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Black Female Musicians: Celebrating Women of Colour in Music

Photograph of the blog post author, Georgia Carter

Georgia Carter

19.10.2022

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How do you even begin to write an article about the best black female musicians in the business, past or present? The contribution to music by some of these prolific women is so profound that I could easily write a whole essay on this topic. As we celebrate Black History month it is of the utmost importance to remember, acknowledge and appreciate the outstanding successes of these performers in an industry that has not always been that welcoming.

These iconic women were, and are, trailblazers in the music industry and you will have heard every one of these names I’m sure. But if you haven’t, then listen up as we celebrate and commemorate some of the best black female musicians in history. 

Black History Month

Black History Month is an annual observance originating in the United States, where it is also known as African-American History Month. It has received official recognition from governments in the United States and Canada and more recently is being celebrated in Ireland and the United Kingdom. It began by focusing attention on the contributions of African Americans to the United States and then it was recognised by Canada and the UK. 

The 2022 Black History Month’s theme is Black Health and Wellness and Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, who set up Black History Month in the UK, chose October because it falls in line with the start of the academic year and so would inspire the UK’s young people who would be freshly back from the summer holidays. Celebrating black history is so important and even more so in music, so this is exactly what we are going to do today. The artists we speak about have changed or are changing the course of the music industry, whether that be in the 1930s or right now in 2022. Let’s delve in!

Etta James

Etta James was one of the famous black female musicians who lit up every room she sang in. Her gravitas, style and dazzling voice made her a star in her own right. She was born on January 25, 1938, in Los Angeles, California. Her career really took off in 1954, when she moved to LA to record her album ‘The Wallflower’. Her music style ranged from R&B, gospel, rock and roll, jazz, and blues.

You could definitely say she was as versatile as rare, as a black female classical musician in the music industry. And she paved the way for other black female artists and some would say she was an inspiration today. With hits such as ‘At Last’ and ‘Something’s Got a Hold On Me’ released in the 1960s, she became a well-known face and voice on the music scene. She won three Grammy awards. I believe she is one of the best black female blues musicians. 

Beyoncé

Now if we are talking about empowerment, then this lady has it in bucket loads! She is one of the most notable black American female musicians of her time right now. She was born on the 4 September 1981, in Texas. As an American songwriter, singer and actress she holds many strings to her bow and any performance she gives; whether that be on the silver screen, at the Super Bowl XLVII Halftime Show, or singing Hold Up on her Lemonade album she brings power, authenticity and confidence.

She shows us that as a woman you can take on so many roles at once, and they are not mutually exclusive. Her most recent album Renaissance is supposedly the first part of a three-act project that she recorded over the past three years, during the pandemic. Her fans are going crazy for it and Billboard ranked ‘Thique’ as being the best track on the album. But you can make up your own mind.

Ella Fitzgerald

If you want to know who was one of the best black female jazz musicians, (and I know we have spoken already about Etta James) then Ella Fitzgerald is simply mind-blowing. Her collaborations with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and The Ink Spots were out of this world. She just oozed talent and was dubbed the most popular female jazz singer in the United States for more than half a century. Her contemporaries included Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Carmen McRae. She was born on the 15th of April 1917 and was 79 when she died. Jazz lost a star and it changed the genre forever. 

She was awarded the American National Medal of the Arts by the National Endowment of the Arts in Washington, D.C. (1987) and won 13 Grammy awards and the Best Female Vocalist award three years in a row. She had many nicknames such as; The First Lady of Song, The First Lady of Jazz, The Queen of Jazz, Lady Ella. She released her first record, Souvenir Album, in 1947 as a solo artist and the song that she is most known for is ‘Dream A Little Dream of Me’ which she released in 1950. 

Griff

We have mentioned a lot of us black female musicians in this list, but I do want to speak about those black British female musicians who are taking the music scene by storm. One includes the artist Griff, who has already collaborated with the likes of Sigrid and Dua Lipa. The Jamaican-Chinese Brit was born on the 21st of January 2001.

She was the recipient of the Rising Star award at the 2021 Brit Awards and she is on tour with Ed Sheeran as we speak – or you read. With tracks such as ‘Mirror Talk’ (2019) and ‘One Foot in Front of the Other’ (2021), she has garnered success. What will be next for this artist?  

Aretha Franklin

Known as the ‘Queen of Soul’, she is known for her song, ‘I Say A Little Prayer’ she is one of the best black female musicians of the 1960s. She was born on the 25th of March, 1952, in Memphis, Tennessee. ‘Respect’, released in 1967 and “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman’ in 1968 propelled her in terms of fame and made her a firm favorite in the world’s eyes.

