Black people have made major contributions to the evolution of music. Pioneers like Chuck Berry and modern legends like Michael Jackson have shifted the scope of musical development. From rock and roll to RnB, Black artists have dipped their toes in all genres. To Black people, music holds a complex history. For us, music is a way to tell stories, convey messages, and celebrate life. For Black History Month, we have put together a playlist of 50 songs from Black legends of the past and present. This list is diverse, containing popular and lesser-known Black artists from rock and roll, pop, RnB, Afro-pop, reggae, funk, soca, hip-hop, rap, classical, and soul.
Narrowing down this playlist to just 50 songs was extremely difficult. If you have any recommendations for songs to add, comment your picks on this post below, or tweet your suggestion to @SeriesMelanin on Twitter. We’ll add your picks to the playlist!
Here are our Top 10 picks from our playlist: The Melanin Series Presents Black History Month 2020
10. The Revolution Will Not Be Televised – Gil Scott-Heron
Genre: Spoken word, Poetry
This pick is different from the other songs on our playlist. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is a piece of spoken word that was released to the world in the 1960s at the height of the civil rights movement. During this time, mass media was becoming popularized. For the first time with technology, families had autonomy over the information they could absorb. In short, if they did not want to hear about a certain topic, they could easily avoid it by changing the channel.
Gil Scott-Heron says “the revolution will not be televised” to allude to this shift in technology and information. He says this to say that you cannot stop the revolution, or turn off the revolution, or change the revolution like you would a channel on the television. To sum up, the revolution is here and there is nothing to change this fact. Unlike many of the other things you see on the television, the revolution is not so easily avoidable. Gil says that the true revolution begins in places that you are unable to see with your eyes.
Throughout the poem, Gil makes references to mass media. He references commercials, products, and popular television programs. He compares the intake of mass media to drug addiction, saying that people mindlessly absorb things that may not be good for them. This argument is very relevant today. People are deeply influenced by media in all its forms. For example, in news media, people often choose to believe the representations of Black people without analyzes or criticizing the context or content of the situation.
“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is critical to modern-day pop culture. The poem has been referenced by many contemporary artists including Common and Lupe Fiasco.
9. Berhana – Golden
Genre: Soul, R&B, Funk, Jazz
We have to place a disclaimer on the genres that we used to identify “Golden” because Berhana’s debut album “HAN” is extremely variegated. This song, and the other 13 songs on “HAN,” are a blend of various genres. In an interview with The Atlantic, Berhana says that “HAN” was inspired by Japanese funk. “Golden,” in particular, was influenced by “Neuromantic”, a 1981 album by Japanese artist Yukihiro Takahashi.
Berhana is a lesser-known artist but he is being highly praised for his creativity in the studio. “HAN” fearlessly bends genres; however, despite its authenticity, Berhana is still being labelled as just an R&B or rap artist. In his interview with The Atlantic, Berhana accredits this identification to his appearance saying:
“Everybody’s called my music either rap or R&B, and I get it… I’m a black guy making music, so that’s just what you wanna say, and I’ve seen it happen to artists forever.”Berhana
He aims to stretch the limits of what he is capable of doing by creating music that people enjoy, rather than what people expect him to make. Berhana fulfills this goal clearly on”Golden”. He uses different voice textures and sounds, moving from heavy bass to an acoustic guitar. You can listen to this song while chilling in a lounge or driving towards the sunset on a hot summer evening. There is so much versatility in his music. We think we will be hearing a lot more from Berhana in the future.
8. I Am Not My Hair – India.Arie feat. Akon
Genre: R&B, Soul
Four-time Grammy-winning R&B, neo-soul, and pop artist India.Arie lays all cards on the table in “I Am Not My Hair”. In this song, she and Akon talk about featurism, an issue that deeply affects Black people around the globe today. The song is told from the perspective of a naturalist man and woman. Throughout the song, both artists describe their hair journeys. They both embrace their natural hair with love; however, they also experience a struggle. Both narrate the judgement that they have received about their natural hair from the world around them. The song essentially tells the world not to judge people because of their hair, but rather, for who they are on the inside.
