Without the contribution of immigrants, American music would not exist in the way that we get to experience it today. Slave songs and gospels that travelled from the Caribbean, Africa, and the Bahamas transformed into the blues, hip hop, and R&B. We watch celebrities on Dancing with the Stars performing an exhilarating salsa dance to the sound of Latino marimbas. Even country music, which seems to be a uniquely American genre, has deeper roots in the European immigrant musical traditions that were brought to the Appalachian region.
An article from The Chicago Tribune, titled “How Immigrants Created America’s Mixtape,” says it best: “The template for American music, a cacophonous merger of a thousand cultures thrown together like nowhere else on Earth, is built on the shoulders of immigrants. And it's not simply that they brought with them their music and cultural values: More important, they applied what they knew to a wholly unfamiliar environment, along the way conjuring radical new methods for creating music. Their work came to define the American sound and has been embraced and celebrated as such around the globe.”
Some of your favorite musical talents got their start outside of American soul. Here are just a few:
Profession: Singer, Songwriter, Producer
Country of Origin: Sultanate of Zanzibar
Best Known Songs: “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Somebody to Love,” “We Are the Champions”
Freddie Mercury, born Farrokh Bulsara in Zanzibar, has received a lot of attention lately in light of his recently released biopic. Best known for his work with the band Queen, Mercury is regarded as one of the greatest lead singers in the history of music. His vivacious personality and impressive vocal range led to the meteoric rise of both his band and his solo career.
Mercury’s band Queen was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, given a star on the Hollywood walk of Fame in 2002, and were given the honor of being the first band inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 2003. They were also inducted in the UK Music Hall of Fame, the RockWalk Hall of Fame, the VH1 Rock Honors, and awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018.
Profession: Musician, Songwriter
Country of Origin: Mexico
Genre: Latin, Blues, Jazz Fusion
Best Known Songs: “Smooth,” “Black Magic Woman,” “Oye Como Va”
Carlos Santana was born in Jalisco, Mexico where he learned to play the violin and guitar under his musician father. His family eventually immigrated to San Francisco, where he continued to develop his musical style and began playing along the “Tijuana Strip” on the border between Mexico and California. He formed his band, the Santana Blues, in 1966. He was signed by Columbia Records, who shortened the name to Santana and helped arrange for a performance at Woodstock before their first album was released.
From there, Santana continued to develop his sound, often inviting guest artists to work on songs with him. This work earned him many awards and accolades, including ten Grammy Awards and three Latin Grammy Awards. He was named #20 on Rolling Stone’s list of 100 Greatest Guitarists and became a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2013. Santana also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Profession: Singer, Actress, Songwriter
Country of Origin: Cuba
Genre: Latin Pop, Dance
Best Known Songs: “Conga,” “Anything for You,” “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You”
After fleeing the Cuban Revolution and migrating to Miami, Florida, Gloria Estefan began life caring for her younger siblings while her mother worked and her father was hospitalized in a VA facility for Agent Orange Poisoning. In 1975, she met Emilio Estefan, Jr. through a church music rehearsal. He invited her to join his band the Miami Latin Boys after he watched her sing at a Cuban wedding, prompting the band to change its name to Miami Sound Machine. In 1989, Estefan began her solo career with the single “Anything for You.” Her popularity and contribution to American music is so pervasive that a Broadway musical was written about her and Emilio’s life.
Estefan has won three Grammy Awards, the Hispanic Heritage Award, an MTV Video Music Award, and an American Music Award for Lifetime Achievement. Her influence moves outside the realm of music, as her humanitarian work has also earned her the Ellis Island Congressional Medal of Honor and the National Music Foundation’s Humanitarian of the Year Award. Estefan also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, an honorary doctoral degree in music from the University of Miami, and a Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Medallion of Excellence for Community Service.
Eddie Van Halen
Profession: Songwriter, Musician, Guitarist
Country of Origin: Netherlands
Genre: Hard Rock
Best Known Songs: “Everybody Wants Some!!” “Hot for Teacher,” “Panama”
Eddie Van Halen is best known for his work with the band Van Halen, along with his brother Alex. He grew up in a musical household, as his father was a Dutch clarinetist, pianist, and Saxophonist. Music even impacted his name. His middle name “Lodewijk” is the Dutch equivalent of “Ludwig,” as in Ludwig van Beethoven. After immigrating to the United States in 1962, Van Halen began piano lessons. Though he was never able to read the sheet music, he had a keen ear for learning by listening and a talent for improvising. In 1972, the Van Halen brothers formed their eponymous band, which went on to become one of the most successful rock groups of all time.
Van Halen has had the most #1 hits on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart, as well as more Billboard Hot 100 hits than any other metal or hard rock band in the 1980s. Their awards include an American Music Award, a Grammy Award, and four MTV Video Music Awards. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. Eddie was voted #1 in Guitar World magazine’s “The 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” reader poll.
Profession: Singer, Songwriter
Country of Origin: Canada
Genre: Jazz, Pop, Rock, Folk
Best Known Songs: “River,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Help Me”
Joni Mitchell kicked off her career in small nightclubs throughout the frozen north. It was there that she found a love for songwriting in a basement house after discovering that she was pregnant and unable to care for the baby. After giving her child up for adoption, her talents took off, attracting the attention of American folk singer Chuck Mitchell. They moved to the United States, where the couple continued to perform in small coffee shops. That changed when David Crosby saw Mitchell performing in a Florida club. He brought her to Los Angeles, where she soon found management and commercial success.
Mitchell has been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. She’s also received nine Grammy Awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award which named her “one of the most important female recording artists of the rock era.” She has also been awarded with a Billboard Century Award, three Juno Awards, and the SFJAZZ Lifetime Achievement Award. She’s even had her face on a postage stamp!
Music plays a role in everyone’s life. From elevator muzak to commercial jingles, there’s something about the combination of rhythm, melody, and lyrics that touches a primal part of every human. Without the American immigrant, much of our favorite music would have never found its way into our lives.
It is irresponsible to ignore the impact that other culture’s musical histories have had on America’s music scene. In many cases, the opportunities afforded by our country are what set the stage for successful musicians to begin their career. Tightening restrictions for talented, culturally impactful immigrants could mean missing out on the next big name in music. Is that a risk we’re willing to take?