Here’s part 3 of the Black History Month recommendations from HCCS core member, junior Alex Johnson! But if you haven’t already, check out Kworweinski Lafontant’s post about The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill and Dr. Jordan VanHemert’s post about Art Blakey and Herbie Hancock!
I went back and forth on whether or not to include Beyoncé in one of these blog posts. For me, what I’ve been trying to do with these posts is introduce these Black artists to people who might not have heard of them or to encourage people to dive deeper into these artists’ discographies. But let’s be real here, no one is gonna read this blog post and not know who Beyoncé is. She’s one of the most iconic performers of the last 20 years, with countless hits to her name, an incredible voice, and an unmistakable stage presence.
Her music has covered topics like how to navigate relationships, the long-lasting implications of how Black people have been treated in this country, and female empowerment through sensuality and self-confidence. Beyoncé is one of the best examples right now of Black excellence in pop culture, and her various projects, whether they are albums, live performances, or movies, show this with complete certainty.
Start with this album: Beyoncé. Her self-titled 2013 surprise album is not my favorite of hers (I think LEMONADE is definitely better), but Beyoncé has some absolutely incredible musical ideas. Also, the focus on sexuality and sensuality was liberating according to Beyoncé and gives some very useful context for her next album, LEMONADE.
Or start with these songs: Crazy in Love, Formation, Irreplaceable, ***Flawless
I don’t think people quite understand how much music Pharrell Williams has contributed to in the past 20 years. I know I didn’t for a while. But Pharrell has had an immense impact on popular music. He’s produced huge songs for artists like Frank Ocean, Ed Sheeran, Migos, Kendrick Lamar, Mac Miller, Ariana Grande, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, The Carters (which is Beyoncé AND Jay-Z), etc. He’s also made multiple projects under his own name which have given us hits like Come Get It Bae and Happy, with his group N.E.R.D., which has given us songs like Lemon with Rihanna.
He’s even done a few movie soundtracks: the Despicable Me series, the 2019 Lion King, and his collaboration with Hans Zimmer on 2016’s Hidden Figures. In 2003, a US survey found that Pharrell’s production group, the Neptunes, produced about 43% of songs on the radio at the time. Make no mistake about it, Pharrell is one of the most influential artists of the last few decades, and if you think you haven’t heard a song produced by him, you’re probably wrong.
Start with this album: NO_ONE EVER REALLY DIES. This album shows Pharrell’s hit-making power on songs like “Lemon” and “1000”, his ability to write songs about social issues on songs like “Don’t Don’t Do It!”, and his current production style on songs like “Kites” and “Deep Down Body Thurst”.
Or start with these songs: Lemon, Kites, Hit Different (for his production style with The Neptunes)
Tracy Chapman is probably best known for her songs “Fast Car” and “Give Me One Reason”, but what’s not as well-known is how important she was to the resurgence of folk and singer-songwriter music starting in the late 80s. On a personal note, though, Chapman’s fourth album, New Beginning, is one of the first albums I remember listening to all the way through as a kid, so her music has been a constant for most of my life as well.
But her self-titled debut, which included “Fast Car” as well as another big hit, “Talkin’ bout a Revolution”, was absolutely huge because of its simple musical construction, Chapman’s great vocals, and her focus on social issues. Tracy Chapman went on to sell over 6 million copies, and her legacy as a singer-songwriter and activist makes her very influential to this day.
Start with this album: Tracy Chapman. It’s her most popular album for a reason, so definitely check it out if you haven’t.
Or start with these songs: Fast Car, Give Me One Reason, Smoke and Ashes (a deeper cut that’s one of my personal favorites)
Thundercat is probably most well-known for his virtuosic skill on the bass. He can create incredibly groovy bass lines on songs like Mac Miller’s “What’s the Use?”, Travis Scott’s “ASTROTHUNDER” or his own song “Them Changes”, or just show off his insane chops on songs like Childish Gambino’s “II. Shadows”, or his own songs like “Uh Uh” and “How Sway”. But he doesn’t just play bass on songs, he is a really smart and talented musician behind the scenes as well.
In fact, according to a Rolling Stone article, Thundercat was actually a very integral part of the creation of Kendrick Lamar’s masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly, introducing Kendrick to a lot of the 50s and 60s jazz and 70s funk that runs throughout that album. He’s an incredibly talented musician and once you know his sound, his contributions to a huge amount of R&B and hip-hop in the last decade are super easily recognizable and add so much personality and skill to the songs he’s on.
Start with this album: Drunk. Honestly, either of his last two albums are good starting points, but I chose this one because some of his best songs (Them Changes, Uh Uh, Walk On By, etc.) are on here.
Or start with these songs: Them Changes, Uh Uh, Black Qualls, Dragonball Durag
Billie Holiday was a jazz singer from the mid-1930s to the late 1950s, and her impact on jazz music cannot be overstated. Her style of singing was heavily inspired by contemporary jazz instrumentalists and allowed her to manipulate phrases and tempo in really innovative ways. Her improvisation was also often praised, which was only enhanced by her masterful understanding of how each song she performed worked.
Billie Holiday’s performance of the song “Strange Fruit” was also hugely influential on the start of the civil rights movement of the mid-50s and 1960s. This performance specifically was so widespread because even though the lyrical content is so heavy and haunting, Holiday’s performance is so captivating that audiences across the country couldn’t ignore it. This performance was named the Best Song of the Century by TIME magazine in 1999, and this, along with the rest of her extensive career, makes it easy to see why Billie Holiday has had such an unmistakable impact on pop culture and jazz music in America.
Start with this song: Strange Fruit. This song is a thoroughly chilling look at the rampant violence and racism against Black people in America, recorded in 1939, during the heart of the Jim Crow era. It is, in my opinion, absolutely essential listening when it comes to American protest music.
After listening to Strange Fruit, check out these songs: Stormy Weather, Blue Moon, Moonglow