It is no secret that Eurocentric features are celebrated more than Afrocentric. Kinky and curly hair is politicized. Shorter hair and tighter curls are disapproved of because they are generally viewed as being ugly and are historically representative of poor character. Afrocentric features stray so far away from the standard of beauty which is Eurocentrism. Most Black people do not naturally have Eurocentric features, like long, straight hair, which makes it harder for them to be accepted and assimilate into the mainstream. Even assimilation in the simplest ways, like getting a job, for example, is difficult for people with Afrocentric features. India and Akon do an excellent job on this track to highlight anti-Blackness and featurism in such an honest and beautiful way.
7. Is This Love – Bob Marley & The Wailers
Bob Marley is considered to be one of the biggest pioneers in reggae music; however, he has inspired artists from various genres ranging from rock to deep house. What makes Marley’s music so unique is the fact that he is one of the first artists to blend reggae with ska and rocksteady. This production gave listeners a smooth and light sound to listen to. Moreso, Bob is also known as an icon who used his platform to link Jamaica to the world with messages of peace, politics, and positivity.
“Is This Love” is one of Marley’s best-known songs; however, it is often overshadowed by some of his bigger hits like “One Love” and “Three Little Birds”. This song talks about a strong and mature love between Bob and his wife, Rita, which is very appropriate in the wake of Valentine’s season. The song also displays a soft yet powerful image of Black love, something that is not commonly discussed without bold images of sexuality in modern music. The song talks about more than the physical attraction, but also the commitment that comes along with being in a relationship with the one you love. At the time that “Is This Love” came out, not many reggae artists were talking about romance and love with the passion, romanticism, and maturity that Bob had.
6. Stereotypes – Black Violin
Genre: Classical, Hip-Hop
These classical musicians are breaking down barriers between the Black community and classical music. Black Violin is comprised of violinist Kevin Sylvester and violist Wilner Baptiste. The Floridian duo combines their classical training with their love for hip-hop to create a subgenre that many describe as “classical boom“.
As the name of their song suggests, Black Violin is using their platform to redefine ideas of what a classical musician looks like. The duo says that there are a lot of stereotypes in culture concerning who a classical musician can be. These stereotypes also parade Black culture. Black people who listen to classical music are sometimes excluded from mainstream social environments because classical music is not seen as being “Black enough”. Black Violin is refining stereotypes about classical musicians and ideologies of Blackness. By combining the striking style of hip-hop with the sophistication of classical music, Black Violin is creating a new genre of music full of finesse and swagger.
5. Brenda’s Got A Baby – 2Pac
Genre: Rap, Hip-Hop
2Pac was rapping about things in 1991, that many people are afraid to talk about in 2020. Many consider “Brenda’s Got A Baby” to be a classic in hip-hop history. Here is what 2Pac said about the song in an interview with the New Yorker:
“Tupac said he had written the song after reading a newspaper story about a twelve-year-old girl who became impregnated by her cousin and threw her newborn baby down an incinerator. Asked by his lawyer whether he considered the song a political statement, Tupac said, “Yes….When this song came out, no male rappers at all anywhere were talking about problems that females were having, number one. Number two, it talked about child molestation, it talked about families taking advantages of families, it talked about the effects of poverty, it talked about how one person’s problems can affect a whole community of people. It talked about how the innocent are the ones that get hurt. It talked about drugs, the abuse of drugs, broken families…how she couldn’t leave the baby, you know, the bond that a mother has with her baby and how…women need to be able to make a choice.”2Pac,
In the short 3 minutes and 53 seconds that 2Pac raps, he addresses molestation, youth pregnancy, drug abuse, prostitution, and murder.
The reality is that many of the things 2Pac rapped about on this track do regularly occur in low-income, Black communities. Moreover, 2Pac is right; even though these issues may seem personal, they affect entire communities. The suffering that one person experiences can affect others through second-hand trauma or intergenerational trauma. Research shows that systemic racism in governmental policies and practices prompts the crime that occurs in low-income communities; however, through outreach, we can help youth who are victims of assault and other forms of crime. We should hear 2Pac’s message of love and try to help kids like “Brenda” before its too late.
4. Soca Storm – Mr. Killa
Mr. Killa took the world by storm in 2019 with his high-energy single “Run Wid It”. The famous track gave Killa the title as champion at the International Power Soca competition the same year it was released. Even pop icons like Drake and Major Lazer shared the tune with their following. In fact, Major Lazer liked the song so much that they decided to team up with Mr. Killa for “Soca Storm”. Together, along with Diplo, the trio wrote and produced “Soca Storm” for Killa so that he could defend his title as Soca Monarch.
