Written by: Jocelyn Van Saun | Photo(s) by: Jan Persson/Redferns/Getty Images RB/Redferns Anthony Barboza/Getty Images military.com Bob Marley's Facebook Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty Image Warnecke, New York Daily News David Corio Getty Images Richard E. Aaron/Redferns
Ten Most Influential Black Musicians Of All Time
The idea that the Black story is undeniably interwoven in all facets of the music industry today is nothing novel. From Jimi Hendrix‘s electrifying influence on rock music in the 60s and beyond, to Nina Simone’s prolific and enduring hold on soul, it’s impossible to appreciate any genre without acknowledging the impact of Black musicians. We’ve turned up on the volume on the Best Of Black History Month, but wanted to take a deeper look at those musicians who have left a lasting legacy throughout history and today’s music industry.
In honor of Black History Month, we wanted to highlight Black artists who have left an everlasting impact on American popular music throughout the decades, but quickly realized it’s absolutely impossible and inadequate to place any rank. So, here’s a few of the most influential Black musicians we deemed the most impactful in no particular order.
Aretha Franklin (1942-2018)
Lauded as the “Queen of Soul,” Aretha Franklin was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, solidifying her icon status in perpetuity. Not only did Franklin break genre boundaries, fusing gospel with jazz, blues, R&B, and rock ‘n’ roll, and redefine popular music forever, but her voice galvanized a generation of women fighting for equality and liberation and scored an early wave of political activism working towards causes like healthcare access, environmental protection, and disability rights.
Stevie Wonder (1950-Present)
Born a musical prodigy, Stevie Wonder faced the adversity of going blind as an infant, signed with his first label at age 11, and went on to become one of the most dynamic and significant musicians of all time. Not only did his emotive voice and classical prowess on the keyboard, piano, harmonica, drums, and several other instruments become the foundation from which modern soul music was built, but Wonder has time and time again used his music and far-reaching renown to advance charitable and political causes, such as the campaign to make Martin Luther King Jr.‘s birthday a national holiday.
Lauryn Hill (1975-Present)
Credited a main source of inspiration by mega stars such as Adele, Rihanna, Nas, Erykah Badu, and Kanye West, Lauryn Hill is widely regarded as one of the greatest rappers of all time. Her melodic style of rapping undoubtably helped launch hip-hop and Neo-soul into popular music. Hill and her socially-conscious lyrics also paved the way for authentic dialogue in rap around topics once considered taboo, such as sexual objectivity, and broke barriers for historically marginalized groups, namely fellow female rappers. Debuting in 1998 at number one on the U.S. Billboard 200, Hill’s debut, and only solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, earned her 10 nominations at the 41st Annual Grammy Awards in 1999 (five of which she won, making her the first woman to receive that many nominations and wins in one night) and has become one of the best-selling album of all time.
Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970)
Although tragically cut short after just four years, Jimi Hendrix’s career had a lifetime’s worth of influence on the rock genre and how the electric guitar is played today. Building off of an affinity for the blues, Hendrix created a style of his own, unleashing the guitars full potential by utilizing stylistic innovations, such as using the thumb of his fretting hand to to play base chords, in turn freeing up his other four fingers to flit between treble strings. This technique creates a textured rhythm and soon became standard, finding favor with artists like Stevie Ray Vaughan, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and John Frusciante, among others. Though it burned bright and fast, Hendrix’s stardom lives on in rock ‘n’ roll and electric blues, as well as within the pages of various acclaimed publications, like Rolling Stone who, in 2011, named him the Greatest Guitarist of All Time.
Bob Marley (1945-1981)
When you think of Bob Marley, you undoubtedly picture his iconic dread locks and the colors of the Jamaican flag. Considered one of the great pioneers of reggae, Marley spirituality-infused music and spread the message of Rastafari, which began in Jamaica in the 1930s and spread globally thereafter, largely due to Marley’s celebrity. Bringing his powerful, yet whimsical lyricism promoting peace, justice, love, and harmony, Marley is attributed with launching an infectious distillation of early ska, rocksteady, and reggae to the world stage. Marley’s influence on the genre, widely perceived as a voice for the oppressed, is palpable today – His message having transcended both time and space.
Nina Simone (1933-2003)
Nina Simone was one of the most revered and outspoken musicians throughout the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, using her voice and songwriting to speak out about crimes against the Black community in America. A gifted singer and pianist from the early age of three, Simone went on to attend the distinguished Julliard School of Music after high school, but was later rejected from the Curtis Institute of Music because of the color of her skin. It was this rejection that made Simone not only want to enter the world of jazz and blues, but change it. With songs like “Mississippi Goddamn,” which was written after the assassination of Medgar Evers and the bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four young girls, and “Four Women,” which expounds the suffering of the Black community through the eyes of four Black women, Simone created a legacy that speaks to her duality as an activist and gifted artist.
Louis Armstrong (1901-1971)
One of the country’s first Black superstars, Louis Armstrong stood at the forefront of changing jazz from an ensemble-oriented folk music genre into an art form celebrating inventive solo improvisations. An expert trumpeter, Armstrong’s musical stylings were ripe with soul and power, yet his laid-back phrasing was a major change from the traditionally staccato style of the early 20s and moved the Western world from the age of classical music into an exciting new Swing Era, deeply impacting the Harlem Renaissance. Among those influenced by Armstrong were Bing Crosby, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Cab Calloway.
Whitney Houston (1963-2012)
An inspiration to many pop music leaders of the day like Mariah Carey, Alicia Keys, Kelly Clarkson, Ariana Grande, and Jennifer Hudson, Whitney Houston remains one of the best-selling artists of all time. Her numerous industry accolades include being the first artist to have seven consecutive number one hits, the first woman to enter the U.S. Billboard 200 at number one with her album, Whitney, and holding the longest reigning number one single on the Hot 100 with “I Will Always Love You.” Known for her ability to vocally belt and artistic versatility, Houston time and time again transcended genres, releasing hit after hit to become one of the most decorated musical moguls of this generation and the last.
It’d be impossible to discuss the impact Black culture holds on every aspect of the music industry today without mentioning Queen B. Not only is she and her voice an unrelenting musical force, but during an ever-evolving digital age, Beyoncé has used her stardom to reach the masses as an empowered Black, female role model and a voice for the generation. Both through her music and outside of the industry, Beyoncé has dedicated her life’s work to honoring Black icons, celebrating Black culture, and advocating for the advancement of the Black community in America.
The antithesis of conformity, Prince was integral in shaping a more diverse, accepting, and exciting 21st century. His hands-on approach to the creative process inspired countless musicians in his wake to take control of the direction and production of their work. In personally crafting his image, Prince’s sound became synonymous with who he was as an artist and person – unique, spirited, intricate, and consuming. Prince held an insane vocal range and unerring pitch, rivaling artists like James Brown as music’s greatest screamer. Prince was in life, and will forever be remembered, as a visionary ahead of his time.