In celebration of Black History Month, we’re taking a look at some of music’s most innovative, trailblazing Black artists, and their monumental impact on the world. From pioneering some of our most popular genres today, to striving for social justice, these artists have stood the test of time through their music. Join us as we explore 5 Influential Black Musicians!
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Aretha Franklin (1942 – 2018)
Deserving of all of our R-E-S-P-E-C-T, singer, songwriter and pianist Aretha Franklin has well and truly earned her title as the ‘Queen of Soul’! Born in Tennessee, the Detroit-raised singer grew up singing gospel in her church choir, and was inspired by legendary soul singer Sam Cooke to pursue a career in pop music. Signing her first major record contact with Columbia Records at 18, Franklin later gained critical acclaim and commercial success once she signed with Atlantic Records in 1966.
Known for her distinctive powerhouse vocals, Aretha Franklin not only redefined the soul genre through her trailblazing blend of gospel with jazz, blues, R&B and rock ‘n’ roll, but also used her voice to advocate for the civil rights and women rights movements, with her hit songs ‘Respect’ and ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ becoming anthems of these movements. Becoming the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, Franklin remains an icon and one of the best-selling artists to date, inspiring a multitude of artists – from Chaka Khan to Mariah to Beyoncé!
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Bob Marley (1945 – 1981)
An artist whose songs always have us jammin’, Robert Nesta Marley (Bob Marley) is a musical icon who needs no introduction. Considered as one of the pioneers of reggae music, Marley started off in the 60s as the lead singer and rhythm guitarist for ska, rocksteady, reggae band Bob Marley & The Wailers (previously known as The Wailers), releasing many successful albums including Catch a Fire, Burnin’ and Natty Dread.
Heavily influenced by the social issues of his homeland, Jamaica, and his Rastafarianism, Marley’s spiritually infused music and his powerful, timeless lyricism preach both messages of love, unity and peace, as well as advocating for the rights of black people and speaking up against poverty. Unfortunately, passing away from cancer at 36 years old, Marley left behind a huge legacy, being not only a massive musical inspiration for many artists, but a global symbol of Jamaican music, culture and identity.
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Marvin Gaye (1939 – 1984)
Dubbed the ‘Prince of Motown’ and the ‘Prince of Soul’, Marvin Pentz Gay Jr.’s career began as part of vocal doo-wop quartet, The Maquees, before he rose to fame as a solo artist after their disbandment in the 1960s. A pioneer of Motown, he helped shape the genre, first as an in-house session player, as a songwriter, and later as an artist. The release of his 1971 album, What’s Going On, marked Gaye’s creative independence from the Motown sound, taking on a more socially conscious lens and incorporating social and political issues, like the Vietnam War and police brutality, with jazz, pop and classical musical styles. This change from the conventional Motown production of the time significantly paved the way for many artists who followed him, including Stevie Wonder.
Gaye continued to make an impact in the 80s, completely breaking away from Motown and delivering contemporary R&B hits like ‘Sexual Healing’. Tragically, his life and career were cut short when he was shot by his father in 1984, but his legacy and impact still endure. In recognition of his remarkable contributions to music, Gaye received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996, and his later eras of music in particular influenced the creation of several contemporary R&B subgenres, especially quiet storm and neo soul.
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Stevie Wonder (1950 – Present)
A child prodigy, Stevland Hardaway Morris signed with Motown’s Tamla label aged 11, where he was given the professional name ‘Little Stevie Wonder’. By 13, he already had his first number one hit with his single ‘Fingertips’ – making him the youngest solo artist to ever top the Billboard Hot 100 chart! Wonder’s career only grew from there, with him going on to become one of the best-selling music artists of all time, winning 25 Grammy Awards and one Academy Award.
A singer-songwriter, musician and record producer, Wonder is the manifestation of a one-man band, and notably through his use of synthesizers and other electronic musical instruments in the 70s did he reshape the conventions of the contemporary R&B genre. Additionally, through producing his cohesive LPs, in which he infused political and social messages with complex sounds, Wonder is largely credited as one of the artists who helped steer R&B into the album era. Isn’t he lovely? Isn’t he wonderful?
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Nina Simone (1933 – 2003)
Famously known as ‘The High Priestess of Soul’, Eunice Kathleen Waymon initially aspired to become a classical concert pianist, attending Julliard School of Music for a year before later being rejected from the Curtis Institute of Music – a decision she attributes to racism. Her career as a jazz singer took off in 1954, when she started playing piano for a living at Midtown Bar and Grill in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and was told that she would have to sing her own accompaniment. Disguising herself from family members who would disapprove, she adopted the stage name ‘Nina Simone’ (‘Nina’ being a nickname from a former boyfriend, and ‘Simone’ after French actress Simone Signoret).
From jazz to classical to folk, gospel, blues, R&B, and pop, Simone’s music was a range of styles, but always featured her signature spellbinding, raw, emotional vocals. Simone’s lyrics also reflected her prominent civil rights activism, with her 60s songs ‘Mississippi Goddamn’ and ‘Old Jim Crow’ overtly addressing racial inequality in a way that few of her counterparts at the time did. It’s a new day, it’s a new dawn, it’s a new life, but Simone’s timeless music still resonates with our political climates today, resulting in many hip-hop artists (such as Jay-Z and Lauryn Hill) sampling her music.