Rock guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix (1942 - 1970) caught mid guitar-break during his performance at the Isle of Wight Festival, August 1970. (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

How Black Artists Shaped Music Across The Decades

Black musical excellence from a musician’s perspective.

Disclaimer: This is by no means an exhaustive exploration of inspirational Black musicians, there are many more voices out there which I encourage you to research if you wish to know more.

 

Throughout the past century, music has expanded and grown more than anyone could have envisaged. It is easy to forget which voices instigated certain genres of music and how they have impacted popular music culture in the contemporary age.

Black artists have been imperative to the growth of my musical knowledge and preferences. Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I gravitated towards Jazz, Soul, and Blues – genres which owe a lot to Black voices.

In solidarity with the #BlackLivesMatter movement, catalysed by the murder of George Floyd, I will pay tribute to a number of Black musicians who’ve shaped my music taste to be what it is today.

 

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THE THREE JAZZ MUSKETEERS? 

The Jazz genre formed in the late 19th century and originated from African-American communities. There is something in the improvisatory form and swing rhythms that Jazz takes, having the ability to get me dancing, that made me love Jazz early on in my life.

Amongst the vast array of Black Jazz musicians, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald are some of my favourites. 

Both Holiday and Fitzgerald are renowned for their deep, raspy vocals and their slower, dreamy hits that guarantee to mesmerise listeners. Fitzgerald, in particular, was noted for her seamless diction and vocal phrasing. These characteristics complement the improvisatory nature of her music, most evidently displayed through her scat singing. 

 

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Likewise, Holiday, commonly nicknamed ‘Lady Day’ throughout her career, had a gift for manipulating phrasing and tempo. A legacy lies in her impeccable improvisational skills. The serene vocals of both Fitzgerald and Holiday were often accompanied by slow swing rhythms and instrumental brass solos in their hits, certainly creating a contested style in the genre. The two women often found themselves pitted in competition within the music industry, due to their similarity in style, talent and skills. However, the two were good friends. 

 

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Coltrane, on the other hand, created music that primarily showcased his virtuosic saxophone skills. This saxophonist quickly rose to the forefront of Free Jazz, an experimental approach to Jazz improvisation. He largely pioneered the use of Modal Jazz, involving the lack of relying on one tonal centre. Perhaps one of Coltrane’s most famous standalone works, ‘Blue Train’, plays like a rhapsody for the saxophone. At almost 11 minutes long, the piece displays full exploitation of both the Jazz genre and Coltrane’s own unending talent. Pentatonic, modal melodies are plentiful, toying with the piano and drum accompaniment to place the instruments in conversation with each other. 

 

 

JIMI HENDRIX 

Jimi Hendrix is a big one for me. Being a guitarist myself, Hendrix’s mesmerising skills were a major source of inspiration and motivation whilst I was a young musician. Not only one of the most influential guitarists in history, but Hendrix’s influence on the rock genre is also crystal clear, with Prince, Pearl Jam and Red Hot Chilli Peppers being just a number of artists that have tipped their hats to him. 

 

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With spellbinding hits such as ‘Purple Haze’, ‘Hey Joe’ and ‘Third Stone From The Sun’, Hendrix pushed the boundaries and vocabulary of the electric guitar. He often applied creative technical effects, such as distortion and wah-wah with the use of overdriven amplifiers, to change the face of rock music forever. 

For me, Hendrix was my prime introduction to rock music – a genre I have fallen in love with – and complex, virtuosic guitar playing. The legacy he has left is very difficult to overstate and it is evident that Hendrix’s music will always be absolutely timeless to many. 

 

 

STEAL MY SOUL 

Soul and Blues are the genres I remember listening to most vividly as a kid, particularly Aretha Franklin blasting out of our car stereo! I’ve noticed that across the music I love, a common denominator is its soulful nature, which owes a lot to the Black artists of this genre. 

As well as Franklin, my most beloved figure in Soul is Tracy Chapman. Whilst Franklin’s discography houses an array of feel-good, toe-tapping tunes, Chapman’s songs are sombre and incredibly meaningful. 

 

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Aretha’s powerhouse, mezzo-soprano vocals are what earned her the name ‘Queen of Soul’. Her voice is charged with a gospel-like serenity and seamless vibrato, displaying incredible vocal intelligence and skill. Franklin was also a notable Civil Rights activist, which made a mark on many people’s lives. Many even cite her as the voice of the Civil Rights movement and of Black America. Even today, her legacy never fails to move me. 

Chapman is, without a doubt, one of my most cherished artists in Soul. Many know her for her gut-wrenching hit, ‘Fast Car’, but Chapman has not been afraid to make political statements in her tunes. In ‘Talkin’ Bout A Revolution’, she establishes her voice, uses it as the driving force for her message, and directs it through to the end. Quiet and controlled, accompanied by acoustic guitar, soft drums, a stable bassline and airy drone chords, this song is truly an inspiration and envelops me, every single time I hear it. 

 

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Black artists within the Soul genre have without a doubt influenced the music of many – including white musicians. One of my favourites, Hozier, for example, consistently pays tribute to Black musicians of Soul and Jazz through his music and credits their influence on his sound. You only have to listen to one of his songs, ‘Nina Cried Power’, to see his solidarity with the Black community. Featuring Mavis Staples, the song is an active protest, with ‘Nina’ referring to Nina Simone, of course. Whilst the song does not specify what it protests, it certainly points towards the need for major changes in the political and social sphere. 

 

SO, WHY DOES IT MATTER? 

Recently, I have seen a number of comments asking why must we focus on a person’s skin colour. You may read this article and wonder why I refer to Nina Simone as a ‘Black artist’ and Hozier as a ‘White artist’, for example. You may ponder ‘Isn’t music just music? And shouldn’t we just enjoy it without thinking about the skin tone of the person who wrote it?’. 

In short, no. We shouldn’t. Music is a form of expression, a means of communication to a wider audience. By erasing the race of the artist, we deny any struggle they may have had to become successful, any prejudice they may have faced in the industry and ultimately, part of their identity. 

 

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In order to understand an artist’s lyrics, we often become curious about their lives and their identity, as we want to understand where their words are coming from. If we never recognised that Tracy Chapman was black, we may not understand where ‘Talkin’ Bout A Revolution’ came from, and why it is still relevant now. 

 

Black artists’ voices are just as significant in 2020. Two of my favourite Black artists around at present are Stormzy and Laura Mvula. Whilst the two differ greatly in musicality, Stormzy being a grime and rap musician and Mvula being a soul/jazz singer, I have found solace in their music over the last decade. 

Stormzy is a major figure in both political and civil rights activism, advocating for the working class, both in his songs and in his personal life. Mvula, on the other hand, is not as far into the spotlight as Stormzy, yet her vocal skills and gospel-style voice always remind me of Aretha Franklin.

 

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I urge everyone to think about where music is derived from. This can mean the history behind genres, or why a musician wrote a certain song. We must appreciate the gifts that black artists have given to the musical sphere, and how they have influenced our own musical taste. 

 

Black voices matter. 

Black artists matter. 

Black lives matter. 

 

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