To mark October’s Black History Month, we have collated a selection of our favourite black artists throughout popular music history. From Beyonce and James Brown to Aretha Franklin and Stormzy, listen to our top tracks that’ll set your weekend off on a high. Happy Listening!
Halo – Beyonce
Queen B, Sasha Fierce, Mothe, no matter what you call her, Beyonce Giselle Knowles is recognised globally as a cultural icon. One of the most successful recording artists of all time, she is a role model to millions around the world, but despite the trappings of her life and her carefully crafted image as a strong woman, even Beyonce’s realises she relies on help to get her through, which she displays in her powerful ballad Halo. The track explores how behind the scenes, no woman is an island – a truly uplifting song, this is one to put on when you need a pick me up.
Strange Fruit – Billie Holiday
Though July this year marks sixty years since Billie Holiday died, she remains a household name. Recorded in 1939, one of her most famous songs, Strange Fruit, a soulful jazz track, was first written as a poem. Decades before the Civil Rights Movement in America, Holiday recorded this as a way of protesting the increase in racist attacks and lynching that were plaguing the South at the time. A sombre song, with powerful lyrics and Holiday’s moving vocals, Strange Fruit has remained an important reminder of the racial inequality that still exists throughout the USA.
Three Little Birds – Bob Marley
Gone almost 40 years, Bob Marley remains to this day arguably Jamaica’s most famous export, and Three Little Birds one of his most celebrated songs. The origins of the track are disputed, some say that it was inspired by some literal birds that would fly past his house, while others maintain that it was written as a tribute to some of his friends of his who sang as the group I Threes. Either way, Three Little Birds encapsulates everything that Marley continues to be known for – catchy reggae instrumentals, unforgettable lyrics and an uplifting message – ‘don’t worry ‘bout a thing, ‘cos every little thing’s gonna be alright.’
Keep Ya Head Up – 2Pac
Until his untimely death, Tupac ‘2Pac’ Shakur was a leading figure of the Hip Hop movement that arose in America in the early 1990s. However, to this day he is still lauded as one of the best and most important figures to have ever recorded. Throughout his discography his lyrics touch on many themes, but his overall message was one of empowering the black communities oppressed throughout America and is perfectly encapsulated in his deceptively upbeat sounding song Keep Ya Head Up. Written as a tribute to black women everywhere, and dedicated to murdered schoolgirl Latasha Harlins, Keep Ya Head Up samples the beat from Be Alright and uses the extremely apt O-o-h Child’s chorus.
I Got You (I Feel Good) – James Brown
James Brown was truly unique. His live performances were incredible, well worth a trip over to YouTube to check them out. Not only did he possess one of the best voices to ever grace the stage, his dance moves were unparalleled. Nicknamed the Godfather of Soul, Brown revolutionised the genre. Starting with infamous scream, his most famous song, I Got You (I Feel Good), the song remains in circulation because of its dual appeal of being perfect for adverts, but also because it’s just a damn good song. It almost feels as though writing about this track can only do it a disservice, it’s a real feel good song that deserves to be put on often and on repeat.
Shut Up – Stormzy
By far the youngest artist on this list, Stormzy’s rise to fame has been monumental. Growing up in South London, the grime artist’s songs are known for their catchy hooks, and none more so than Shut Up, his breakout song. Though it hasn’t made the cultural impact or possess the uplifting spirit of many of the other songs on the list, Shut Up has become an anthem of our times. But while the lyrics in his songs may not always be empowering, Stormzy dedicates his life outside of music to making a better life for black, British youth, most notably with his Stormzy Scholarships which help kids from less advantaged backgrounds enter Cambridge. Stormzy’s only really starting his career, and doubtless in the years to come he will continue to make an indelible mark on Britain and the world.
Relentless – Funky DL feat. KLASHNEKOFF
This collaboration between the legendary artist Funky DL and KLASHNEKOFF, Relentless, explores the difficulties the two rappers overcame to reach the success they’ve achieved. From humble beginnings, the track chronicles how both artists worked tirelessly to sign their well deserved recording contracts and enjoy long careers. Both artists recently visited ACM to deliver a spectacular masterclass for Black History Month to discuss the best ways young artists can get their music careers started.
Respect – Aretha Franklin
Originally recorded in 1965 by Otis Redding, Respect has since become most well known as the signature song of the legendary Aretha Franklin. Franklin made the song her own, adding in the ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T’ and ‘sock it to me’ chorus for which the song is most commonly remembered. An anthem for every strong, confident woman who realises she doesn’t need to change, that she demands respect for being who she is, this song has stood the test of time over the last half century and will be sampled and kept on compilations and playlists for decades to come.