Mr. Killa is an internationally recognized soca star. His unique sound consists of blending Western sounds, such as EDM, with other Caribbean-based sounds, like dancehall, all while sticking to his soca roots. This inventiveness has connected the world to soca music, with Killa having fans in Canada, Russia, and even Korea. He is using his fame to unite communities across the world. He describes soca as a “medicine” to release yourself from the pain and suffering that you experience in life and hopes that fans will feel free while listening to his music.
3. Gum Body – Burna Boy and Jorja Smith
Genre: Afropop, Pop
Burna Boy is one of the fastest rising African artists in the world today. His unique sound and ability to blend dancehall, reggae, R&B and other genres into traditional Afropop music have rendered him one of the most innovative artists in the world today.
“Gum Body” is fresh off Burna’s Grammy-nominated album, “African Giant”. The sensual track features soulful vocals from UK pop/R&B singer Jorja Smith, who is easily one of the most slept-on R&B artists in the world. Her smooth, jazz-tinted voice provides “Gum Body” a contemporary sound unlike most Afropop songs today. What makes this track unique is the instruments used on the track. The beat is comprised of hand percussion and saxophones, which is a distinct sound for Afropop. Burna’s use of Nigerian Pidgin, which pays homage to the artist’s roots, is also refreshing to hear in combination with the English lyrics.
2. Kiss – Prince
Genre: Pop, Funk, R&B, Rock
“Kiss” is an undisputed hit. You don’t even have to be a mega Prince fan to know the song. Prince is a cultural icon for Black people and he has solidified his spot as a historical Black icon. From the way that he walked to the way that he dressed, Prince is known for his boldness and ingenuity. How many people do you know are creative enough to change their name to a symbol?
Prince’s creativity in music is a huge part of his legacy. He is known as one of the most influential artists in popular music with his ability to blend multiple genres in his songs. “Kiss” was released in 1986. On the track, Prince plays all of the three instruments that are used to make the song. There is a sense of simplicity in the production of the song; however, the advanced sound that was created using such few instruments truly emphasizes Prince’s musical genius.
1. Black Habits I – D Smoke feat. Jackie Gouche
Genre: Rap, Hip-Hop
If you have seen “Rhythm & Flow” on Netflix, then you are familiar with Inglewood native, Daniel Anthony Farris, also known as D Smoke. The reigning champion released his first album, “Black Habits,” on February 7, 2020, with “Black Habits I” as the latest single. The bonafide hit tells a story of the struggles of Blackness while celebrating everything that Blackness is. The music video illustrates Smoke’s narrative by setting us on a plantation owned by a white family overseeing their slaves. Throughout the track, D Smoke spits out his take on the Black struggle while giving his listeners advice for overcoming their obstacles. Finally, the end of the music video brings us full circle with Smoke buying the mansion that his enslaved ancestors used to work in.
Throughout the song, Smoke pays homage to the Black legends who paved the way for him to grace the mic. He raps:
Rapidly, happily, I look back on Afeni Shakur/ Her son paved the way, now all eyes on me/ ‘Cause I’m young, black and gifted, Nina, all eyes gon’ see
“Black Habits I” speaks to many of the things that are incorporated in Black culture, from spirituality to Black creativity.
One of the song’s major themes is intergenerational Black advancement (otherwise known as “the come up”). In the video, Smoke goes from riding a horse to cruising in his vehicle at night. He adorns himself in gold, in contrast to his ancestors who probably had to mine for it. Smoke encourages his brothers and sisters to reclaim the power embedded in Blackness and Black history.
What also makes this song emblematic is that Smoke uses his bilingualism to rap to some of his Spanish speaking brothers and sisters as well. These few bars are representative of the elements of diversity and community that are important to Black culture while highlighting another one of Smoke’s many talents.
When D Smoke said “Every time they hear this, they gon’ say he made an anthem,” he wasn’t lying. This song speaks to Black people all around the globe. Don’t sleep on Smoke.
Have any songs that you think we should add?
Comment your favorites below!