She won 18 Grammy Awards between the years 1968-2008, she sold 75 million records, recorded 112 singles, and was the first female artist to get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She really did show other black female artists it can be done and now so many musicians are following in her footsteps. Black women have to work twice as hard to get heard and Aretha certainly was front and centre as one of the black female musicians in the 20th century.  

Alicia Keys

As a gifted black female musician, Alicia Keys is an American singer, songwriter, and pianist whose music spans from the late 90s until now. She was born on the 25th of January 1981. She started composing songs when she was 12 and was signed at 15 years old by Columbia Records. I’m sure everybody knows her songs ‘Empire State of Mind’, ‘Girl On Fire’, ‘Fallin’? Her piano skills and vocal talent are truly incredible. Fallin’ is dubbed her signature song which was released in 2001.

Since then we have been true fans of her creativity when it comes to music. Her latest song ‘City of The Gods Part II’ was released this year in April to critical acclaim and also back in August this year she released a deluxe edition of her 2021 double album KEYS, which was called KEYS II. There are plenty of great things to come from Alicia if her track record is anything to go by.

Tracy Chapman

As a black female guitarist and musician, Tracy has demonstrated what it is to have a long career in terms of folk, blues, rock, pop and soul. She was born on the 30th of March 1964. Her notable hits such as ‘Give Me One Reason’ and ‘Fast Car’.

She received a grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Folk Album for her debut album ‘Tracy Chapman’ which she won, along with Best New Artist and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for her single ‘Fast Car’. Chapman’s most recent studio album is Our Bright Future, released in 2008, but she hasn’t released any new music since then. A compilation album called Greatest Hits was released in 2015, but you never know, she may be writing new music right now. 

Whitney Houston

Wow, what a woman and what an inspiration she was and still is to so many young female musicians. She was born on the 9th of August in 1963, in Newark, New Jersey. Her powerful voice is one that was sadly lost in 2012 and there is nobody quite like her.

The song ‘I Will Always Love You’ was a soul-ballad arrangement of the original hit from Dolly Parton and it made its way onto the soundtrack for the 1992 film The Bodyguard, in which she played the titular role, Rachell Marron. Her co-star was Kevin Costner. She was awarded the Grammy for Record of the Year in1994 for that particular song. The Recording Industry Association of America deemed Houston the best-selling female artist of the 20th century in the R&B genre. 

Rihanna

If you want to talk about making waves in the music industry, Rihanna, a Barbadian singer made her claim to fame when she released her album ‘Good Girl Gone Bad’ in 2007 which featured the single ‘Umbrella’ and from then on she was a household name in R&B. She won her first Grammy because of that song and she went on to release eight studio albums and sell over 250 million records worldwide.

To date, she has won 9 Grammys and believe me, there are plenty more to come! She was born on the 20th February 1988 in Saint Michael, Barbados and she of course has had hits with ‘Diamonds’, ‘Don’t Stop The Music’, ‘We Found Love’ and too many more to mention, so you need to go onto Spotify, or wherever you listen to your music and start streaming. I know that I will never forget Tom Holland’s rendition of ‘Umbrella’ on Comedy Central Live back in 2021. Enough said, just watch it for yourselves, you will not be disappointed. 

Lizzo

Melissa Viviane Jefferson, known professionally as Lizzo, is an American singer and rapper. Born in Detroit, Michigan, she later moved to Houston, Texas, where she began performing before moving to Minneapolis, where she began her recording career in hip-hop music. She was born on 27 April 1988 in Detroit, Michigan. Her catchy songs like ‘Juice’ and ‘Good As Hell’ have given her astounding musical status within the industry. She is an extremely talented flautist and is classically trained.

She has used her own instrument at concerts, and it is named Sasha Flute. She sings and plays her flute whilst twerking. She even showed David Letterman how to play in her Netflix interview in 2020. Lizzo, it has been said, got her big break from singer Prince, who “co-signed” her music and she even got to perform on his 2014 song, ‘Boy Trouble’. Not a bad start in the music industry. 

Closing Thoughts

So do you agree with our list of the best black female musicians of all time? Are there more you would like to mention? I’m sure if I had more time, I could add so many more to this article, like Mariah Carey, Gloria Gaynor, Diana Ross, Saweetie or Tierra Whack but in the meantime, I would suggest you listen to as much music produced by black female artists as you can and find new acts that are making waves in the industry right now. Let’s make sure that the black history of female musicians is championed every day and support the up-and-coming artists wanting to share their music with the world. 

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