June marks the beginning of Black Music month in the United States.
Dyana Williams, in partnership with Kenny Gamble, pushed for the recognition of Black Music in Philadelphia. Their efforts reflected a desire to see their music and cultural history recognized in the official canon. Gambles founded the Black Music Association, a group Williams would later join and help lead. In an interview with the Grammy’s, Williams recalls the first celebration of Black Music Month with former President Jimmy Carter on June 7, 1979.
Decades later, Williams sent a letter to Bill Clinton, seeking to rally his support for the movement and asked him to host. In 2000, her effort paid off as a bill was passed recognizing the month of celebration. Williams also garnered an official proclamation from President Bill Clinton. Black Music Month has since become an annual event.
Below is a list of artists to explore this month.
Billie Holiday (1915-1959) – Singer/Songwriter
Billie Holiday dominated the 1930s, using the gift of her voice to deliver messages on the justice movements of the era. The singer was born Elanora Fagan Gough. She learned the art of song and performance by visiting jazz clubs. Her career would be defined by successful collaborations with Teddy Wilson and Lester Young.
Nina Simone (1993 – 2003) – Singer/Songwriter
Eunice Kathleen Waymon adopted the name “Nina Simone” to keep her musical aspirations and work a secret from her peers and family. Her musical background started in the church, and she would go one to become a respected live performer. Her catalog is a blend of genres, from feel-good songs to songs of protest.
John Coltrane (1926 – 1967) – Saxophonist/ Band Leader
Coltrane grew up in North Carolina. His early childhood was marked by the death of several family members and an introduction to the clarinet. He would move to Philadelphia as an adult, immersing himself in the musical scene of Bebop and Jazz musicians. Finding mentors in those like Miles Davis, Coltrane would gain the skills needed to lead his own band and found his own music publishing company.
Ma Rainey (1886 – 1939) Singer
The singer songwriter was born Gertrude Pridgett. She started her early career as a travelling entertainer. She first partnered with her husband. Later, she would lead her own show, Madame Gertrude Ma Rainey and Her Georgia Smart Set. Ma Rainey’s songs presented an unapologetic reflection of women who experienced the highs and lows of life, who expected the same freedom of expression as the men of their era. Her musical style was known for its mixture of the blues and a vaudeville sound. History would note her as “Mother of the Blues”.
BB King (1925 – 2015) Guitarist/ Singer
Riley B. King was born to sharecroppers and spent much of his early childhood in church. His exposure to gospel music inspired him to pursue a career as a singer and guitarist. He rarely performed without his guitar, nicknamed Lucille. King would find success as definitive voice of the southern blues.
Charlie Patton (1891 – 1934) Singer/Guitarist
Raised in the south and born to sharecroppers, Charlie Patton developed an early appreciation for music. He learned to play guitar and would make his way into the world, his life informing his work. He was known as the “King of the Delta Blues”.
Listen: High Water Everywhere
Mary Don’t You Weep
Brought into the public’s consciousness in 1959, this spiritual reflects the will of enslaved peoples to transcend the horrors of their reality. The first modern performance of the song was by the Swan Silvertones. Many artists have since covered the spiritual.
Follow the Drinking Gourd
Believed to have been instrumental to the work of the Underground Railroad, this spiritual is a set of instructions to freedom. Enslaved persons were encouraged to use the big dipper and landmarks as they sought escape from plantations.
My God Is A Rock In a Weary Land
This spiritual is a song of praise and worship. The lyrics are a grasping toward the grace of the Christian God and a defiance of the encroaching evils of slavery and racism.
Mahalia Jackson (1928 -1971) Singer
Born to a family of entertainers, Mahalia Jackson was no stranger to the music business. Her family was also religious and took their faith seriously. Because of this, Mahalia Jackson rooted her music and creative vision in her faith. One of the most popular gospel musicians of her time, she would also work with prominent members of the Civil Rights movement.
Cece Winans (1964 – present) Singer
CeCe Winans grew up in a religious household. She and her siblings shared a musical gift and would hone their skills under the tutelage of their parents. CeCe would find success through collaboration with her brother, BeBe Winans. She would then find success as a solo act. She would maintain her spiritual focus and continue creative collaborations with family.
Shirley Caesar (1938 – present) Singer
Shirley Caesar attributes her work ethic to her father, who himself was a tobacco worker, paster, and singer. When he died, she recommitted herself to the Lord and continued singing in programs around the city. Her participation in these programs also helped to support her family. As a young adult, she gained permission from her mother to leave college and to join the Caravans. She would perform with the group for three years, also pursuing her own solo career and evangelical work. In 1961, Caesar would leave the Caravans due to disagreements. She committed the remainder of her professional life to evangelism and community work.
Stevie Wonder (1950 – present) Singer/Multi-Instrumentalist
A local talent in his church choir, Wonder showed an aptitude for music at a very young age. A multi-instrumentalist, he is best known for his skills on harmonica, piano, drums, and bass. He found mainstream success after signing to Mo-Town records. In addition to his musical work, Wonder is also a committed philanthropist.
Tina Turner (1939 – 2023) Singer
Turner, birth name Anna Mae Bullock, and her sister, Yvonne, were born to sharecroppers. They were raised by their grandmother after their parents separated. Turner would rejoin her mother after her grandmother’s death. In her teens, Bullock would participate in the club around St. Louis. She would meet Ike Turner. Together they comprised the Ike and Tina Turner Revue. The duo would find massive success thanks to their live performances. The two would have a toxic romantic life. In time, Ike Turner’s abuse led Tina to leave the relationship. She launched her solo career in the eighties and released her first solo album, “Private Dancer”.
Chaka Khan (1953 – present) Singer
Chaka Khan started her career as a member of several groups. She first performed with her sister, in their group the Crystalettes. She later found mainstream success as a member of Rufus. Khan’s early career also included success as a solo artist in the late 1970s. Her career would be defined by several hit singles and successful collaborations.
Florence Price (1887-1953) Composer/SongWriter
Florence Price was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. She would graduate high school at the age of fourteen and gain a teaching certificate and degree in organ from the New England Conservatory. Her friendship with Margaret Bond would connect her with respected artists such as Langston Hughes and Marian Anderson, providing the foundations for a future career. In 1932, Price’s Symphony in E Minor would win first prize from the Wanamaker Foundation Awards. She would continue her compositional work, exploring orchestral, spiritual, and popular music.
Scott Joplin (1868 – 1917) Composer
Scott Joplin was born in Sedalia, Mississippi. His parents moved the family to Texarkana. By most accounts, Joplin learned piano while accompanying his mother as she worked in the home of a white family. Julius Weiss would be Joplin’s first musical teacher. By the 1890s, he would gain recognition as a band leader, teacher, and composer. He would be named the “King of Ragtime” for his success in blending a formal playing style with more popular rhythms of the time.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875 – 1912) Composer
Born in England, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor grew up in Holborn. His mother was English, his father of Sierra Leone. Taylor’s mixed heritage would define his compositional work as he made it a point to include African rhythms and traditions in his work. Surrounded by a family of musicians, the young Taylor pursued an early education in music. He would gain notoriety for his compositions and political activism.