As Black History Month comes to a close, music fans across all genres should take time to recognize four African-American artists that changed music for generations.
Robert Johnson’s recordings display a combination of vocal skill, guitar mastery and songwriting that influenced today’s blues and rock ’n’ roll.
Johnson, who is rumored to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his guitar skills, only recorded 29 songs over the course of his nine-year career. The cause of his death in 1938 at age 27 is still unresolved; theories of murder and poisoning remain to this day.
After Johnson’s recordings were re-released in 1961, his work became renowned. Muddy Waters, the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton, have all cited Johnson as one of their main influences and have covered many of his songs.
Musicology assistant professor Charles Carson said Johnson used subtle inflections to convey powerful emotion in his music.
“[Johnson’s] expression — the way in which he used a small amount of notes to say a lot of stuff — that kind of economy is prized in blues,” Carson said.
Ella Fitzgerald was a jazz vocalist known for her diction, phrasing and scat singing.
“Fitzgerald was one of the people that cultivated that talent — to think about the voice as an instrument,” Carson said.
Although Fitzgerald became an international sensation, discrimination against African-American musicians was prominent when she began her career. Her “clean” image helped her to partially transcend these barriers. Fitzgerald was the first black woman to perform at the Copacabana, a famous New York City nightclub.
“She really represented an important continuum of not only blackness, but also black femininity,” Carson said.
Fitzgerald was bold enough to put her work into the public domain — uncommon for African-American musicians of the time. Her impact on jazz music remains to this day.
Marvin Gaye helped shape the sound of Motown and soul music in a way that will resonate for decades to come.
“Marvin’s style is sort of situated at this midpoint between a lot of traditions,” Carson said. “Obviously, the gospel tradition, also soul and R&B, but also jazz. Everything he did was on such a high level.”
In the early 1970s, Gaye switched the direction of his career. He began writing all of his own music, resulting in the concept album “What’s Going On.”
As he gained popularity, Gaye became a figurehead for African-Americans in music. He signed the largest contract for an African-American musician at the time. Gaye’s commentary on the world helped transform soul music into an agent for social change.
Gaye’s father fatally shot Gaye at age 44. Gaye’s popularity has only grown since his untimely death. His estate currently earns over $3.5 million per year.
Boasting the talents of Dr. Dre, 2Pac and E-40, the West Coast dominated the rap battle of the early 1990s. No one on the East Coast could hold a candle to West Coast rap — but Nas set out to change this.
New York rapper Nasir Jones incorporated flow and lyricism into his music. As one of the first truly poetic rappers, Nas combined free style and metaphoric thinking. While rappers such as Jay-Z were literal about their messages, Nas forced listeners to interpret his lyrics.
“His sense of rhythm is very tight,” Carson said. “Since he can rap so rhythmically, he was able to abandon the stuff that other rappers were doing.”
Nas’ content was ground-breaking. The urban representation he presented highly contrasted the laid-back style of West Coast rap; it commanded people to listen to a more worldly view.