The influence and contributions of Black people to American music and culture are undeniable and endless. From sound to trend, Black people are continuously pushing the industry and setting the standard. In honor of Black history month, from Black unsung heroes to the newcomers and future of Black Music, here are 28 artists you should (if you don’t already) know about. You will find links to the music of most of these artists in the article, but we also recommend checking out our playlist.
Afro-Brazillian singer/songwriter Luedji Luna incorporates powerful imagery and the sound of her home to make music that is unique and unapologetically Black. In 2017, she released her debut, Um Corpo no Mundo in which you can hear the inspiration she draws from music of the African Diaspora. Her most recent album, Bom Mesmo É Estar Debaixo D’Água released in 2020, features a stunning 23-minute visual component and ranges in subject matter from her theory on what love is and her experience with alienation in her home country as a Black woman. Luedji also features Nina Simone’s “Ain’t Got No, I Got Life” and Brazilian writer Conceição Evaristo’s “A Noite Não Adormece nos Olhos das Mulheres” (“Night Doesn’t Fall Asleep in Women’s Eyes”) to illustrate how she is connected to the art and legacies of Black women who came before her, despite location. That’s her in the main pic for this article, pictured with Larissa Luz and Xênia França, who you should also check out! The trio collaborate in a project they call Aya Bass.
Benjamin Wright Jr.
Even if you’ve never heard of the “King of Strings,” you’ve definitely heard Benjamin Wright Jr.’s writing, from the famous string line in the opening of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” to the horn arrangement from Earth Wind and Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland,” (the latter of which you can listen to him discuss in the video below). He has worked with countless giants in the industry including Donny Hathaway, the Temptations, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, Gladys Knight, Justin Timberlake, Outkast, and many more. Spanning generations, Benjamin Wright Jr. is a veteran in the music industry and has influenced the sound for decades, truly setting the standard for tasteful, masterful, and skilled arranging.
Larry Levan undoubtedly took DJing to a level of superstardom and helped create what club music is today. As the DJ at Paradise Garage in Manhattan from 1978-1987, he would remix influential hits from gospel and reggae to soul and rock, and sustain dance marathons that would last all night. During his time, he helped design the sound system at the Paradise Garage, which became one of the first contemporary dance clubs to apply scientific principles and acoustics. His sets gained a cult-like following and were eventually coined as the “Saturday Mass.” As dance records popped up in the mid ’80s, it became more than apparent the influence Larry Levan had. Check out his DJ set from the Paradise Garage in 1979.
Though she is based in New York and Berlin, DJ and producer Honey Dijon is a product of Southside Chicago, which you can hear in her sound. Growing up and experiencing house music in its birthplace, Honey Dijon has been a part of the evolution. From sneaking into clubs at the age of 12, to forming a relationship with the protege of Frankie Knuckles, her passion for the club scene started early. Honey Dijon is a Black trans woman, but she has rightfully become known more for her cross-genre sets and her ability to get any crowd moving. She has since crossed over into the fashion world, DJing countless fashion events including runway shows for Louis Vuitton and Dior. Check out her 2017 Boiler Room Berlin DJ Set.
If you listen to “He Lives in You” by Diana Ross, you will hear the enchanting sounds of Karen Briggs’ electric violin, adding color and texture throughout the record. Also known as the “Lady in Red,” she is an internationally acclaimed violinist regarded for her ability to cover a wide and eclectic range of genres. In the ’80s she toured the world with Soul II Soul and Yanni, before working consistently with Diana Ross, where she was at the time, one of the few contemporary violinists showcased in such a way.
Even if you’ve managed to have never heard of this name, you’ve surely heard his bass playing as Nathan East is one the most recorded bass players of all time. He has played on nearly 10,000 records (most of which are hits) and toured the world with artists such as Michael Jackson, Chaka Khan, Beyoncé, Eric Clapton, Anita Baker, Stevie Wonder, Phil Collins, and many more. He got his start playing bass at the age of 14 and with only two years under his belt, secured a tour with the legendary Barry White at 16 years old. And while you typically hear him laying back and keeping it in the pocket on practically everyone else’s record, his most recent solo album, Reverence, proves that he can take lead just as masterfully as well. Check out Nathan East’s Music is My Life Podcast episode here.
It isn’t uncommon to go your whole life without ever coming across the personel behind the big hit. Getting his start as a producer during the revival of East Coast rap, EZ Elpee is for sure an unsung hero. Coming onto the scene in the mid ’90s, he quickly earned credits for producing projects by the Artifacts. However, it wasn’t until after producing the 1995 Junior Mafia hit, “Get Money,” where he flipped Sylvia Striplin’s obscure 1981 R&B groove “You Can’t Turn Me Away,” when he really became sought after by the heavyweights in the industry. After producing for Capone N Noreaga and Nas, he began producing for Bad Boy records. EZ Elpee became known for his ability to simultaneously produce club radio hits while keeping the music authentic and true to the streets.
