Celebrate Black History Month with artists who provide the soundtrack to our lives across genres. Includes Aretha Franklin, Kendrick Lamar, Thundercat and more.
New for 2023: we’ve extended our Black History Month playlist with a fresh set of songs centered around the theme of Afrofuturism.
Though the term itself didn’t appear in print until 1993, it has been retroactively applied to describe works by Black artists which use elements of technology, sci-fi, fantasy and psychedelia to, as author Ingrid LaFleur describes it, “[imagine] possible futures through a Black cultural lens.”
In Marvel’s Black Panther, for example, the fictional African nation of Wakanda poses as a developing country in order to avoid being colonized by the so-called “civilized” world. But as comics fans know, Wakandan technology and culture is among the most advanced in the MCU.
Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s and beyond, jazz artists like Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Sun Ra produced challenging music combining traditional African influences with emerging technology like the Moog synthesizer, pushing these new instruments to their limit to create music like the world had never heard.
Elsewhere, the iconoclastic avant-jazz innovator Sonny Sharrock contributed distorted fuzz guitar and chaotic, Coltrane-inspired solos to composer Herbie Mann’s pop-jazz hits long before heavy metal or alternative rock entered the mainstream.
In hip hop, producers create new beats by sampling old records—literally looking to the future to create the past—which is another key part of Afrofuturism. Producers like Wu-Tang’s RZA blend their vast record collections with deep pop- and nerd-culture knowledge to connect past to present to future, bridging the gap between the underground and the pop charts.
The artists on tracks 11-22 of this playlist span a diverse set of genres, but if they have one thing in common, it’s that they all imagine a better future for Black people everywhere.
GZA — “Living In The World Today”
If the playful references to Voltron and Shaw Bros. Kung-Fu flicks on the Wu-Tang Clan’s Enter the 36 Chambers helped bring “nerd culture” to hip-hop at large, then GZA’s Liquid Swords is the grimy neo-noir reboot taking the franchise in a darker, edgier direction.
The cinematic 1995 solo offering from Genius/GZA is a pitch-black take on classic Wu-Tang themes—philosophy, chess and low-budget martial arts movies—backed by the RZAs surreal basement production. Sporting samples borrowed from ‘70s soul singer Ann Sexton’s “I’m His Wife, You’re Just a Friend” and “In The Hole” by R&B groovers the Bar-Kays, this gritty entry in the Wu-Tang cinematic universe is well worth the price of admission.
Funkadelic — “Cosmic Slop”
With its devastating tale of inner-city poverty and a funky, hard-rocking arrangement by Julliard-trained keyboardist and producer Bernie Worrell, Funkadelic’s “Cosmic Slop” pulls no punches—but it will leave you seeing stars.
On their fifth album, 1973’s Cosmic Slop, Funkadelic filter the rocking sounds of their Detroit neighbors Alice Cooper, the MC5 and the Stooges through bandleader and funk pioneer George Clinton’s kaleidoscopic lens of surrealist R&B rhythms to produce the funkiest (and also the heaviest) music on this—or any—planet.
Herbie Hancock — “Rockit”
A lot can happen in a decade—just ask Herbie Hancock. In 1973, the jazz legend changed the music world forever with Head Hunters, a psychedelic odyssey that’s a founding cornerstone of the jazz fusion genre. Just ten years later, Hancock altered the course of popular music yet again with “Rockit,” a track inspired by a fledgling music scene in New York called hip-hop.
With samples of Led Zeppelin and Fab Five Freddy combined with a beat driven by record scratches, “Rockit” is an inspired merging of Hancock’s veteran musicianship and arrangement skills with hip-hop’s earliest trademarks, courtesy of production duo Material and turntablist GrandMixer DXT among others.
Not only did the song and its corresponding album Future Shock revitalize Hancock’s career, but with the help of MTV, “Rockit” was also hip-hop’s introduction for millions of people and a vital moment in the genre’s evolution from local scene to cultural institution.
The video for the song won a remarkable five MTV Video Music Awards in 1984—more than Michael Jackson that year. What makes it even more impressive is that MTV wasn’t known for playing many Black artists at the time, something David Bowie famously called them out on in a 1983 interview on the network.
Solange — “Stay Flo”
Solange celebrates the sounds of chopped and screwed Houston hip hop and psychedelic soul on “Stay Flo,” from the producer, singer and songwriter’s 2019 album When I Get Home. On Solange’s fourth album, slowed down Dirty South beats mingle with cosmic sounds influenced by Steve Reich, Alice Coltrane and Sun Ra, inviting listeners to grab the best wireless earbuds they can find, lean in, listen up and blast off.
