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Black Music Month Spotlight: My Favorite Black Musicians of The Past

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Since this is my first year celebrating black music month, I’d like to share my favorite black musicians of the past. As an early twenty-something, I am so grateful to be able to appreciate these musicians and their impact on music today.

Janet Jackson- As a 90’s kid, I grew up listening to her and Michael. On her birthday last month, I rediscovered her music via a bunch of tracks that were not released as singles and songs released as alternative versions. My favorite Janet songs are “The Knowledge“, “Velvet Rope“, “Special“, “Funky Big Band” and the guitar mix version of “Black Cat“.  My favorite Janet music video is “Alright“.

When I was a kid, my parents recorded The Velvet Rope tour on VHS when it came on HBO. I loved watching that concert over and over. I also liked watching a VHS tape I still have called The Rhythm Nation compilation, which has all the music videos from the album Rhythm Nation 1814.

Death, the punk band If you have viewed the documentary A Band Called Death like I have, then you know that this band has a unique and special story. In the mid-70’s the band’s original line-up (David, Bobby, and Dannis Hackney) recorded the master tapes for what would become the album Death For The Whole World To See. Unfortunately, the band’s name prevented any record company from fully supporting them, and the music would remain unknown until 2008.

I liked that David Hackney, the band’s late guitarist and founder, was willing to stick to what he believed the band should be. He was the one who came up with the name Death and the spirituality around it, and I liked how he incorporated some of  his beliefs into the song “Let The World Turn“.

Another thing I like about this band is that they were willing to play rock music during a time when black musicians were expected to do Motown or soul and disco music. Some tracks on For The Whole World To See incorporate funk and rock, which is really cool.

Overall, I think this band was ahead of their time. Listening to them led me to discover the Afro-punk music genre, so I’m happy I learned about them.

Poly Styrene from the punk band X-Ray Spex- I love how Poly yelled the lyrics with so much fire and conviction. She didn’t care how she sounded, because she had something she wanted people to hear no matter what. I also liked that she held her ground in a mostly white, male-dominated genre.  I love the song “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” because it really lets you know who she is. Heck, the entire Germ Free Adolescents album reflects her bold spirit. R.I.P. Poly.

Rock Musician Chuck Berry- He was the first classic rock musician I ever listened to. I have four songs from him on my iPod, but I like watching live clips of him on YouTube because you can see how awesome his guitar playing was. Like most people, I think “Johnny B. Goode” is the best.

Blues-Jazz Singer Billie Holiday- I love her voice, especially when it was younger because it was so golden. I love the way she stretches out the words on songs like “Billie’s Blues” because it allows me to savor the emotion in her voice. I also liked how she could fight when she wanted to. According to a BBC documentary I watched, she once hit a guy with a chair because he made a lewd gesture toward her when she was performing the haunting anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit“.

Jazz Singer Sarah Vaughan- Her young voice is like drinking something warm and sweet. It always gives me a good, soothing feeling when I listen to it. She is my number one favorite female jazz singer. My favorite song by her is “Autumn in New York“. I wish I could go back in time and see her live. Recently, I discovered a beautiful live version of the song “Over The Rainbow“.

Jazz musician and bandleader Cab Calloway- I’ve had a couple of his songs on my iPod, but I’ve recently added four more and have become fascinated by him. His upbeat songs like “Jumpin Jive” are so energetic and fun to listen to. I love that he is multi-talented; he could sing, dance, scat, compose songs, and lead a band. Not to mention, he had his own dictionary of slang words!

Besides Sarah, he is someone else I’d love to see live. Recently, I watched this great documentary about him called Sketches and have been watching some live footage of his performances. One that has become a favorite is “St. Louis Blues“. In the past, I also remember loving the live version of “Jumpin Jive” with The Nicholas Brothers from the film Stormy Weather.

Honorable Mentions:

Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong– I love Ella’s voice and scatting and Louis’s voice and trumpet playing, but I think they sound best together. They are they perfect combo. Love their versions of  “Summertime” and “Dream a Little Dream of Me“.

Michael Jackson- My favorite song by him will always be “Human Nature“. It holds a special place in my heart because I love the lyrics and his vocals and this song helped me put imagery into my poetry when I was in high school. I don’t really have a particular favorite music video, but I always enjoyed watching the movie Moonwalker on VHS. R.I.P. Michael.


Thoughts on Music and Music Movie Recommendations

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Since I last blogged on here a month ago, I’ve discovered a lot of new music and have enjoyed many music films. Since I am happy and lazy (I’m on Spring Break), I’m going to talk about how much I love music in general and give several brief music movie recommendations.

When I say I love music, I mean music in general. In three years, I’ve gone from just listening to alt. rock and soundtracks to having an eclectic music taste. I have my likes and dislikes, but I understand that every genre is connected.

On a post similar to this one, I said that my discovery of indie-rock was me coming full-circle with my music taste. I was wrong. Afro-punk is the genre that has brought me full-circle, not only with my music taste but also with my own life.

If had I known about this genre when I was feeling like an outsider in high school, then I would have found the perfect genre to listen to. Then again, I might not have the eclectic music taste I have now.

Afro-punk is a music genre and contemporary movement filled with black punk bands and black alternative music acts. As much as I’ve enjoyed finding music in this genre, I’ve also found more classic blues and jazz music that I like.

For instance, Billie Holiday before the 1950s.  During those years, her voice wasn’t marred by drugs yet. I love it because it sounded youthful, sad, and sweet. I love her slower songs the most because the way she stretched out the words made you want to savor her voice. One of my favorite songs is “Am I Blue?”

Another voice I’ve found I enjoy a lot is Sarah Vaughan. Her voice is soothing and sweet and it warms you up like a fire. Like with Holiday, I like her slower songs that were done when she was young.  One of my favorite songs is “Autumn in New York”.

Sarah Vaughan and Billie Holiday are now my favorite classic female blues and jazz singers.  I wish more young people could appreciate old music in any genre.

Without blues and jazz, we wouldn’t have rock music. Without classical music, none of my favorite soundtracks would exist.  Without old music, we wouldn’t have new music.

One of the most enjoyable things about appreciating music is watching music films. Here are the films that I’ve watched this past month that I recommend:

The Billie Holiday Story (BBC Documentary)-  I loved Billie Holiday even more after I saw this. This film shows her not as a victim to drugs and a sad childhood, but as a talented woman who had strengths and weaknesses.  Watch it here.

New Orleans (1947)- This film features Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. The plot is corny, but the jazz music makes the film worth watching. It’s on DVD, but I also found it on YouTube here (ignore the Portuguese subtitles).

Hail, Hail Rock ‘n’ Roll! (1987)- Part rock concert and part biography, this film honored the life and 50th birthday of rock musician Chuck Berry. Features appearances from Little Richard, Etta James, Keith Richards, and more. Watch it on Hulu here.

A Band Called Death (2013)- This film tells the story and new-found popularity of Death, the first black punk band. It is available to watch on Netflix. If you enjoy the film, their 1976 album Death For The Whole World To See is worth listening to as well.

Yellow Submarine (1968)- I watched this for the first time in February in honor of The Beatles 50th anniversary. It stars The Beatles in an animated film where they go to Pepperland to free it from the evil Blue Meanies. The animation and the music are great. This is a good film to watch as a family. Watch it on DailyMotion here.

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