Black Artist Spotlight

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In celebration of Black History Month, our team of writers play tribute to some of our favourite musicians.

Beyoncé by Ed Barnes

By this point, it would be hard not to argue that Beyoncé is one of the most influential black artists in history with a career that spans more than twenty years. Despite not having released a full solo album for three and a half years, she’s hardly stopped working. Since Lemonade and the release of ‘Formation’, the Queen Bey has continued to root her work in the traditions of Black Feminist thought referencing the likes of Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, Malcolm X and Audre Lorde. 

Having dropped a Netflix film in April about her ground-breaking Coachella performance that brought African American culture to the White, upper-class crowds of the Californian festival, she released a curated album two months later alongside Disney’s Lion King remake that featured collaborative work from African artists and producers. ‘Brown Skin Girl’ that spurred an internet challenge, sung with Blue Ivy, SAINt JHN and WizKid, seeks to celebrate all things melanin. Lines like “your skin is not only dark, it shines and it tells your story” challenge dangerous narratives of colourism and illustrate how Beyoncé’s position as a powerful and influential Black woman puts her in a position to critique mainstream pop cultural spaces.

Track recommendation: Formation

Abdullah Ibrahim by Robbie McGrail

Abdullah Ibrahim’s music has endless joys within it. He spans genres from traditional bebop with the likes of his early band The Jazz Epistles, to Cape Jazz, a branch of jazz that Ibrahim and other South African musicians like Hugh Masekela and Basil Coetzee were rooted in. There’s so much variety in his music to recommend, but in particular I’d suggest his album Water from an Ancient Well, with tracks like ‘Mandela’ and ‘Mannenberg Revisited’ — the latter being a cherished anti-Apartheid anthem. Echoes from Africa is another fantastic album which is meditative and rooted in his Islamic faith (Ibrahim converted to Islam in the late 1960s). The song ‘Zikr’, I would recommend in particular. He’s one of those artists whose albums I can never tire of.

Track recommendation: Mannenberg Revisited

Alice Coltrane by Robbie McGrail

Alice Coltrane was one of the central figures in spiritual jazz from the 1960s onwards.  Journey in Satchidananda is a personal favourite album of mine, featuring Pharaoh Sanders and with a track dedicated to her late husband, John Coltrane. Alice and John became fascinated by Hinduism in their later years and dedicated a lot of music towards the religion‘s spirituality (a particularly great one from Alice is the album Radha Krsna Nama Sankirtana). Alice Coltrane is also a rarity in her choice of the harp, as well as the piano, in her music, which is fairly rare for jazz. The harp works so well in bringing a new spin to the genre that Dorothy Ashby has also contributed to. 

Track recommendation: Blue Nile

Bakar by Fern McErlane

Contemporary Camden artist Bakar’s sound is hard to describe, if only due to its variety. He veers from romantic odes to aggressive rhymes and back, with every track almost completely different in tone.

The staple of his music is an odd-sounding combination of lethargic rap and lyricism over trap-style beats and noodley electric guitar. This originality shines through on tracks such as ‘Dracula’, a guitar-heavy roar of energy that shines through in live performance (though hearing it on Spotify is just as good).

Bakar’s sound has become distinctly softer recently, however. The recently released EP Will You Be My Yellow? ruminates on relationships, and new single ‘Hell N Back’ adopts a more innocuous tone with Bakar crooning about love and loneliness over groovier sounds.

Track recommendation: Something I Said

Childish Gambino by Jessica McCarrick

Image Credit: tinymixtapes.com

Known for his fluidity between all sub genres of entertainment, Childish Gambino – real name Donald Glover – continues to push the boundaries in every aspect of his work. Having helped the resurgence of mainstream soul with his latest work, as well as commenting on the political climate in America, he carefully cultivates a variety of sound that has grown with him as an artist. This multifaceted man proves you can do it all: music started from the depths of rap to a more nuanced sound with a funk inspired twist. Glover continues to impress with his dedication to the arts. 