“With this album I had so much to feel,” said Solange at a 2019 record release event. “Words would have been reductive to what I needed to feel and express. It’s in the sonics for me.”
Sonny Sharrock — “Little Rock”
Despite an interstellar decades-long career which includes a string of Herbie Mann hits, a pair of albums with pioneering free-jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, an uncredited appearance on Miles Davis’ Tribute to Jack Johnson, a trio of solo albums, an ‘80s improv-jazz-metal career resurgence, an unexpected late-career masterpiece and the theme music to the greatest cartoon talk show of all-time, Sonny Sharrock doesn’t even like the guitar.
“People used to get mad at me,” says Sharrock. “I'd get hired for a gig and I'd say, 'I ain't gonna play chords. That's guitar. I'm a horn player. I just play a f—ed-up horn.’”
The minute he heard John Coltrane, Sonny Sharrock knew he wanted to play the saxophone. Unfortunately, asthma kept Sharrock from blowing a horn like his musical hero. But a lifelong frustration with his own shortness of breath inspired him to translate the sound of an overblown saxophone to the electric guitar using feedback, fuzz, unconventional technique and overwhelming volume. Jazz audiences of the ‘70s weren’t ready for it, but their kids loved it.
In 1991, Sharrock reunited with Pharoah Sanders, joining drummer Elvin Jones—famous in the jazz world for his work with John Coltrane—and newcomer bassist Charnett Moffett to record Ask the Ages, a career-defining track which neatly sums up Sharrock’s genre-defying style across the decades, up to and including the alternative rock bands who still cite him as an influence.
On “Little Rock,” Sharrock’s joyful guitar melodies might be interpreted as a celebration of the Little Rock Nine—the Black students who in 1957 desegregated Little Rock’s Central High School in Arkansas.
After his passing, Space Ghost Coast to Coast paid tribute to the late guitarist in an episode titled “Sharrock” featuring a musical tribute performed by Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore. The show’s theme music, ironically titled “Hit Single,” was Sharrock’s final recording.
Sinkane — “Telephone”
Producer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Ahmed Gallab a.k.a. Sinkane was born in London to Sudanese academics who briefly returned to Sudan before settling in—of all places—Kent, Ohio.
In Kent, Gallab honed his chops behind the drum kit at venues like the Mantis, a DIY hardcore punk collective (now a cocktail bar hosting live music) and the Robin Hood (now a Wendy’s drive thru) with the post-hardcore acts Starcrossed and Sweetheart. As the principal songwriter and vocalist of Sinkane, Gallab blends Sudanese pop with kosmische, prog rock, electronica, free jazz and funk to produce feel-good genre-agnostic music unstuck in time or space.
On “Telephone,” from Sinkane’s 2017 album Life & Livin’ It, Gallab stacks Stevie Wonder-meets-Tangerine Dream disco drum and synth grooves with punchy horns and impressive falsetto harmonies that would make anyone want to hand over their number.
Kendrick Lamar, SZA — “All The Stars”
Give Kendrick and SZA all the vibranium. Their triumphant duet “All The Stars” closes out Marvel’s Black Panther with a confident, uplifting hip-hop anthem. When the sun sets on Wakanda and the credits roll, “All The Stars” marks the occasion with an epic chorus which helped propel Black Panther: the Album to the top of the Billboard 200 chart with 154,000 equivalent album units.
T’Challa, Black Panther and king of Wakanda, made his debut comics appearance in July 1966 in issue 52 of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee’s Fantastic Four. Prior to 1966, Black characters in comics were mainly drawn in the background, if they were represented at all.
Black Panther went solo in 1973 with a lead role in Jungle Action #5. So not only was Black Panther the first Black superhero in comics history, he was the first Black main character—period.
As the leader of the technologically advanced and hidden nation of Wakanda, T’Challa derives much of his power from vibranium, the powerful rare earth element which fuels Wakandan progress. He also has another power that can’t be taken away—the knowledge and wisdom of every previous Black Panther. In creating an alternate future without colonialism, Black Panther presents a utopian Afrofuturist vision of justice across the multiverse.
Sun Ra — “Tapestry from an Asteroid”
Few jazz musicians cover the entire time-space continuum like Sun Ra. From piano ballads to ragtime to avant-garde spaced-out Moog jazz, Sun Ra’s music contains trace elements of every style of Jazz known to humankind.
“Tapestry from an Asteroid” finds Ra and his Arkestra in orbit around a relaxing outer space shuffle where if you listen closely enough, you can hear echoes of Duke Ellington in Sun Ra’s cosmic big-band.
