Every February, the United States observes Black History Month. It's a time to reflect on both the achievements and struggles Black citizens have endured in America. As Glory puts it, "Music has always been a pillar of Africana culture and one of the most powerful tools behind storytelling, empowering social change, and celebrating the culture from which it was derived. Art – and music, in particular – often holds a unique disposition, speaking to the present while simultaneously advocating for a better future."
Simply put, music is a powerful tool used to overcome the binding nature of oppression. Now that we're nearing the end of Black History Month, we hope you check out the work of the 15 artists below if you haven't already. While born throughout different times of history, all of them are Black, incredibly talented, and have said something important about the experience of living as a BIPOC in the United States within their music. We know there are so many equally talented Black musicians we've had to leave out on this list, but we hope the songs of these 15 geniuses encourage you to go check out the work of those we didn't get to mention.
1. Nina Simone
Of course the revolutionary Nina Simone takes the first spot on our list. When you take a hard look at her discography, you'll understand she dedicated her life to strengthening the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s. She forcefully spoke out about the struggles of African American freedom and famously performed "Mississippi Goddam” at a concert on April 7, 1968: three days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Other poignant songs in Simone's catalogue include "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free," "Backlash Blues," "To Be Young, Gifted and Black," and “Why? (The King of Love Is Dead).” Her record Black Gold, which was released just before her time in America came to an end, is a national treasure. Nina's iconic alto voice and masterful piano skills will surely "put a spell on you."
2. Public Enemy
Formed by Chuck D and Flavor Flav on Long Island in 1985, hip-hop group Public Enemy famously rose to prominence for their political messages – as well as addressing American racism and the American media in their songs. Songs like "Fight the Power," "Rebel Without a Pause," and "Can't Truss It" will always be considered stone cold rap classics. If you're looking for a great album of theirs to get you in the Black History Month spirit, we highly recommend their sophomore record It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back. Full of rebellious ideas and resistance, it confronts the complacency found in the system of racially-charged 80s Reagan-era America, and promotes radical activism still necessary in today's day and age.
Shockwaves went around the rap industry, and maybe across the entirety of America, when N.W.A. dropped their career-defining album Straight Outta Compton. N.W.A. basically took the baton Public Enemy held in the 80s and added more rage to their flavor of street-made revolutionary hip-hop. It would help define the next decade of rap. Of course, "F--- Tha Police" and their title track "Straight Outta Compton" are their hardest hitters, but other great tracks we feel deserve credit include "Boyz-N-Tha-Hood,” "Express Yourself," and "Gangsta Gangsta."
4. Kendrick Lamar
This Pulitzer and Grammy-winning artist is the standard of the hip-hop industry today. What makes Kendrick Lamar so great is his ability to rap brutally honest, finely-crafted lyrics over tight beats. He may take his time between albums, but when he finally drops one, you best believe it will be quality. Between his masterworks To Pimp a Butterfly, DAMN., and Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, Lamar has so much to say about the Black experience – as well as anecdotes about class, image, fame, and self-discovery – that no one else has really put into bars before.
5. Billie Holiday
With the release of "Strange Fruit," Billie Holiday boldly stared racism right in the eye during the turn of the 20th century, when lynchings of Black Americans were peaking in the south. Some believe the declarative song to even be the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement...at least in music, that is. Besides "Strange Fruit," Holiday will always be remembered for her innovative influence on jazz music and pop singing. Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, paved the way for the practice of manipulating phrasing and tempo. Simply put, she's a legend in her own right. After listening to her songs "Solitude," "Blue Moon," and "All of Me," you'll understand why she earned the nickname "Lady Day."
6. Sam Cooke
If you've ever seen the movie One Night in Miami..., you know Sam Cooke was a central part of the Civil Rights Movement. He used his influence and popularity with the White and Black communities to fight for the cause of equality during the 1960s. Though considered only a modest hit by his high standards, Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" turned into an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, and is heralded as the singer's magnum opus. Other standout tracks in Cooke's impressive catalogue include "Summertime," "Little Red Rooster," and "Twistin' the Night Away."
7. Marvin Gaye
Motown didn't become known for its political awareness until the great Marvin Gaye arrived on the scene. His 1971 album What's Going On, which was released during the height of the Vietnam War, remains as relevant as ever. That timeless lyric in the title track, “War is not the answer/ For only love can conquer hate,” bravely condemned America's involvement in Vietnam. You could even take it a step further and say it condemns all kinds of American hatred, period. Even the way in which What's Going On was released proved radical at the time. Instead of being stuck by Berry Gordy’s politically-passive approach to Motown music, Gaye decided to produce the LP all by himself. Besides his seminal album, we also strongly recommend you check out his rendition of "Abraham, Martin and John." Dion may have sung it first, but Gaye's gorgeous voice really brings the message to life.
8. James Brown
The central progenitor of funk music and a major figure of the 20th century, James Brown truly is the Godfather of Soul. His success peaked in the 1960s with the live album Live at the Apollo, which is considered by many to be the greatest live album ever released. Listening through it is an incredible experience, as the sense of love and community between Brown and the Harlem audience is so palpable. The climax of the self-funded record, “Lost Someone,” goes on for a whopping 11 minutes and in “Medley: Please Please Please” you can hear a man in the crowd cry out, “Take us home, Jackie!” James Brown's hit singles "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" and "I Got You (I Feel Good)" are the epitome of groovy, while his poignant "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" reminds us of the dangers of male chauvinism and how it can lead to oppression.
