The Heartbeat of a People, The Voices of a Lifetime: Black Women in Music
by Mikalia Bradberry
As we transition from Black History Month to Women’s History Month I’d love to share some Black women musicians who have impacted the world as we know it. Each woman on this list has in some way paved a way and broken down a barrier for another, whether they are on this list as well or not. Black women have not only been the drivers behind major political movements for the advancement of Black peoples but have nurtured and always been present in the production of joy throughout our history. There are so many women I wanted to include on this list, but since I don’t have that kind of room, I’ve added these few beautiful individuals who have inspired and shaped my life. The world would not be the beautiful, enriched, and musical place it is without Black women, including the wonderful women on this list.
Enjoy my full playlist here!
Legendary gospel singer and trusted friend of Dr. King, Ms. Mahalia Jackson was so devout and strong in her faith, she refused to sing other genres and turned down major offers to do so. Her strength and tenacity inspired not only Dr. King but thousands of those who needed strength and comfort, and still do today.
Willow Smith – Having found her own voice and own path, Willow Smith has emerged as a pop rock artist that speaks to a generation and black artists in any genre.
Jessye Norman – Jessye Norman was never truly limited to one voice type. Having played, Dalila, Aida, and Sieglinde, she is an inspiration to black women, not to ever be put in a box or pigeon holed to what society thinks we should be.
Whitney Houston – Whitney Houston was my one of my first major vocal influences. Whitney was influenced by and influenced so many women on this list. Her distinct and passionate tone coupled with her incredible range melded into a voice of a lifetime.
Della Reese – Famous Singer of “Come on a my house” and “Whatever Lola Gets”, I first knew of Della Reese from the show touched by an Angel. Discovered by Mahalia Jackson at 18, Della Reese went on to be a professional jazz and gospel singer, actress and ordained minister with a career spanning 7 decades.
Margaret Bonds – One of the first black women to make a living as composer and pianist, Margaret Bonds was no stranger to firsts as she was also the first Black soloist to premiere with the Chicago Symphony in 1933. Her friendship with Langston Hughes afforded her to opportunity to use the text of his most famous poems for her “Dream Portraits”, showcasing the joy of the Black experience and one of the darkest points in American history.
Ledisi – From Nina Simone’s Four Women to portraying Mahalia Jackson in Selma, We could all learn a lesson about artistry and emotion from this versatile musician.
There is always a first, especially in the Black community. Queen Mother Marian Anderson just so happens to be the first African American to sing a role at the Metropolitan Opera House of New York. Denied by the DAR to perform at their venue, Marian took an even greater stage at the Lincoln Memorial, forever taking her place in American History. Her warm, velvety tone took her to heights unseen for African Americans at that time. Without her struggle, Jessye, Leontyne, and so many who have come after would have had more struggles to endure.
Listen to “Colors Change” by Tank and the Bangas with Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra here!!
Tank and the Bangas – Based out of New Orleans, Louisiana, Tank and the Bangas embodies the unapologetic beauty and flair of Black culture. Their variety of genres including rock, folk, funk, hip hop and soul the sound of this group is limitless, drawing listeners from all walks of life
Aretha Franklin – Aretha truly paved the way for every black woman on this list who has made success in pop, r&b, and so forth. Having sung for Presidents and the like, Aretha’s troublesome upbringing could not stop her from achieving 75 million global record sales and landing in the top 10 of the Rolling Stone’s greatest artists of all time
Leontyne Price – The first true black prima donna of the Metropolitan Opera, Leontyne made sure to always give honor to Marian Anderson, the first African American woman to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, who paved the way for her. The fact that she happens to be Black, is a blessing to the millions of us black people who long to see ourselves portrayed in the beauty of the human experience, who long to see ourselves represented as all of the wonderful things we are able to be, and who long to see ourselves excel in spaces where we were originally barred and banned. She is an icon, a shining star, a pioneer, a legend and happens to be the reason I decided to become an Opera Singer. Regarding her legacy and artistry, we all are forever in her debt.
Fantasia – Recently cast as Ceily in The Color Purple’s newest film adaptation, Fantasia is one of the most powerful, distinct, soulful voices of our generation. Definitely one of the two most successful and well-known American idol winners of all time. From Baby Face, to Patti Labelle, Aretha Franklin, and even President Barack Obama, Fantasia has paid tribute to so many influential individuals in the black community.
Patti Labelle – Grammy and NAACP award winning icon Patti Labelle is nothing short of amazing. Moving from Patti Labelle and the Blue Belles to a solo career, Ms. Patti’s music has inspired generations of people from all walks of life, especially Fantasia!
Jennifer Hudson – With an Emmy, multiple Grammys and an Oscar, Jennifer Hudson is one award away from becoming an EGOT. With or without that Tony award, Jennifer Hudson exemplifies strength and power in her person and in her voice, which explain why Ms. Aretha Franklin hand picked her to portray her in the biopic Respect”. In my opinion, the second of the two greatest winners of American Idol, including Fantasia who is also on this list.
Diana Ross – In addition to her legendary career as a Supreme and as a solo artist, Diana Ross’ portrayal of Billie Holiday in Lady Sings the Blues and as Dorothy in The Wiz allowed Black women and little black girls to see themselves on screen with beauty and dignity.
– A pioneer on the piano, Hazel Scott quickly rose to stardom with her undeniable talent and poise, only matched by her incomparable beauty. Steeped in the Harlem jazz community, the Darling of Café Society demanded respect not only for herself, but for the black women and actors who worked with and beside her. This strength and determination, along with a political smearing of her husband forced sent Hazel across seas, only to return to an audience that had moved on to the sounds of Motown.
Nina Simone – As a beautiful dark-skinned woman of the African monoracial phenotype, Nina Simone faced obstacle after obstacle directly related to her features. Instead of shying away from what the western world deemed as unappealing, Ms. Simone embraced the truth of what made her and Black people throughout the world beautiful and unique.
Missy Elliott – Missy Elliott’s impact on hip hop and on music is unprecedented. A champion of feminism, body positivity and gender equality, she has revolutionized the music scene for Black women, leading her to countless collaborations stamping her name in the book of legends.
Florence Quivar – This is the voice I strive to have. To sing with such ease, grace and precision is the heart of every singer and Florence does it every time. Having performed at the Metropolitan Opera House of New York over 100 times she also took on the task of championing the works of forgotten African – American composers. Her international career led to her to Rome, Germany, and Brazil and to fame throughout the United States.
Samarah Joy – A newcomer with an old soul, Samarah Joy is being praised for her classic tone of voice that is capturing the hearts of all who hear.
Tina Turner – An icon of rock and roll, Tina Turner challenged the status quo for what everyone believed a rock and roll star should be with her presence alone. Her strength in the midst of influence has been recognized in the music of Beyoncé.
Beyoncé – No matter your opinion on Beyonce, one must acknowledge her dedication to detail, performance, and her vocal ability. With clear influence from Janet Jackson, Tina Turner, Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin and the like, she has truly taken the baton that has been passed to her by all of the wonderful black women that have come before her.