Kool & the Gang — “Spirit of the Boogie”
Ronald Bell’s flashy, futuristic synthesizer pulse and the gravelly get-down baritone “Boogie Man” vocal stylings of singer Donald Boyce propelled Kool & the Gang’s 1975 hit “Spirit of the Boogie” straight to the top of the Billboard Hot Soul Singles charts.
In addition to the funky, forward-thinking sound, the album’s psychedelic gatefold artwork by Frank Daniel and Diane Nelson displays an Afrofuturist aesthetic that would be right at home in the pages of Black Panther.
Janelle Monáe — “Take a Byte”
Janelle Monae rejects all cookies on “Take a Byte,” from their 2018 concept album Dirty Computer. The attention economy’s terms and conditions no longer apply to the GRAMMY and Critics’ Choice Movie Award-winning songwriter and actress on this tongue-in-cheek take on digital surveillance and intimacy.
For the follow-up to the Metropolis series (inspired partially by the German Expressionist director Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent sci-fi dystopia of the same name), Monáe reboots their sound with traces of new wave, synth pop and space rock.
Aretha Franklin — “Think”
With 112 singles on the Billboard charts and over 75 million albums sold, Aretha Franklin is one of the most significant figures in the history of American music. A singer, songwriter and pianist, Franklin first hit the charts in 1966 with an impressive run of top-ten singles on Atlantic Records.
Franklin was a noted feminist and civil rights activist. When Franklin speaks on issues of sexism and racism in songs like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” and “Respect,” the urgency in her voice is impossible to ignore.
Her accomplishments are too numerous to list in full. She toured with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., sang at the inauguration of Barack Obama, and in 1987, the “Queen of Soul” was the first woman to be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“Think” first appeared in 1968 as a single from the album Aretha Now. In 1980, Franklin re-recorded the song for her showstopping cameo appearance in The Blues Brothers.
Sly & the Family Stone — “I Want to Take You Higher”
Psychedelic rock meets soul music on Sly & the Family Stone’s “I Want to Take You Higher,” from the 1969 album Stand! But the Family Stone combined more than musical genres—the San Francisco collective was one of the first major American rock bands to be both racially integrated and gender inclusive.
For a B-side, the legacy of “I Want to Take You Higher” is A-plus. The song was a Top 40 hit for both Sly Stone and Ike & Tina Turner, whose cover version charted above the original on the Billboard Hot 100.
At the 1969 Woodstock festival, Sly & the Family Stone hit the stage hard to deliver a timeless high-energy performance. During the band’s 3AM set, Stone whips the audience into a frenzy with a spine-tingling crowd participation chant of “higher!” It’s one of the festival’s most memorable moments, preserved on film in the 1970 documentary Woodstock.
Public Enemy — “Fight the Power”
Burn, Hollywood, burn. Public Enemy lit up the rap singles chart and the multiplex with their incendiary anti-establishment battle cry, “Fight the Power.” Director Spike Lee commissioned P.E. to make a track to be the musical motif for his 1989 film Do the Right Thing and received one of the most historically significant songs in hip-hop.
On “Fight the Power,” the Bomb Squad pull samples from “Planet Rock,” James Brown and civil rights attorney Thomas “TNT” Todd to stitch together the perfect beat for Chuck D. and Flavor Flav to bring the noise. With Do the Right Thing picking up two Academy Award nominations and “Bring the Noise” named the year’s best single by The Village Voice, there was no escaping Public Enemy in 1989.
In 2020, Public Enemy returned to keep fighting in support of Black Lives Matter with an updated music video for “Fight the Power.” In 2021, Rolling Stone declared “Fight the Power” the second-best song of all-time.
Muddy Waters — “(I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man”
Psychedelic rock collides with the Chicago blues on Muddy Waters’ 1968 version of the blues standard “(I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man.” Written by Chess Records house composer Willie Dixon, Waters originally recorded the tune in 1954 as a classic stop-time shuffle. On the Electric Mud version, Waters collaborated with members of the psychedelic soul group Rotary Connection to infuse the blues with free jazz influences and a wild wah-wah guitar sound.
Critics panned Electric Mud upon release. Pete Welding in Rolling Stone called the album “a great disservice to one of the blues’ most important innovators.” As it turns out, Muddy Waters was once again ahead of the curve. “The rhythm seems to anticipate hip-hop by three decades,” writes music journalist Gene Sculatti. Chuck D of Public Enemy calls Electric Mud “a brilliant record.”
In 2003, members of Rotary Connection joined Chuck D and the Roots to celebrate the album’s influence in Martin Scorsese’s PBS documentary series The Blues.