Continuing along the line of unsung producers, Andre Betts has been around for quite some time with nearly 100 producer and writer credits. His production work can be found on Madonna’s Erotica, which is hailed as one of ’90s pop’s most controversial albums, as well as her “Justify My Love” single. He has also worked with Chaka Khan, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Living Colour. (Check out his remix of “Living Colour” covering Biggie below). He is currently working as a photographer as well as developing and recording upcoming artists.
Ashanti Floyd ‘The Mad Violinist’
Becoming one of the first violinists to break the internet remixing dubstep on violin, Ashanti Floyd became a pioneer for the younger generation pursuing non-traditional string playing. After graduating from Berklee College of Music in just two years, he began to tour with Blues icon, B.B. King and soon after began playing and touring with several artists, earning production credits as well. Most notably, you can hear his distinct violin playing on Lupe Fiasco’s “The Show Goes On,” Lil Wayne’s “Right Above It,” and several other jams including heart-wrenching work on Nicki Minaj’s “Grand Piano.”’ After earning six Grammy nominations for his contributions, touring as a solo artist, and producing for artists and even film, he continues to sow inspiration into the young Black string community.
Operating similarly to the likes of Benjamin Wright Jr., Matt Jones has arranged, conducted, and orchestrated for a number of artists over several decades, including Will Downing, Dorinda Clark-Cole, and Wyclef Jean. Developing a signature sound, he started the Matt Jones Orchestra, a group which has performed and recorded for the remake of The Lion King, Kirk Franklin’s Long Live Love, John Legend’s Bigger Love, PJ Morton’s Gumbo Unplugged, Noname’s Room 25, and more. Over the years, the Matt Jones Orchestra has gained a social media following, performing orchestral arrangements of popular records, including the title track from Black America’s favorite movie, Black Panther. Check out some of the Matt Jones Orchestra’s content here.
Born in Macon, GA, the now Berlin-based conductor Roderick Cox has already received one of the highest honors a young conductor can receive. In 2018, Roderick won the US Solti Foundation’s Sir Georg Conducting Award. Beginning his career as assistant conductor for the Alabama Symphony Orchestra and the Minnesota Symphony Orchestra, he has appeared with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, and Philharmonia Orchestra in London. In 2018, he started the Roderick Cox Music Initiative, a program that provides scholarships to young musicians of color from underserved communities, helping them with their pursuits in music.
Alto-saxophonist virtuoso, singer/songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist, Braxton Cook is regarded as one of the most exciting emerging voices of the jazz world this generation has heard. After transferring from Georgetown to the Juilliard School in 2011, he soon began touring with the Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah band and thereafter became highly sought after as a session and touring musician for the likes of Mac Miller, Solange, and Rihanna. He has released several independent projects but in 2018, his sophomore album, No Doubt, which incorporated jazz, gospel, R&B, and even hip-hop, debuted at No. 2 on iTunes Jazz Charts and garnered more than 6 million streams on Spotify. His latest release is Fire Sign.
Cisco Swank’s home of Brooklyn absolutely seeps out of his music and aesthetic. Growing up playing classical piano, gospel, and jazz, and studying greats like Robert Glasper and J. Dilla, these influences are also apparent in his sound which he describes as paying homage to Black culture. Cisco lays down colorful and complex harmonies, soulful vocals, and features himself rapping words of wisdom in most of his music. The multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, rapper, and producer released his debut EP, Pursuit Of in collaboration with fellow Berklee classmate and producer Tobias Kelly last fall.
Valerie June’s voice has a unique flavor that wraps you in. Valerie is a singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist whose sound encompasses elements of folk, blues, soul, Appalachian, and bluegrass, creating a timeless sound that resides outside of any one single genre. Aside from being a powerhouse of an artist, the Tennessee native also managed herself for 15 years and self-released three albums before releasing Pushin’ Against a Stone on the Sunday Best label in 2013. Though not quite a hidden gem—Bob Dylan his given his stamp of approval—Valerie June is definitely one to watch out for. Her upcoming album, The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers will be released March 12, 2021 and it includes her single “Call Me a Fool,” featuring Memphis Queen of Soul, Carla Thomas.
