Black History Month is cause for celebration and remembrance of black excellence throughout American history. This February, we’re celebrating with a playlist highlighting some of the most remarkable musicians of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Beginning with ragtime pioneer, Scott Joplin, this playlist navigates through the many different musical movements created and perfected by black artists.
Ragtime gave way to jazz, as exemplified by such musical legends as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, and Miles Davis, was soon followed by Ray Charles, whose fusion of blues, R&B, and gospel styles helped create soul music. Soul music became the sound of the 1950s.
As the decade went on, soul music began to incorporate and adapt the sound of pop music. Capitalizing on such a commercial sound, Berry Gordy rounded out the decade with the founding of Motown Records in 1959, dubbing the soul-pop sound after the name of his label: Motown.
Early Motown singers featured talents such as Marvin Gaye, The Supremes, and The Temptations. Yet with the looming overhead of the Vietnam War, music turned towards psychedelia and rock and roll, welcoming into being the legendary electric guitar stylings of Jimi Hendrix, as well as the funky rock music of Stevie Wonder, the youngest artist to ever top the Billboard Hot 100 charts.
The mid-1960s introduced Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, alongside other black artists who began to lattice soul music into their own sound, including Tina Turner, the Queen of Rock n’ Roll. Rising to stardom in the latter-end of the decade, Turner’s sound fused rock and roll with soul music, becoming an amalgamate representation of the musical stylings of the decade.
Alongside the rise of Franklin and Turner also came the Civil Rights movement. This era featured the voices of jazz singer Nina Simone, an advocate against racial inequality, as well as classical artists Paul Robeson and Marian Anderson. Robeson and Anderson, avid political activists, were also successful black artists in a historically white-dominated profession, demonstrating musical excellence while also advocating for equality.
Following the Civil Rights era came the musical innovations of the 1970s, introducing the early beginnings of hip-hop. In 1979, the Sugarhill Gang released “Rapper’s Delight,” one of the first rap songs to make the Top 40 chart, widening the audience for the genre. The 1970s and early 1980s also introduced the genre of disco, and the fusion of pop music and dance-soul, which influenced the musical endeavors of icons Prince and Whitney Houston heavily.
Towards the end of the 1980s, hip-hop experienced its golden age, and included artists such as Run-D.M.C. and Grandmaster Flash. The 1990s cemented hip hop’s longevity and introduced artists such as Tupac Shakur and the Notorious B.I.G.
More recently, black artists such as Beyoncé, Janelle Monae, and Pulitzer Prize-winner Kendrick Lamar have expanded upon the musical movements before them, evolving, celebrating, and pushing the boundaries of the sound of black artistry.
Tune in to our playlist, Celebrating Black History Month, curated chronologically to trace some of the twentieth- and twenty-first century manifestations of black musical excellence.