Betty Davis — “Dedicated to the Press”
Always ahead of her time, Betty Davis is a pioneer of the aggressive ‘70s funk sound, pairing deep grooves with raw, sexually charged lyrics that set the stage for Blowfly’s dirty raps, Dr. Dre’s G-Funk machismo and Cardi B’s sextuple-platinum, sex-positive hit, ‘WAP.”
Born Betty Mabry in Durham, North Carolina, Davis moved to New York City where she met and was briefly married to trumpeter Miles Davis. Betty introduced Miles to Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, influences that would inspire the bebop icon’s “electric period” and help birth a new genre—jazz fusion—with the 1970 album Bitches Brew, for which Betty provided the provocative title.
As a singer, songwriter and arranger, Davis released three solo albums: Betty Davis, They Say I’m Different and Nasty Gal—a stone-cold funk classic that was largely dismissed upon release in 1975, but reached new audiences after being reissued in 2009. On “Dedicated to the Press,” Davis sets the record straight for gossip column muckrakers over a rubbery thumping bassline and plucky clavinet rhythms.
Bad Brains — “Attitude”
Bad Brains break more than just the sound barrier with “Attitude,” a raging 80-second blast of hardcore punk fury that helped jumpstart the modern DIY underground. After being banned from every club in their hometown of Washington, DC, Bad Brains relocated to New York City, finding a new home at the Manhattan punk institution, CBGB’s.
Despite having nowhere to play, Bad Brains remained popular in DC, where their early supporters included Black Flag vocalist Henry Rollins (then Henry Garfield) and Ian MacKaye, who would later document the growing DC punk scene on his Dischord label.
On their 1982 debut, Bad Brains fuse hardcore punk with dub reggae, handling both styles with virtuosic musicianship. Lyrically, “Attitude” draws inspiration from self-help author Napoleon Hill and his concept of “positive mental attitude”—the belief that optimism and hope are essential to finding joy and defeating feelings of helplessness.
Irreversible Entanglements — “Open the Gates”
“Open the gates / we arrive / energy time”
With these words, poet Camae Ayewa (aka Moor Mother) leads the “liberation-oriented free-jazz collective” Irreversible Entanglements through a transcendent cosmic jazz meditation focused on building a brighter future.
Irreversible Entanglements formed in 2015 when three of its members performed at the same anti-police brutality demonstration. On “Open the Gates,” I.E. trim their experimental afrofuturist improvisations down to a more manageable (and playlist-friendly) size, but the full impact remains.
The polyrhythmic percussion grooves, interstellar woodwinds and Aweya’s confident verse might recall the sounds of ‘70s free jazz, but when it comes to ideas, Irreversible Entanglements are all about the future.
Thundercat — “Them Changes”
From sitting in with Suicidal Tendencies to a cameo appearance in Star Wars, there’s no telling where Thundercat might strike. The bass guitar prodigy and musical polyglot born Stephen Lee Bruner first clawed his way into the spotlight with the Los Angeles crossover thrash band Suicidal Tendencies and marked his territory in hip hop with his work on Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly.
“Them Changes,” from Thundercat’s 2017 album Drunk, is a breakup song disguised as a progressive space-funk odyssey. Saxophonist Kamasi Washington and producer Flying Lotus (programming, synthesizer) join Thundercat on a drum groove sampled from the Isley Brothers’ “Footsteps in the Dark” to provide the backdrop for surreal lyrics about a misplaced heart.
BBC Radio 6 Music named Drunk album of the year, calling it “a complex modern soul record with a beautiful flow.” In 2022, Thundercat made his acting debut with a cameo appearance on the Disney+ Star Wars spinoff series The Book of Boba Fett.
Kendrick Lamar — “DNA.”
Kendrick Lamar grapples with stereotypes and his own self-image on “DNA.,” an unflinching deep dive into the Compton, California rapper’s upbringing and psyche from the 2017 album DAMN.
For the track’s chaotic second half, Lamar asked producer Mike Will to build a beat around his acapella rap; the dramatic shift in production mirrors the feeling of being pulled in two directions—a hip-hop interpretation of the “double consciousness” that sociologist and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois wrote about in his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk.
In their review of DAMN., Vice called Lamar’s flow on the track “the most virtuosic display” on the album. Although “DNA.” was never released as a single, it still went triple platinum in the United States and Lamar performed the track at the 60th Annual Grammy Awards.
Mourning [A] BLKstar — “Mist :: Missed”
From Cleveland, Ohio, Mourning [A] BLKstar is a self-proclaimed “multi-generational, gender and genre non-conforming amalgam of Black Culture dedicated to servicing the stories and songs of the apocalyptic diaspora.”