Here is another case of “you may not know this person’s name, but you’ve heard their instrument” as Kamilah Marshall’s vocals have resonated on some of the biggest stages, tours, records, and productions including Taylor Swift’s RED Tour, the Reputation Tour, and the 1989 World Tour. Earlier in her career, she sang in Broadway productions including RENT, Disney’s The Lion King, and Hairspray. She has appeared on the Grammys, the Tonys, and several of the major late night talk shows. She has also worked with Justin Timberlake, Mary J. Blige, Mick Jagger, Salaam Remi, Nile Rodgers, and more. She is also a Berklee Online student! You’ll learn even more about Kamilah’s story on an upcoming edition of the Music is My Life podcast.
Singer/songwriter and lefty guitarist Malina Moye is truly in a league of her own. Blending rock, soul, and funk, she has been regarded as a musical pioneer and one of the world’s top guitarists by Guitar World magazine. And her 2014 collaboration with Bootsy Collins on Rock & Roll Baby is proof of that. In 2012, she became the first female guitarist to join the Experience Hendrix Tour, a show that celebrated the life and music of the late Jimi Hendrix which included guitar greats such as Eric Johnson, Robert Randolph, Brad Whitford, and several others. In 2018, she released the Bad As I Wanna Be EP which charted at No. 1 on the Billboard Blues charts for a number of weeks.
Nothing short of a star, you might recognize Joshua Henry from breakout Broadway roles, including Aaron Burr in Hamilton, and Haywood Patterson in The Scottsboro Boys, the latter of which earned him a Tony Nomination. Despite his success on the Great White Way, his first true passion lies in music and once the pandemic hit, he decided to take the leap of faith as an artist. See this instead as an introduction to Joshua Henry, the singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who’s released his lead single “Hold Me” from his upcoming debut EP, Guarantee. The song is reminiscent of Motown, featuring soulful melodies and lyrics, incredible vocal range, and Joshua’s own guitar playing. His EP produced by Theron “Neff-U” Feemster, is set to be released soon under S-Curve Records/BMG.
Formerly writing under the alias of Wynter Gordon, this singer/songwriter is no stranger to songwriting success as she penned the infamous “Becky with the good hair” line from Beyoncé’s “Sorry.” At the age of 19, Diana wrote the title track “Gonna Breakthrough” from Mary J. Blige’s The Breakthrough album. In 2009, signed to Atlantic, she wrote for several artists including Flo Rida with his hit “Sugar,” where she can be heard singing the hook. With less success as an artist under the direction of others, she has been running her own show since 2016, and in addition to credits on three songs from Lemonade, she also has a credit on Dua Lipa’s 2017 hit, “Electricity.” In 2020 she released her debut EP, Wasted Youth, which is her opening up about her late teens and 20s, being in an abusive relationship. Diana Gordon is the epitome of a Black woman’s strength and tenacity.
A real case study in the art of truly being yourself, singer/songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist MALAYA is a force. At 16 she began her professional career on the 13th season of American Idol, finishing in eighth place. However, that was only the beginning as she has gone on to perform all over the world and work with many artists including Theo Crocker and Greg Phillinganes (if you don’t know those names, look them up, because you already know their music!). 2020 proved to be a big year in the singer’s career as she released “In a New Place” with Grammy-winning producer Ricky Reed and wrote and featured on several of the projects of Grammy-nominated producer, Terrace Martin, including Conscious Conversations, Impedance, and Dinner Party under his Sounds of Crenshaw label. Lastly, she released her debut EP, My Diary: The Prelude, which features her stunning pen, laidback beats, and enchanting vocal production. You can also check out more of her music on Soundcloud.
Tastemakers have high hopes for R&B prince Tone Stith. The 25-year-old producer, songwriter, singer, and multi-instrumentalist started his journey with music at the age of three, playing drums and gradually became the musical equivalent of a Swiss Army knife. Before really stepping onto the scene as a solo artist, he earned songwriting and producing credit from several artists, including fan favorites from Chris Brown’s Loyalty and Indigo albums to H.E.R’s “I Used to Know Her” and a collaboration with Justin Bieber. He has also released two projects, Can We Talk and Good Company. If you don’t already know his name, you surely will soon.
Singer/songwriter and violinist Angelina Sherie can be seen playing violin for rapper DSmoke, writing a No. 1 hit single from Ariana Grande’s Positions, or writing and performing her own songs. Her music can be described as uplifting and emotional with a modern edge. Based in Atlanta, she released her first album, Glimpse, under the name of Angelina Sherie in 2017 and in 2019 after dropping the “Angelina” and officially going by the Sherie mononym, she released her Joyful EP, featuring her smooth vocals, quirky riffs, and layers of electric strings. Check out her latest single, “Obvious.” It’s a soulfully produced record, and while it’s a step up from her previous releases, remains true to her unique style.