Track recommendation: Heartbeat

Dev Hynes by Queenie Qureshi-Wales

What would 2010 indie pop or my teenage years have sounded like without Dev Hynes?! Under the moniker Blood Orange, he’s created and produced some of the funkiest, smoothest and saddest tunes of the last 10 years. He’s responsible for not just four of his own wonderful albums but also an original motion picture soundtrack for Gia Coppola’s debut and the production of two of the most exciting pop records of late: Solange’s True EP and Sky Ferreira’s single ‘Everything is Embarrassing’. His distinctive production style is filled with spacey yet sticky synths that are perfect on both the dancefloor and in your bedroom. Paired with his yearning falsetto, they’re a romantic escape or an indulgence in heartbreak, depending on your mood. He‘s truly one of the most distinctive and defining producers in pop.

Track recommendation: Sutphin Boulevard

Donna Summer by Alex Gibbon 

Glitter, flares, platform shoes and excessive decadence – the era of disco was one that thrived on the doctrine of ‘more is more’. Therefore, it’s fitting that, as arguably THE biggest voice of the 70s, Donna Summer is remembered as the emblematic embodiment of an epoch of such pure unadulterated joy. With output ranging from the hypnotic pulsations of “I Feel Love”, often considered the very start of electronic dance music, to epic classically-tinged “MacArthur Park”, Summer’s formidable back catalogue of hits never fails to invigorate a dancefloor.

Track recommendation: Bad Girls

FKA Twigs by Ishmael Silvestro

Since releasing her first EP and its surreal accompanying music videos in 2012, FKA twigs has always been a woman to watch. Her music pairs skeletal beats and perfect harmonies, her lyrics painful and aching, her visuals a blurred distortion of the sexual, horrific and ethereal. Twigs is a polymath – a musician, singer, dancer, dancer, visual artist, producer, director, and it’s captivating to watch her perform.

Track recommendation: Two Weeks

Frank Ocean by Ishmael Silvestro

Image Credit: High Snobiety

R&B shapeshifter, modern poet, queer icon – it is hard to express Frank Ocean’s significance to the world of music today. Elusive, mysterious and completely in control of his career, everything he turns his hand to comes out fully formed, from Kanye West features to stunning full-length albums. Most recently, the foreword he wrote for the companion book to Moonlight is something beautiful to behold. The world eagerly awaits his next move, whenever he chooses that to be.

Track recommendation: Nights

Grace Jones by Alex Gibbon

As the OG pioneer of BDE, this list would be all the worse off without a mention of the fiercely enthralling artistry of Grace Jones. Her trailblazing body of work defies the boundaries of genre and fuses conceptual visual art with infectious grooves and electrifying club music; such feats that could only be accomplished by a true genius. However, it seems that Jones’ blend of raw feminine power with masculine edge is what most makes her stand out as a force to be reckoned with in public consciousness with her androgynous image being a clear point of reference for many of the stars of today.

Recommended track: Slave To The Rhythm

Kelela by Safi Bugel

Queen of cool Kelela beautifully welds pop-y and crunchy synths to create futuristic R&B. Working with a formidable list of collaborators (Kaytranda, LSDXOXO, Bok Bok etc.), Kelela drapes her silky-smooth vocals around a range of upbeat dance cuts and slinky slow-burners. Her discography seamlessly spans mood and flirts with different BPMs, from the 2013 chuggy number Guns & Synths to the slower, more ethereal Cherry Coffee that closes the same mixtape. Kelela’s most recent album Take Me Apart (2017) is also pretty dreamy, adding to her back catalogue of emotion-heavy bangers.

