeen years old, Fitzgerald won the opportunity to perform at the famed Apollo Theater in 1934. From here, her career mushroomed with various performances and recordings. Ella Fitzgerald sang with everyone from big swing bands to bebop groups and mastered the improvisational art of scat singing.


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Bessie Smith
Also known as "Empress of the Blues," Bessie Smith has been considered one of the most important founding musicians of blues and jazz. She first began performing at the age of nine and often performed at the Cotton Club in Harlem. Her first main contribution was her 1920 release of "Crazy Blues" that started an array of blues artists who were influenced by her. Her recordings even at one point saved Columbia Recordings from bankruptcy. Bessie smith has been highly regarded as one of the most influential blues artists of the Harlem Renaissance.
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Club Culture

Jazz culture during the 20s and 30s found a safe haven in the Harlem nightlife. Clubs and pool halls dominated the scene, belting Jazz and blues melodies throughout Harlem’s midnight debauchery. The most well-known of these clubs, The Cotton Club, brought black music to the hungry ears of white audiences. Owney Madden bought the club from former world champion boxer Jack Johnson and revamped its style to appeal to a white audience that was dying for the exotic. Madden spent 9 years in prison for murder, he was described as a hard man and had connections to criminals and mafia originations. He instituted a white-only policy at The Cotton Club, knowing that white audiences where eager to hear what they perceived as “black music”. The club hosted such famous acts as Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway. Black patrons were not allowed into the club unless they were of significant importance or belonged to the band or cleanup crew. The allure of the Harlem renaissance was in its easy-going, have fun and be fun mentality that was in full affect after dark. A comment made byRudolph Fisher when he arrived back in Harlem after 5 years in medical school paints a poignant image of a racially divided Harlem evening, “I became aware that, except for the waiters and members of the orchestra, I was the only Negro in the place”.
http://www2.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=4792 http://www.1920s-fashion-and-music.com/Harlem-Renaissance-Cotton-Club.html


Hutchinson, George. Introduction. The Cambridge Companion to the Harlem Renaissance. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 1-10. Print.
  1. ^ http://tinyurl.com/aaron-douglas
    Retrieved 19/4/11