Poet, producer, bassist and visual artist RA Washington provides beats and lyrics for the eight-piece experimental ensemble, integrating three-part vocal harmonies with punchy horns and trap beats into a unique postmodern, soul and gospel-influenced sound.
Afropunk called their 2020 album The Cycle “an album that demands multiple deep listens,” with a melodic, soulful sound that “pushes their sonic boundaries into the distant future.” In September 2020, Mourning [A] BLKstar were featured on the cover of London, UK music magazine Wire.
Mr. Fingers — “Mystery of Love”
Larry “Mr. Fingers” Heard inadvertently created what many consider the first deep house track in 1985 with “Mystery of Love,” a seven-minute electronic dance jam built around a revolving synth bass pattern.
Heard played drums in rock cover bands around Chicago until a lack of creative freedom pushed him to pick up a Roland JUPITER-6 synthesizer and TR-707 drum machine and try going solo. On the first night with his new gear, Heard invented a new musical genre.
Heard admittedly wasn’t much of a dance music listener, but his drummer’s instinct is felt throughout “Mystery of Love.” Though its bassline is repetitive, Heard’s endless supply of percussive variations is pure dancefloor magic. The pounding four-on-the-floor electronic production became the sound of electronic pop music throughout the ‘90s, sending artists like Janet Jackson to the top of the charts.
Elizabeth Cotten — “I’m Going Away”
Elizabeth Cotten walked so Jimi Hendrix could run. The self-taught lefty guitarist and songwriter played an upside-down right-handed guitar using an unusual fingerpicking style which now bears her name. Cotten adapted her southpaw banjo technique to develop “Cotten Picking,” as heard on “I’m Going Away,” from the 1965 album Shake Sugaree, Vol. 2.
Cotten was born in Carrboro, North Carolina in 1893, but her professional performing and recording career didn’t begin until 1958—she was sixty six years old—when her talent was rediscovered by the folk-singing Seeger family, for whom she worked as a maid. At the Seeger house (which included a young Pete Seeger) Cotten relearned the guitar, ending a twenty-five year hiatus and signaling the beginning of her recording career.
Despite her delayed beginnings, Elizabeth Cotten performed at the Newport Folk Festival and shared stages with artists like John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. Her songs have been covered by everyone from Jerry Garcia to Devandra Banhart.
Death — “Keep On Knocking”
Not to be confused with the Florida death metal outfit, the Detroit proto-punk band Death formed in 1964 when, after seeing the Who, the Hackney brothers—David, Bobby and Dennis— decided to change their musical style from funk to hard rock.
After their father’s death in 1971, they changed their name from Rock Fire Funk Express to Death, and in doing so, became without a doubt the first all-Black punk band, and arguably the first punk rock band ever, playing Alice Cooper-inspired hard rock riffs at a tempo like a 33rpm record sped up to 45.
Death broke up in 1977, fading into obscurity just as the punk movement emerged at famous NYC venues like CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City. But while mainstream success eluded Death, record collectors traded their recordings like NFTs, with fans paying as much as $800 for an original 7” record, of which only 500 copies exist.
Death reformed in 2009 when a tape containing unreleased material was sent to Drag City records and released as the album …For the Whole World to See. For the first time, audiences got to hear Death’s hard-rocking uptempto proto-punk and connect the dots from Death to the Ramones, Bad Brains, Living Colour and beyond.
Nina Simone — “Take Care of Business”
Decades before hip-hop fused genres to create a new sound, Nina Simone mixed her classical piano abilities with pop songwriting, gospel rhythms and a jazz-influenced vocal style to become one of the leading figures of the Civil Rights Movement.
Born 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina, Eunice Kathleen Waymon’s ambition was to become “the world’s first African-American pianist.” She briefly attended New York’s prestigious Julliard School of Music, but her musical training ended when she ran out of money and failed to secure a scholarship at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, an incident she later attributed to racism in the documentary film What Happened, Miss Simone?
Waymon soon took the stagename Nina Simone and launched her performing career in nightclubs in Atlantic City and New York, playing show tunes from Porgy & Bess with her signature cocktail of styles.
In 1964, Simone provided the Civil Rights Movement with a new protest song in the form of “Mississippi Goddam,” written in a single night in response to the murder of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers.
On “Take Care of Business,” from the 1965 album I Put a Spell on You, Simone’s piano and voice feature in a lush big band arrangement from arrangers Hal Mooney and Horace Ott, who artfully place strings, percussion and horns between the notes of her melody.