9. Aretha Franklin
The Queen of Soul who made us realize we all need some respect. Franklin's powerhouse voice has touched generations of listeners. If you need proof of her impact, just check out the recent Rolling Stone 200 Greatest Singers of All Time list, where she's ranked #1. Besides being an acclaimed vocalist, Franklin was actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement through her music and personal connections. In 1970, she even offered to pay the bail of Angela Davis: the notable activist who had been arrested for kidnapping, conspiracy, and murder and was later acquitted. Franklin's most famous tune, “Respect,” became an anthem for the racial and gendered political movements of her time. But she also had beloved reworkings of equality-themed songs like "(To Be) Young, Gifted, And Black," "People Get Ready," and "A Change Is Gonna Come" that put her in the forefront of the Civil Rights music genre.
Listening to Beyoncé can make any person – of any gender, race, creed, or nationality – understand the power of being a strong, independent Black woman. Queen Bey has been keeping us entertained since her 90s days in Destiny's Child. As she blossomed into her solo career (and eventually became the most Grammy-winning artist of all time), the themes of her songs deepened. Our favorite Beyoncé bangers that particularly touch on the Black experience and equality include "Freedom (ft. Kendrick Lamar)," "BLACK PARADE," and of course, the ever-empowering "Formation." Who can forget the iconic moment when she performed the latter song at the Super Bowl with an army of Black Panther backup dancers behind her?
11. Gil Scott-Heron
Is there any song more rebellious in feel than Gil Scott-Heron's dynamite hit "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised"? Known for his spoken-word performances, Gil Scott-Heron's unique work features a musical fusion of jazz, blues, and soul. The lyrical content of his pieces typically concern social and political issues of the 60s and 70s, delivered in both rapping and melismatic vocal styles. His songs, most notably on the albums Pieces of a Man and Winter in America in the early 1970s, strongly influenced and foreshadowed later Black music genres such as hip-hop and neo soul. If it weren't for Scott-Heron, it's possible we wouldn't have several of the other artists mentioned on this list.
12. Lauryn Hill
Whether through her solo work or while spitting bars in The Fugees, Ms. Lauryn Hill always has something important to say. Her one and only solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, is something of a foundational guideline for Black womanhood. It covers everything: love, fame, faith, childbirth, and even the ways in which money changes people. Even though Hill seemed to drop out of the public eye after releasing the project, one record was all she needed to prove just how prolific of a hip-hop artist she is. Now excuse us while we go replay her solo work and Fugees hits "Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You (I Love You Baby),” "Killing Me Softly," "Everything Is Everything," "Black Rage," and "The Mask."
13. Childish Gambino
Childish Gambino's music encourages all of us to "stay woke!" Between the saucy, spooky, and funkalicious "Redbone" (famously used in the opening of Jordan Peele's horror Get Out) and the painfully relevant "This Is America" – which has been dissected by countless scholars due to its layers of symbolism – Donald Glover isn't afraid to really go there when it comes to talking about the Black experience. But the multi-hyphenate also has lighter tunes that put a spotlight on the power of Black comradery. The Because the Internet banger "3005" and the beautiful animated music video for "Feels Like Summer," which proudly features an ensemble of exceptional Black artists, activists, and celebrities, are two that come to mind.
Solange's third studio album, A Seat at the Table, may be one of the most important records about equality, empowerment, and rage ever released. When we think of Solange, we think of gripping songs such as “Weary” and “Mad,” which tell the story of living in a country that pretends to have healed its racist origins. We also think of her tracks “Junie” and “Borderline (An Ode to Self Care),” which make room for Black self-preservation and joy. And then there's the standout "Don't Touch My Hair," which tackles the themes of microaggressions and self-respect through a smooth, soulful lens. We could go on and on about why Solange is the most impactful, authentic artist in R&B right now, but honestly, we'd rather you hear her genius for yourself.
15. Joey Bada$$
We end this list with a Black artist who we believe will pave the way for the next generation of hip-hop. This American rapper, singer, and actor has been making waves in the rap game since the early 2010s. But he really struck a chord with the nation when he dropped his 2017 record All-Amerikkkan Bada$$. It's a fine piece of art that completely defines the genre of political hip-hop. The record boasts deep cuts such as "For My People," "Land of the Free," and "Amerikkkan Idol" that will have you bobbing your head in glee and contemplating the state of the country at the same time. Perahaps his latest record 2000 is lighter in feel (the music production is IMMACULATE), but we'll always keep coming back to Joey's sophomore LP every Black History Month.
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Article Image: Close-up black and white portrait of Nina Simone in 1965, Chuck D and Flavor Flav of Public Enemy rap together at a 2014 concert, Solange closes her eyes and smiles during a 2014 Coachella performance. (Ron Kroon [Available through Public Domain], kowarski [CC BY 2.0] and Neon Tommy [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons.)