Starting out by singing in the church, Brandon Harris’ incredible vocal range and chilling riffs and runs are what make his brand of Chicago R&B unique. In 2016 just one year before attending Berklee College of Music, he released his first project, Hello August, and since has been releasing music that just keeps getting better and better. In 2018, he released the single “Monsters,” a moving piece about mental health which this past year, got placed in the BET film Bricked. Since the start of quarantine, Brandon has also taken his talents to TikTok where he has seen an immense amount of love, gaining a significant following on the app. (Check out Brandon’s Tik Tok story here) His latest release, Extra Salt, is a deluxe version of his 2019 album, Salt with nine new tracks.
Hailing from New York with DC roots, Cleo Reed is the future of Black music. She is currently finishing her senior year at Berklee, studying Electronic Production and Design. Cleo is sonically influenced by the sounds of traditionally Black underground music including electronic, hip-hop, experimental, and R&B/soul. From her brave and futuristic production, bold vocal arranging, and concrete imaging, she creates a total experience within her music, which is part of the reason she won the 2018 Adidas Originals Sound Lab Open Mic Contest, as well as a mentorship with rap icon, Pusha T. Check out her latest release, “Rover,” or take in this excerpt of her performing at NPR Music’s Turning the Tables Live: The Motherlode, which honored Black women and their contributions to music. Her selection, “Motherless Child” dates back to the 1870s but she gives it a timeless feel.
Big Joanie are a Black feminist punk band, based out of the UK. They got their start in 2013 with the hopes of helping create a more diverse and inclusive underground punk/DIY scene in London and showcasing a strong presence for Black women in punk. Composed of singer-guitarist Steph Phillips, drummer Chardine Taylor-Stone, and bassist Estella Adeyeri, the trio released their debut critically acclaimed album, Sistahs in 2018 on Thurston Moore and Eva Prinz’s Daydream Library label. With their sophomore album set to be released sometime this year, check out their recent cover of Solange’s “Cranes in the Sky.” You’ll never hear the original version quite the same.
If you aren’t already one of the millions listening to Boston rapper Cousin Stizz, it might be best to get to know him sooner rather than later as he is steady on the come up. He first popped up on rap’s radar in 2015 after releasing his first album, Suffolk County, which dealt with his experiences in Boston and got him noticed by Drake and the late Mac Miller. In 2017, his second album released on RCA, One Night Only, had features from rappers G-Eazy, Offset from Migos, and Buddy. In 2019, Trying to Find My Next Thrill was released including even bigger features, from Freddie Gibbs and the City Girls to Smino. If Cousin Stizz isn’t already on your playlists, one of these projects is sure to change that.
No matter where rapper, producer, songwriter, trumpet player, and activist ALȁZ goes, his beliefs and love for his hometown of Macon, GA. follow. Often spotted carrying his trumpet without a case, he stays ready to blow a tune, symbolizing that the dreams you have for yourself should follow you every step you take. This mentality has taken him all over the world, affording him opportunities to open up for legends such as James Brown, Erykah Badu, and Snoop Dogg, and perform with icons like Bootsy Collins, Terence Blanchard, and Bobby Brown. In 2019, he released his Better EP, which featured his uplifting words of unity and motivation, raw brass lines, and a sound that genuinely inspires one to go after whatever it is they desire. And while ALȁZ has had many successes, most recently executive producing music for the NFL in partnership with Big Brothers Big Sister of America, he still aims to be “better” with each present moment.
Originally from Detroit, Jayla Darden didn’t hesitate to tackle it all … and early, too. The 21-year old sings, writes, produces, and engineers all of her own music and is steady making her mark on the industry. Eventually moving to Atlanta, she began self-releasing tons of tracks on Soundcloud called the Ideas Series, and it didn’t take long for the right people to look her way. Heavily inspired by ’90s artists such as Aaliyah, Destiny’s Child, and Brandy, her sound incorporates soft, smooth melodies and drums that are in your face. In 2019 after becoming the first artist to sign with S!CK Projects under Interscope Records, she released her EP, Onto Something which gave the new wave of R&B a fresh sound, and proved the title of her EP was true.
Combining rap, infectious trap elements, and lush cello melodies, 99TheProducer is in his own lane. In 2019, the Milwaukee and Chicago-based DIY artist released his first full length project, Sunset 317, which featured fun modern production, catchy hooks, and acoustic elements that created a vibe. In fact, all of his music creates a vibe. Check out his latest releases, “BFTW” and “Jackpot,” which both spotlight his incredible cello skills and lyricism.