On New Year’s Eve, 1962, a 13-year-old named Valery Saifudinov took the stage with his band at a party in Latvia’s capital city Riga, then still under Soviet control. In front of a crowd of several hundred factory workers, they launched into covers of songs by artists such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard—Black Americans who, along with forebears like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, created rock ‘n’ roll. The crowd loved it.
“The whole city was talking about rock ‘n’ roll,” Saifudinov, who would ultimately move to California, told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2012. By the time of that performance, rock records had been circulating in the Soviet Union, despite authorities restricting them. They feared what the music represented: It was new, dangerous, and rebellious—in a word, cool. In the years that followed, rock music would become so popular debates persist over whether it stoked dissent that helped destabilize the Soviet regime.
Culture is one of America’s most powerful means of exerting its influence in the world, and in ways large and small, Black Americans have shaped that culture. They’ve held an outsized sway on what the US, and consequently much of the globe, deems cool.