What Master P and W.E.B. Du Bois Have in Common

Germany 2001 / Mikamote /Wikimedia/ CC 3.0


You may know about Motown and Bad Boy, or perhaps you bump the tracks of the No Limit Soldiers every now and then. But these Black-owned and Black-focused record labels were not the first of their kind. Black Swan Records was the predecessor to them all.

“Black Swan Records” was the first Black-owned record label in America. Though its roster specialized in blues and jazz, it became the first company to record Black classical musicians.

Founded with a Black-centric philosophy by Harry Herbert Pace, the company was housed on West 138th Street in New York but sourced production needs from elsewhere due to racism and discrimination in New York City.

Being resourceful was nothing new to Pace -- since he also graduated from elementary school at age 12 and later served as Atlanta University’s valedictorian.

Pace started Pace Phonograph Company in March 1921 with a $30,000 loan. He had experience in the industry as both a songwriter and composer. However, in forming the record label, he now managed and booked artists, handled business operations, and assisted in producing and recording tracks.

The label’s first releases featured C. Carroll Clarke, a baritone, Katie Crippen, a Blues-singing vaudevillian, and Revella Hughes, a soprano. Ethel Waters would later join the company and release “Down Home Blues” which opened up many doors on the tour circuit.

To Pace’s later disappointment, the label initially turned down the legendary Bessie Smith. Smith became one of the most legendary blues singers in history.

Pace Phonography Company became Black Swan Records. Despite missing out on Bessie Smith, BSR amassed 30 employees - including its own orchestra, district managers in cities across the U.S., and over 1,000 dealers internationally within its first year of operations.

Though it was able to earn $100,000 in revenue in the first year, the company failed to adequately respond to its market and began to falter. With the radio boom of the early 1920s, racism and a lack of professional networks kept Black Swan’s music from hitting airwaves.

This proved to be a critical misstep and obstacle in the company’s ability to widely circulate its music and meet more paying audiences. But another, more intentional misstep, could be blamed for Black Swan’s fall.

The record label was founded under the theme of Black-owned and Black-centric. It was even advertised as an all-Black recording company.

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