Black History Month Series

Detroit’s Motown is My Family’s Black Owned Record Label

Black Ownership in Music and Entertainment

Music runs through my veins, from my father’s side of the family. Every individual can do more than carry a tune, raised in the Gordy Memorial church of God and Christ, every member of the family, including my father, attended early morning church services, sang in the choir and enrolled in Sunday school. Having a beautiful voice was molded into each member of the family for the purpose of praising God. It’s no surprised with the musical inclined, that my father’s family founded Motown Records. Founder, record producer and songwriter, Berry Gordy is my grandmother’s, Johnnie Lou Gordy, uncle. My father would take me to visit our aunt, Esther Gordy Edwards (Berry’s elder sister) and she’d show us her record collection and tell stories about her work at the Motown Record Label. She founded the Motown Museum (Hitsville USA) to preserve the labels Detroit recording studio. Motown records is a Detroit origin, Black owned record label that launched the careers of countless acts including the Jackson 5, Diana Ross and the Supremes, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and my father’s personal favorite, Stevie Wonder, who was signed at the young age of 11.   

My aunt Esther with Stevie Wonder and Micheal Jackson

Stevie Wonder, described as a teenage soul sensation in the 60s is an award winning the pianist, producer, songwriter, musician and singer from Detroit, Mi. Today, February 5th 1964, was when 12 year old Wonder first performed on the Ed Sullivan show, then making only $2.25/week. Motown artists were limited to performing at a select number of venues named the chitlin circuit, that would allow Black artists onstage (or in the venue period). Now wonder os worth $110 million and performs worldwide, and uses his platform not only for entertainment but also as an activist for political causes. Wonder was instrumental in his 1980 campaign to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday a holiday in the United States and was named a United Nations Messenger of Peace in 2009. He was later awarded the Gershwin Prize by President Obama in 2009. Without the start at Motown Record’s who knows where Wonder would be or how influential is impact on American history could have been without his music career at the Black owned record label.

How did Motown Records get started and why is it important? The Gordy family moved to Michigan as refugees from Georgia’s KKK terrorist attack’s in the South. The Gordy family, who’d originally built the Gordy Memorial Church in Georgia were forced to leave the area after the KKK burned down the church building. The Gordy’s like many African-American families were forced to move to northern urban cities like Detroit, Chicago, and New York for fear of their lives. My family settled in Detroit, rebuilt the church, and thrived in the North where they were able to preach and serve their community without constant threat of terrorist danger and attack. Today the Gordy Memorial church still stands in Detroit, MI. My sister was married in this building, just as I hope to be one day. The church represents the history of my family and the lengths my ancestors were willing to go to ensure our success. 

Knowing the success of Motown records, it proves to me the importance of Black music and entertainment being Black led and produced. Today it is more common for popular African-American artists to sign with labels that aren’t Black owned, for example Chris Brown who’s signed to RCA Records under Sony Music entertainment and Nicki Minaj who’s signed to Republic Records under Universal Music Group. We’ve lost the value of self-ownership and independence. Rather than chase after that we chose to chase after money, signing with the highest bidding label. I’m not arguing that signing with any particular label guarantees one artists’ success over another, but signing with a Black owned label as a Black artist allows that artist to be crafted, molded and marketed in their own image by their own community, rather than by a member outside of the community. Our voices should be used to sing songs that uplift us and push us forward, rather than criminalize and impede us. Look at the music industry now and how our voices are used for death rather than life? Motown Records released songs we could relate to, that were beautiful, strong and empowering. Now our music glorifies death and destruction and this is having a negative effect on us. I wrote extensively about this in the article Music is Our Power, and We’ve Lost Our Fire, “Like our powerless melanin, we have sacrificed another tool to the enemy, our music. Black voices have been making white record owners millions of dollars for decades, Atlantic records owned voices from Aretha Franklin to Ray Charles. Not to discredit the beautiful music we’ve created for years but imagine how much more powerful our music would be if it were not filtered by white writers and producers.” When we lose ownership of our work it’s filtered through the eyes of the oppressor, decreasing in value. 

I urge us to use Black history month to not only reflect and learn about the challenge and successes our ancestors faced but to also engross ourselves in the product of their successes. Let’s listen to tome Motown Record top hits, appreciate their work, listen to the words, learn about the artists stories and push for music that is strong and uplifting in our work today. Let’s search for Black artists who embrace self-ownership and independence in the same way that Motown records allowed artists to do. Let’s embrace and support Black owned record labels and their artists as well. We’ve, as a people, have been blocked from success in so many industries. Although we can be seen singing and playing sports in the spotlights of today, who makes money off of us? Who takes ownership? We need to find the value in taking ownership of ourselves, this is how we can guarantee the success of our people. 

Liked it? Take a second to support Amani Sawari on Patreon!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *