To look back through the history of music and pick out just ten iconic Black musicians is no easy undertaking. It appears that at the very heart of all of our most cherished musical genres and traditions there is an icon of Afro-Caribbean heritage. For my selections, I tried to cast my net as wide as possible to include the full spectrum of musical confectionery we’re lucky enough to have at our fingertips in the age of streaming platforms.
The decision within each genre I have singled out brought me a fresh challenge as I realised that so many of the founding figures of our musical traditions have come from multiple individuals of equal merit. For instance, in the realm of jazz, so many of the most important figureheads of the genre over the 20th century were of Black heritage, it would indeed be a disservice to this list if I were not to include a legend of jazz, and in choosing just one of them, I felt bad for those I left out.
In the blues again, I found myself in a difficult situation, the genre after all is intrinsically a construct of the African American communities of the USA, especially in the regions of the Mississippi Delta and Chicago. So many of the names that brought the blues to the world over the 19th and early 20th centuries are worthy of a mention here and their importance in influencing rock music over the latter 20th century up to the modern-day make them all the more vital as they stand proud in our memory.
So, in celebration of Black History Month, I reveal my selection for the ten most important and influential Black musicians of all time.
10 essential Black musicians:
Miles Davis was a prodigy of the trumpet from a young age, and set out to conquer his home state of Illinois and stumbled across the world while he was at it. His name has been immortalised in the history of jazz as one of the most innovative composers and has been credited with moving the jazz tradition into a wider expanse of subgenres that we now take for granted. Davis appeared to pick jazz up by the scruff of its neck and pulled it through the realms of jazz fusion and hard-bop. This became pivotal as jazz was subsequently introduced to other genres like rhythm and blues and gospel music. Had these musical gene pool mixings not occurred, we wouldn’t have many of our cherished popular artists who followed in the genre fusion footsteps including Steely Dan and King Crimson. Through the use of his trumpeting talents, Davis helped shape jazz into a smother and more emotional form of music that could be enjoyed more widely.
Of course, Davis wasn’t alone in his important role in jazz development; other worthy mentions could include the likes of Louis Armstrong or John Coltrane, but, for me, Miles Davis beats them to the mark, mostly due to his seminal album Kind of Blue from 1959. The album is the holy grail of jazz and I think it speaks volumes that it has gone down in history as one of the greatest albums of all time and is a staple of record collections the world over – even in collections of those who will insist they aren’t particularly fond of the genre.
The godfather of soul, James Brown, had an affable charm and spring to his personality that he could communicate so intensely through his music that we couldn’t help but “get up” and dance. As a performer, his energy could make even the darkest soul sport a smile for a little while.
His pioneering style of soul music saw the birth of funk; so not only can we thank James brown for a good time, but we can thank him for single-handedly inventing a new genre, without which, we wouldn’t have had the same energy in our early 1980s new-wave music, nor would we have had hip-hop as we know it today since the foundation for the earliest hip-hop music came directly from funk roots. Brown’s influence is so widespread that it is very rare to hear a pop song today that doesn’t hold some of the strands of his colourful DNA.
This list would feel itchingly incomplete without the inclusion of a master of pop music. Prince was the prince of pop for sure, but he was this and much more too. Like his contemporary star David Bowie, Prince was a restless chameleonic creative who was always ostensibly a chapter ahead of us all.
One minute he’s creating a seminal album and film production masterpiece in Purple Rain 1984, the next, he’s bored with his name and legally changing it to an unpronounceable symbol. His brilliant instrumental and compositional talents were often overshadowed by his vibrant and creative personality and flamboyant performances but were no less imperative in achieving his immortal legacy. His influence on pop music throughout the 1980s in the peak of his dominance, to this day, has been widely unparalleled.
The most prominent force in reggae by a country mile is, of course, Bob Marley. He grabbed the attention of the world bringing the reggae music of his home country, Jamaica, to a wider audience throughout the 1960s and ‘70s. With his band, The Wailers, he created some of the most emotive and peace-bringing music to our hearts. The music has an unstoppable groove to it that you can dance to just as easily as you can chill out to.
Beyond the groovy basslines is often a poignant message whether it’s a bid for world peace (‘War’) or documenting important wrongdoings of history (‘Buffalo Soldier’). Much of Marley’s music campaigns for love as a means of ousting hate and conflict from the world and has brought the Rastafarian message of “One Love” to the world. For bringing one of the most widely enjoyed genres into the mainstream and filling people with love and happiness, Bob Marley truly earned his place on this list.
One of the greatest gifts to modern music, especially rock, was the blues. Muddy Waters embodies the blues roots that we look back to when we hear the genre mentioned. His style is synonymous with the Chicago Blues and he has earned his position in history as The Father Of Modern Chicago Blues.
While there are a few other very worthy contenders in the likes of B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, in my opinion, has had more of a powerful influence on rock ‘n’ roll over the latter half of the 20th century and beyond. Waters has been cited by the likes of Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC as a formative influence, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Finally, I couldn’t leave this section without mentioning perhaps Waters’ keenest disciples The Rolling Stones, who even named themselves after Waters’ 1950 track ‘Rollin’ Stone’.
Watch Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones join their hero on stage in the video below.
The origin of rap music is disputed, some look as far back as Bob Dylan and argue that his quick, high words-per-minute deliveries on tracks like ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ or ‘It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)’, serve as an early foundation for the genre. However, a lot of people will say it had its birth in the late 1970s as an excursion from funk with artists like The Sugarhill Gang and their landmark hit ‘Rapper’s Delight’. Wherever rap originated, it appeared to hit its pinnacle when Andre Romelle Young (AKA Dr. Dre) hit the scene.
He started out as a member of one of the most influential rap groups of all time, N.W.A; the group became a leading figure in speaking out about the issues of racism and Black stereotypes in the USA in the late 1980s and ‘90s and highlighted the systematic racism within the law enforcement authorities of the nation. Following his work with N.W.A, Dr. Dre has become one of the most renowned beatmakers and producers in the field; he has made his mark as a creative mentor having worked with some of the biggest names in rap, including Eminem and Snoop Dogg. No other has done so much to bring rap into mainstream consciousness as a prominent art form than Dr. Dre.
Marvin Gaye is without a doubt one of the most important icons of the rhythm and blues arena. His musical and creative talents are obvious throughout his discography and put him in a class of his own. But what pushes Gaye to the very top of the mountain, is his ability to take serious matters and present them in such an effortlessly suave delivery that meets the ear and sticks with you for a lifetime. In his 1971 masterpiece album What’s Going On, he released one of the finest albums of all time. The work is a touch of genius made timeless with its coverage of a spectrum of poignant subjects from the Vietnam War (‘What’s Going On’ and ‘What’s Happening Brother?’) to the systematic racism in society, which is sadly still such a relevant topic to this day (‘Inner City Blues’).
Gaye’s influence has been incalculable over the past 50 years across such a vast span of musical genres, with countless artists naming his work as a direct influence. Many of these have been hip-hop artists who often cite Gaye as a key creative guide, if not in style, in his talent for songwriting that so gracefully speaks out on important social and political issues.
If James Brown was the Godfather of Soul, then Aretha Franklin was without a doubt the Queen, as she is often titled. With timeless hits like ‘Respect’, ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ and ‘I Say A Little Prayer’, and seminal albums such as Lady Soul and I Never Loved A Man The Way I Loved You, it’s difficult to deny that she was among the greatest singers of her generation. Her songwriting skills and emphatic delivery were a force to be reckoned with. At moments in her career, she was untouchable in the charts with an impressive 88 charting hits between 1955 and 2012, more than any other female singer during that period.
She was something of a pioneer in her area of music too with her successful marriage of gospel – that she had taken from visiting the church in her youth – and soul. Her position in history is immortalised by her far-stretching influence on popular music. It was her music that would inspire David Bowie to take a turn towards soul music in his Young Americans album in 1985, and more recently, Ariana Grande has cited her as a key influence and even paid her respects by performing at Franklin’s funeral in 2018.
Little Richard’s work marked one of the most important turning points in music history. In the earlier half of the 20th century, it was common for different ethnic groups to stick mainly to music produced by people of their background; this, of course, makes sense in some ways, the cultural significance of a song may be harder to relate to if your experience of the world has been largely different. However, when Little Richard stepped onto the consciousness of the American populace with the release of his hit ‘Tutti Frutti’, the song appeared to be one of the earliest songs by a Black artist to transcend racial barriers and achieve mainstream success with white American audiences as well as achieving widespread global acclaim.
Little Richard’s influence has been extremely widespread and his music remains relevant to this day. His pioneering style and delivery would foreshadow the pop music that followed in the 1960s. In the late 1950s, a young Bob Dylan would be inspired by Little Richard to form his first band, The Golden Chords, in which he would stand at the piano and sing emphatically, just like his icon, in attempts to woo the girls in his class. The icon also had a profound effect on The Beatles, with Lennon once citing him as one of the best musicians of all time and Paul McCartney, infatuated with Little Richard’s vocal range, had tried to impersonate his style during many of his performances. I could go on, but with a huge direct influence on the Lennon and McCartney songwriting partnership and Bob Dylan – who won a Nobel Prize for literature in 2016 – I feel I need not waste your time.
There are few names in rock ‘n’ roll more iconic than Jimi Hendrix. The extraordinarily gifted guitarist shaped rock music from the 1950s and early ‘60s rhythm and blues style championed by Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley, into his own heavier style that was unprecedented. Not only was Hendrix a true pioneer, but he is widely labelled as the greatest guitarist of all time.
Some will contend with this statement, claiming that this person was more smooth or that person was faster up the fretboard and so on. However, by the greatest guitarist, I include the aspect of influence as well. Nobody has come close to equalling Hendrix’s imagination emboldening influence on so many aspiring rock guitarists over the years following his untimely death; with his unique improvised style, Hendrix somehow brought the guitar to life as it ultimately became a psychedelic extension of his vocal cords.
As a Black icon in music, Hendrix presented a tolerant and bold public image that appeared to mask who he was behind closed doors. It has been revealed on a number of occasions that Hendrix was a very humble, shy and affable man under the surface. Yet, his public persona enraptured the world and he astonishingly recorded a body of work during his mid-20s in just three years that would ultimately change music forever. I just wonder how much more he could have done had he not been so cruelly taken from us at such a young age.