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The Songs That Built The Legacy

October 23, 2020

By Jenessa Williams


Make no mistake – without the influence and effort of Black musicians, the popular music industry would be a very different place. As far back as the 17th century, musicians from across the African diaspora have been interpolating cultural musics of their heritage with that of European and American influence, creating what we now take for granted as Rhythm & Blues, Jazz and Folk, Hip-Hop and House. From struggle to celebration, Black artists have spent centuries crafting songs that explore emotions both complex and frivolous, soundtracking the times where we wish to dance just as readily as when we wish to cry.

This Black History Month, we celebrate the songs that have gone on to have cultural influence far beyond their initial release, setting the example for artists of all ethnicities. From the refusal to adhere to racialised expectations of genre right through to expressions of modern feminism, here are 21 musical moments that highlight just some of those important contributions.

When Miles Davis turned self-doubt into magic – ‘Blue In Green’ (1959)

One of the most acclaimed figures in musical history, many of today’s instrumental riffs, freestyles and licks can be traced back to the influence of Miles Davis. Breaking out on his own after a stint in saxophonist Charlie Parker’s 1940’s bebop quintet, this prodigious trumpeter wasn’t sure of his musical direction, channelling his angst into the recording of his suitably-titled 1959 album Kind Of Blue. It went on to become the seminal work of his career, with single ‘Blue In Green’ offering a melancholy, atmospheric take on Jazz that placed him right in the thick of the genre’s burgeoning innovation. 

When Aretha Franklin soundtracked a Civil Rights movement – ‘Respect’ (1967)

Though ‘Respect’ was initially a hit for songwriter Otis Redding, it truly belongs to Aretha Franklin. Turning up the tempo and adding her own iconic spelling lesson to the chorus, the then 25-year-old created an empowering ode to the underestimated Black woman, an anthem for the civil rights and women’s liberation movements. Turning Franklin into an international star, it remains musical shorthand for knowing your worth and socking it to ‘em, regardless of the challenges that may come your way. 

When Jimi Hendrix refused to conform – ‘Voodoo Chile’ (1968)

A man who needs no introduction, Jimi Hendrix is a classic example of a Black musician resisting the racialized genre expectations of his art. One of – if not the –greatest rock guitarists of all time, the 15-minute recording of ‘Voodoo Chile’ sees him at his most experimental, pulling in elements of Soul, Blues and Pop to create something that has influence far beyond his immediate time and space. If there was ever a lesson in trusting your musical intuition, Jimi is it.

When Bill Withers held an impossibly long note – ‘Lovely Day’ (1977)

A Navy man with sceptical views on the security of a music career, Bill Withers early musical experiments were made purely for the joy of sharing words that could resonate with the most human of experiences. A key influence on the songwriting style of Ed Sheeran, Aloe Blacc and John Legend, instant classics such as ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’, ‘Lean On Me’ and ‘Just The Two Of Us’ remain some of the most covered tracks in musical history, never losing their original impact. ‘Lovely Day’ is perhaps the purest of them all, and a record challenger in its own right – at 18 seconds long, the note that Withers holds towards the end of the song remains the second-longest in UK chart history, pipped only to the post by Norwegian synth poppers A-Ha.

When Earth, Wind & Fire gave us the song of a season – ‘September’ (1978)

Chicago outfit Earth, Wind & Fire have overseen a great number of line-up and industry-based changes in their five-decade career, but are still going strong as one of the world’s premier live acts. Blending traditional Zimbabwean Kalimba instrumentation with elements of Disco, Afrobeats and Funk, their music is the sound of weddings, football chants and plenty more community celebrations besides, truly withstanding the fickle trends of the music industry. 

With ‘September’, this group of septuagenarians remain relevant in the social media age, a track that emerges every year to remind us of the joys of a new season. Ever wondered about the particular significance of that 21st day? Songwriter Maurice White simply claimed that he liked the way it sounded when sung.

When Teddy Pendergrass became an international sex symbol – ‘Close The Door’ (1978)

Place some candles and put the lights down low…in 1978, Philadelphia crooner Teddy Pendergrass got the whole world hot under the collar with the release of ‘Close The Door’. A romantic ballad that showcased his husky baritone, it set the blueprint for the R&B slow jams we all know and love, earning him his first Grammy nomination for Best Male R&B vocal performance. Alongside his peers Marvin Gaye and Barry White, he made it clear that Black masculinity could be sensual and tender, challenging racist preconceptions of aggression. 

When Luther Vandross fuelled remix culture – ‘Never Too Much’ (1981)

Written, composed and produced by the man himself, it’s difficult to believe that Luther Vandross’ ‘Never Too Much’ is approaching its 40th birthday. Taken from his first solo album, that instantly recognisable riff has become synonymous with dance floors worldwide, lending it status as one of the most sampled songs in musical history. 48 verified times to be exact, ranging from Will Smith and Gucci Mane to Slum Village and Tom Misch. The thoroughness with which the song has been adopted, repurposed and loved is testament to the enduring power of a truly great musical performance – speaking not just to its peers, but to future generations. 

