February is Black History Month, which is a time to reflect on not only how African – Americans have impacted US history, but also how African – Americans continue to impact society / community. Moreover, it is a time to reflect on racial injustice and activism. There is a wealth of wonderful music from African – American artists that you need to explore everyday, but is especially poignant during Black History Month. Today we celebrate some foundational African – American women artists and will continue to focus on African – American artists throughout the month. So, here is the music:
Nina Simone: Young, Gifted and Black
Famously covered by Aretha Franklin, this is a song about pride, defiance and revolution. For Simone, the act of expressing pride in her blackness is a political statement in and of itself. Simone has a large category of socially activist and civil rights music, which all has an amazing power. The power behind her vocal on this track is inspirational and the track itself is iconic.
Billy Holiday: Strange Fruit
This track was also famously covered and the cover by Nina Simone may be more well known than the original. An incredibly brave track to sing in 1939 to largely white crowds. Holiday viscerally describes the brutality and horror of lynchings in this haunting song, which has served as one of the most historically important tracks on race ever recorded. An incredibly emotionally track that needs to be taught in every school in America.
Betty Davis: They Say I’m Different
The recently deceased Betty Davis is a cornerstone of funk and displays strength as a black woman. In most of her tracks, Davis sings about being true to herself as a black woman and taking pride in her inner self. She was a pioneer in some bangin’ dirty funk that progressed the genre. She was an incredibly talented artist and her music will continue to live on and inspire others.
Ella Fitzgerald: It’s Only a Paper Moon
Jazz vocal is one genre of music we do not explore a lot on the show, but one that African – American women really took to the next level. Ella Fitzgerald is most known for her top notch scatting, but this track really showcases her smooth voice. The warmth and range of her vocal transports you as you get lost in the track. She has a great energy and excellent delivery, which makes her vocal one of the best jazz vocals around.
Etta James: At Last
Along with Ella, Etta James took jazz vocals to the next level. The best example is her iconic track At Last. Her vocal is so pure and emotional that I can listen to it for hours and each time it feels like the first time I heard the track. You can feel her belting it out and it just hits your heart. I love this track. I played it at my wedding and I could listen to it everyday for the rest of my life.
Diana Ross and the Supremes: Reflections
I love this track and it sums up the Motown sound. Part psychedelic rock and Motown soul, it represents the fragmented feeling within society during the late 1960s. Diana’s vocal really cuts through and you can see why she ultimately went solo. This is a fantastic track that highlights how the Motown sound evolved in the late 60s, which will ultimately culminate with Marvin Gaye’s breakthrough record in 1971….but more on that later in the month.
Aretha Franklin: Respect
Aretha is the one artist Berry Gordy could not secure on Motown that he had respect for. The Queen of Soul is an amazing mix of gospel and soul as she can flawlessly move from the smoothest vocal you ever heard to unbridled raw power. Respect is much like Young, Gifted and Black by Nina Simone in that it centres pride in her race and gender at a time, 1965, when civil rights were central in society. An iconic track by one of the best musical artists in history.
Whitney Houston: I Will Always Love You
I am going to go a bit modern with the last two tracks due to their lasting impact. Whitney Houston paved the way for pop / R&B crossover which artists like Beyoncé, Doja Cat and others will follow decades after this release. This Dolly Parton cover for The Bodyguard is incredible. Her vocal is amazing and Dolly herself was emotionally moved by her rendition. I believe that Whitney Houston needs to be celebrated more for her impact on music.
Missy Elliott: Hit ‘Em wit da Hee
Missy Elliott took the raw edge of hip hop, which was reserved for male hip hop artists and brought it strong. She was powerful, aggressive, sexy and had some fire verses. Her unique delivery always kept you interested in what she was saying and her power on the mic was a strong statement for all women. I love Missy Elliott and she inspired countless women hip hop artists like Stallion, Lizzo, Doja Cat and Cadri B who are putting out powerful music today.