Track recommendation: Keep it Cool (Prod. Jam City)

Lizzo by Neive McCarthy

Image Credit: Lizzo

Queen of self-love, Lizzo is one of the most unwaveringly positive figures in the music industry. The release of her breakthrough album Cuz I Love You earlier this year plunged Lizzo into both the limelight and the hearts of everyone. Her catalogue of empowerment anthems are incredibly important and beloved, as well as intensely catchy. With the voice of an angel, Lizzo also happens to be unbelievably multi-talented (her skills on the flute are incomparable). This, combined with the way in which she has pioneered body positivity, leaves no room for doubt: Lizzo is a complete and utter legend.

Track recommendation: Soulmate

Michael Kiwanuka by Ed Barnes

You might know Kiwanuka for his haunting voice that accompanies shots of the California coastline in the opening credits of the hit show Big Little Lies. Growing up in London as the son of two Ugandan immigrants, Kiwanuka draws on the genres of jazz, blues and soul in his music, unafraid to go the radio-unfriendly route by opening his debut album Love and Hate with the haunting five-minute instrumental of ‘Cold Little Heart’. Songs like ‘Black Man In A White World’ use a minimalist rhythmic production, gospel and repetition to link Kiwanuka’s experience as a black man in modern-day Britain with the slave songs of the past.

Track recommendation: Cold Little Heart

Nneka by Hollie Griss

“Half cast, half black, half white, for fuck’s sake I’m Nigerian” – Nneka’s frustration with modern perceptions on race and identity lie at the forefront of her music amid her neo-soul beats. Born in Nigeria and based in Germany, the songstress battles ethnic, political and social issues through the medium of afrobeat, reggae and unforgiving soulful vocals. A decade on from perhaps her most defining album, No Longer At Ease, its social commentary still resonates all too heavily, and it is testament to the power and genius of Nneka’s song-writing. 

Track recommendation: Suffri

Prince by Safi Bugel

The late, great Prince provides the perfect soundtrack to any good party, with his extensive back catalogue of hits, in which sex appeal and sharp wit collide in full force. From the karaoke-classic slow-burner ‘Purple Rain’ to the cheeky pop banger ‘Kiss’ there‘s something for every occasion. Campy, slick and smoking hot!

Track recommendation: Raspberry Beret

Sister Nancy by Alex Gibbon

No tribute to the culture of black music would be complete without a nod to dancehall and reggae and who better to honour than the queen of the genre herself: the incomparable Sister Nancy. Undoubtedly best-known for her iconic single “Bam Bam”, the most-sampled track of all time and always guaranteed to evoke a rousing from any crowd, it is the hidden gems from her seminal 1982 album “One Two” the deserve a special mention. From the aplomb-laden “Ain’t No Stopping Nancy Now” to the powerful youth anthem of “Gwan A School”, Sister Nancy continues to be one of the most influential figures in Caribbean music and will forever be a legend.

Track recommendation: Gwan A School

Tricky by Liam Cattermole

Through a ground-breaking debut album, ex-Massive Attack member Tricky managed to represent what it was like to be British in the late 80s and early 90s. His entire philosophy bound the ethnic diversity of England together, with his music exploring sound-system culture, hip-hop and post-punk, to articulate a sound completely intrinsic to him, as well as the DNA of the UK. Despite hip-hop’s hyper-macho nature, the Bristolian musician continued to disrupt stereotype by posing in wedding dresses and unapologetically wearing make up;  just check out the video for ‘Hell Is Round The Corner’. The man really is a true original.

Track recommendation: Overcome

Tyler, the Creator by Neive McCarthy

With a solid six albums under his belt, all fantastic in their own right, Tyler, the Creator is inarguably one of the most influential artists of our time. Regarding and worshipping music as an artform, Tyler continues to stun and shock with every release. Odd Future, and especially Tyler, have shaped the current rap landscape, and it is commendable. Innovative, impulsive and unpredictable, everything Tyler, the Creator touches is gold, solidifying him as one of the most integral artists around right now as he continues to push the boundaries of rap as well as venture into a multitude of other impressive avenues.

Track recommendation: What‘s Good

Header Image Credit: Beyoncé