When Billy Ocean paid homage to home –  ‘Caribbean Queen’ (1984)

A Trinidadian-British singer, Billy Ocean well knows what it is like to experience life in the melting pot of two quite distinct cultures. Making a name for himself with his take on 80s drum machines and synth melodies, his single ‘Caribbean Queen’ was re-recorded as both ‘European Queen’ and ‘African Queen’ for different markets, accommodating his increasingly global appeal. Tellingly, it was the original that had true sticking power, reaching the top ten in the Canadian, Australian, US and New Zealand charts – proof that one should always stick to their creative guns.

When Prince stepped outside the binaries of gender & sexuality – ‘Kiss’ (1986)

With its itchy falsetto vocal and thrusting rock riff, the 1986 single by Prince and The Revolution still sounds quite unlike anything that went before. Making use of the star’s androgynous, flamboyant persona, it was a love song that mentioned boys and girls but subconsciously spoke of something far less binary, demonstrating that romantic fun didn’t need to fall under specific labels. Initially shelved by Prince who deemed it ‘too weird’, it’s a lesson in trusting your musical intuition and taking pride in who you are – chances are, there’ll be many people out there feeling exactly the same.

When Sade captured the perfect storm – ‘No Ordinary Love’ (1992)

If you enjoy the Gen-Z sounds of bedroom pop or low-fi chill, chances are those artists have been influenced by the work of Sade. Beloved by Drake, Jorja Smith and the late Aaliyah, ‘No Ordinary Love’s brooding vocal tells the age-old story of unrequited love but does so in a way that perfectly characterises ‘quiet storm’ – the genre of smooth-Jazz inspired contemporary R&B named for Smokey Robinson’s 1975 album of the same name. At the hands of front-woman Sade Adu, being laid back never sounded so cool.

When Whitney Houston created an audition classic – ‘I Have Nothing’ (1993)

Think of Whitney, and there is a cornucopia of powerful, emotional performances to look back on – the youthful jubilation of ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’ contrasting seamlessly against the gently agonising ‘I Will Always Love You’. For true vocal legacy though, you need look no further than the other track from The Bodyguard soundtrack. 

Making the best of her unparalleled operatic alto, ‘I Have Nothing’ remains a ballad of heartbreaking proportions, a personal challenge to anybody who wishes to demonstrate their vocal ability. As a result, it has become one of the most popular audition pieces in TV talent contest history, and a staple of superfan Ariana Grande’s live performances. 

When Wu-Tang Clan told the story of the streets – ‘C.R.E.A.M’ (1994)

Though its initial chart performance may hide the truth of its influence, Wu-Tang Clan’s ‘C.R.E.A.M’ remains one of the most instantly recognisable tracks in Hip-Hop history. Centred around the phrase ‘Cash Rules Everything Around Me’, the track offers a blueprint for rap authenticity, telling the story of life on the breadline in 90s’ New York. Straddling both the ‘conscious’ and ‘gangsta’ Rap styles of the time, its success helped yield five successful solo careers – GZA, RZA, Raekwon, Method Man, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. A supergroup origin story, C.R.E.A.M remains an emblem of what can be accomplished by keeping it real. 

When Maxi Jazz put the heart back into Trance – ‘Insomnia’ (1995)

In the grips of the Acid House movement, 90s’ Dance music was thriving, built around high-pitched vocals and repetitive mantras delivered quickly to cater for the insatiable appetite of clubbers. Maxi Jazz, however, had other ideas. Teaming up with DJ-producers Rollo and Sister Bliss to form Faithless, Jazz set a new tone for Electronic music, layering elements of Detroit House and slow-building, chanted vocals that made the crowd wait for that eventual euphoric rush. The payoff was undeniable – no longer was Trance a disposable weekend soundtrack, but a true feat of musical craftsmanship. 

When Ms Lauryn Hill turned pain into personal liberation – ‘Ex-Factor’ (1998)

At the helm of the Neo-Soul movement that we now associate with numerous millennial vocalists, Ms Lauryn Hill’s debut album The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hillremains a musical bible for Black women worldwide, touching on the emotional upheaval of her previous group The Fugees as well as the more spiritual experiences of pregnancy and womanhood. Having written songs for the likes of Whitney Houston and Aretha Franklin, her storytelling skill is in finest evidence on ‘Ex-Factor’, offering cathartic solace to any listener who knows the pain of a crumbling relationship. Hip-Hop megastars Cardi B and Drake have both played their part in keeping its legacy alive, sampling the track on their 2018 hits ‘Be Careful’ and ‘Nice For What’.

When TLC pulled down the fourth wall – ‘Unpretty’ (1999)

With Black female musicians so often presented as sassy divas with rock-solid confidence, girl group TLC’s decision to pull back the curtain on 1999’s ‘Unpretty’ was nothing short of revolutionary. Opting for a more alternative guitar sound, they explored the pressures put upon them as young women to perform to conventional (and often racialized) standards of beauty, a story that has only become more relevant with time. 

