Faculty Research Spotlight
Katie Kapurch, Department of English
Blackbird Singing: Black America Remixes the Beatles
"The history uncovered by this project matters to all Americans because we live in a country where black artists have shaped the musical landscape and where cross-cultural dialogue is a defining feature of the arts."
John Lennon famously said that “Chuck Berry” should be a synonym for “rock ‘n’ roll.” Paul McCartney also mused, “In our imaginations back then, John was Buddy Holly and I was Little Richard or Elvis.” The influence of American rock ‘n’ roll, specifically its black forerunners, is well theorized in academic and popular histories. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and other British Invasion bands wore their admiration for black American musicians like a badge.
My book, Blackbird Singing: Black America Remixes the Beatles explores the ways African Americans, in turn, responded to the Beatles in the late 1960s and after that decade ended. The book is contracted with Penn State University Press for inclusion in its American Music History series.
Blackbird Singing is supported by an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and aims to serve the American public. The history uncovered by this project matters to all Americans because we live in a country where black artists have shaped the musical landscape and where cross-cultural dialogue is a defining feature of the arts.
To date, no academic or trade book has offered a comprehensive view of black Americans’ musical engagements with the Beatles, which informs the story of popular music, especially mid-twentieth century rock ‘n’ roll, and, broadly, the study of American culture. This musical conversation is most obviously visible in covers, especially those compiled on Come Together: Black America Sings Lennon & McCartney (2011) and Let It Be: Black America Sings Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison (2016). For the book’s title, I borrow the word choice of these album titles calling attention to the dialogue that has already been recognized. Those albums include Billy Preston’s “Blackbird” and Aretha Franklin’s “Let It Be”; in fact, McCartney claims he wrote the latter with her in mind.
My historically-situated close readings show how black artists remix the Beatles while tapping into a tradition of African American arts that include music, as well as folklore and literature. In addition to iconic covers, the book analyzes Beatles-inspired songs, mashups, samplings, collaborations, accompanying visual media, including album art and music videos, and online discourse.
I explore music by some of the most legendary black American artists. In addition to Preston and Franklin, I also consider George Clinton, Stevie Wonder, Prince, and Michael Jackson, as well as recent pop stars such as Kanye West, John Legend, Beyoncé, and Lil Nas X. I even include artists who openly reject or parody the Beatles, such as Migos, Childish Gambino, and Drake. These artists are all vital to the story of the Beatles’ ongoing popularity and illustrate the breadth of ways black artists remix the Beatles.
My book also spotlights a contemporary Beatles-inspired band, Blac Rabbit, who gained viral video fame busking the Beatles on the NYC subway. These 20-somethings from Rockaway Beach in Queens were recently on tour with half of their set devoted to Beatles covers. The other half included their Beatles-inspired originals, psychedelic rock that fuses other musical traditions, too. At their San Antonio show, I interviewed the members of the band to find out more about how the Beatles inspired their musical careers.
My interview with Blac Rabbit will appear in Blackbird Singing. In order to make this NEH research more available to the American public, I have written about the band and other artists in articles that appear on CultureSonar. In the summer of 2019, I wrote about Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” the record-breaking No. 1 hit, in relation to the McCartney-Jackson collaboration “Say, Say, Say.” My forthcoming CultureSonar article marks the 50-year anniversary of the Beatles' Abbey Road, documenting Preston's contributions to the recording and composition of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" and subsequent black artists' covers of the song; at the end of September, I will present this research at the University of Rochester's Abbey Road symposium. Links for these and other non-academic articles can be found on my website, and for academic publications, visit my sites on ResearchGate and Academia.edu.