Tunes of the Times: The Diversity of African-American Music

11:27 June 21, 2016
By: Daja Henry

In honor of President Obama’s recent declaration of June as African-American Music Appreciation Month, I really wanted to do a piece on African-American music. However, I simply could not come up with an angle. For weeks, it troubled me. And then I realized why I was having so much trouble. African-American music is such a broad topic; there’s so much to talk about because it’s so diverse. 

The diversity of African-American music is often overlooked. Drake seems to be the face of the culture, but it’s simply not accurate. We’re more than just the traditional hip-hopping gangsta rappers, club bangers, and bedroom music. African-Americans have roots in just about every genre of music, whether created, participated, or appropriated (see Big Mama Thornton’s original “Hound Dog,” made popular by Elvis Presley).

The diversity of African-American music speaks to the resilience of the people. Like musician Nina Simone said, the art reflects the times. From the time African-Americans became African-Americans, they were faced with hardships that were always reflected in song. There was music in the times of slavery, when Negro spirituals were used to ease life’s everyday pains and communicate undercover plans of escape. In the civil rights era, protesters sang hymns like “We Shall Overcome” and soulful singers released commentaries on what was happening, like Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” and “Old Jim Crow”. Now, we have conscious rappers like Kendrick Lamar, the lean-infused sounds of Future, R&B and pop superstar Beyonce, and so many more. 

Like President Obama said, African-American music is “among the most innovative and powerful art the world has ever known.” Here are a few not-so-typical African-American artists.

1. Leon Bridges

Inspired by the likes of Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, and Otis Redding, Leon Bridges’ debut album, “Coming Home” gives the nostalgic vibe of a ‘60’s soul record. 

His music is reminiscent of stolen kisses, daisies, and weekend visits to grandma’s house.

Though his focus is ‘60’s soul, that was extremely important to the African-American world at the time, you wouldn’t be able to tell by his audience. Bridges attracts mostly white audiences, perhaps because of his vintage clothing and his music’s more upbeat tone than that of the ‘60’s, which makes him popular in the circles of those who read indie blogs.


2. Alabama Shakes

The spotlight has been placed on Alabama Shakes more and more recently. Black Twitter noticed them at the Grammy’s. Attention was called to them a second time when Drake acknowledged that they were on his playlist in an interview with Zane Lowe. 

Lead singer Brittany Howard says she was influenced by Elvis Presley and Motown Records and it is all but evident in the gritty blues rock sounds Alabama Shakes produces.


3. Mickey Guyton

In the past, if you asked me to name a black country singer (other than Darius Rucker, of course), you’d probably just get a dirty look. In a genre described in the Washington Post as the “soul music” of white, working-class Americans, country singer Mickey Guyton brings a new look.

Guyton is not the first African-American woman to try the genre and is actually staying true to the genre more so than many of her white male counterparts, who have taken to incorporating elements of Hip-Hop and EDM. Her traditional Nashville sound features acoustic guitar and real instruments, rather than synthetic beats and drum machines that the music world is beginning to gravitate to. Her girl-next-door look, coupled with her rich sound makes her debut single undeniable.  


4. Mali Music

Recently, the lines between Gospel music and contemporary music like hip-hop and R&B are becoming blurred. With Chance the Rapper’s gospel-infused “Coloring Book” and Kirk Franklin’s appearance on Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam,” the line is soon to become nonexistent.

Mali Music straddles that line perfectly. Though he has more gospel under his belt, he’s not your grandma’s choir. His music is very contemporary, implementing elements of pop, R&B, and hip-hop. His contribution to the movie Chiraq is one of my personal favorites. 


5. Anderson .Paak

In keeping with the trend of converging genres, Anderson .Paak is singer/rapper, sometimes dabbling in pop. 

His music reflects a life full of vastly different experiences, from being broke and selling weed to pay for his wife’s visa, to not having a father, to his first time in a church.

With musical inspirations ranging from Frankie Beverly and Maze and Stevie Wonder to Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre, and of course the Black church, which is an incubator for Black talent, .Paak’s sound is very distinct. 


6. Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah

Though his music has no lyrics, jazz musician and New Orleans’ own, Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah’s music speaks volumes.

Jazz music is often forgotten, though it laid a foundation for many musicians. Christian Scott is one of few young musicians still in the genre that birthed a multitude of the genres we listen to today. He is an innovator of twenty-first-century jazz and proof of that jazz is still evolving.

His song Ku Klux Klan Police Department (KKPD) reflects a story of an encounter he had with a police officer who harassed and intimidated him and his pent-up frustration that almost led him to do something drastic. Listen to it below.

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