Though they couldn’t solve all of society’s ills, they helped generations of young women to take comfort in their own uniqueness, holding up a mirror to the male gaze of modern rap music. By showing their vulnerabilities, they became the kind of sisterly role models that would inspire a whole generation of young female pop musicians who find solace in their so-called flaws – Little Mix, Fifth Harmony and Selena Gomez to name but a few.

When Craig David brought Garage to the masses – ‘Re-rewind’ (1999)

As a song to capture a cultural zeitgeist, ‘Re-Rewind’ is undoubtedly a defining hit of the new millennium. A Southampton-based link up, it made stars not only out of young singer-rapper Craig David and DJ duo Artful Dodger, but UK Garage itself, pushing it firmly into the commercial mainstream.  As a mixed-race Brit, Craig David became one of the most visible stars of the decade, an ambassador for styles of UK R&B that would go on to influence the likes of Ed Sheeran, Disclosure and various key players in the UK Grime scene. When the bassline drops, you know what to do…

When Destiny’s Child added a new word to the dictionary – ‘Bootylicious’ (2004)

While tracks such as ‘Bills Bills Bills’ and ‘Independent Women, Pt 1’ made Destiny’s Child a trio of no-nonsense empowerment, they also knew how to have fun. Although the term ‘Bootylicious’ can be dated back to Snoop Dogg’s 1992 feature on Dr Dre’s ‘Dre Day’, Michelle, Kelly and Beyoncé’s use of the phrase became so widespread that it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary to denote a woman of sexual attractiveness.  

Though the track was controversially-received at the time, it’s lyrical message and accompanying video celebrated the curvaceous figures of Black and Latina women, an early precursor for the body positivity and sexual autonomy we have come to know at the hands of artists such as Lizzo, Megan The Stallion and Lady Gaga. ‘Bootylicious’ also pays homage to another female trailblazer – the rock riff heard throughout the song is a sample of Stevie Nicks’ rebellious classic ‘Edge of Seventeen.’

When Usher collaborated in the name of crunk – ‘Yeah!’ (2004)

An established dancer and futuristic pop purveyor, Usher diversified once again to become a master of expansive, intimate noughties songwriting. A 21-song opus, his semi-autobiographical record Confessions was designed to acquaint the listener more strongly with his personal life, but it was the pure escapism of ‘Yeah!’ that would go on to be the runaway hit. Utilising the talents of Lil Jon and Ludacris, its seamless adoption of Black Southern ‘Crunk’ music thrived in the clubs, bringing both the ‘Rockaway’ and ‘Thunderclap’ dance moves to mainstream prominence. Had TikTok been around at the time, Usher would have undoubtedly been the man behind the most popular challenges.

When Alicia Keys found flowers in the pavements of New York  – ‘Empire State of Mind (Part II)’ (2009)

As a born and bred New Yorker, Alicia Keys has never shied away from the tougher parts of her upbringing, the scary sights and sounds that have led her to become the resilient woman she is today. Nonetheless, she also likes to celebrate the beautiful upsides of growing up in such a multicultural, thriving city. While the Jay-Z duet version of ‘Empire State of Mind’ was the one to become a global hit, the tender solo version that closes her fourth studio album is just as powerful, finding hope and solace in a soaring chorus that pulls on her Gospel roots. As far as hometown odes go, it’s a fitting tribute. 

When John Legend re-invented the first dance – ‘All Of Me’ (2013)

A self-confessed romantic, John Legend’s piano ballads have long told stories of great loves that begin and end in dramatic musical flourishes. Still, his most successful track to date came a solid decade into his career. Written as a wedding gift for partner Chrissy Teigen, ‘All Of Me’ is starry-eyed songwriting that many spend their careers trying to come close to knowing, cut from the same intuitive cloth as Teddy Pendergrass and Lauryn Hill before him. The best-selling US song of 2014, it has featured in numerous films, TV shows and wedding proposal viral videos since – a love story that truly lasts the test of time.

When Beyoncé made the personal political – Formation (2016)

A powerhouse performer and visionary creative, the lessons that Beyoncé has taught us about hard work, innovation and professionalism know very few boundaries, immortalising her as one of the greatest living musicians. As her artistry has evolved so as her confidence in exhibiting her social consciousness. To the early, strong feminist messages of Destiny’s Child songs Beyoncé added out-and-out racial politics on her 2016 album Lemonade and the closing track ‘Formation’ has become synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement.

Debuted at the 2016 Superbowl and elevated once more two years later at Coachella, (the first headline slot by a Black woman in the festival history), Beyoncé turns every occasion into a moment of cultural significance through scrupulous attention to detail – first a fleet of Blank Panther-inspired dancers, and then a full band of players and dancers recruited from the Black American collegiate, showcasing a rich melting pot of New Orleans Brass, Jamaican Dancehall and Nigerian Afrobeats. By recognising the vast sea of diversity that exists even within the Black experience, the stage she has built on the shoulders of her forebearers will continue to proffer fruit to all those who are yet to come -many more decades of Black excellence, creativity and unapologetic self-expression.


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