From music to cinema, Black Americans have shaped and influenced pop culture — and their contributions have been both lauded and overlooked. Here are Artsweek’s featured picks celebrating how Black talent and artistry have left their impact on American pop culture!
Janelle Monáe’s Futuristic Music Making
Janelle Monáe’s debut album “The ArchAndroid” introduced us to her alter-ego, Cindi Mayweather. In it, Monáe takes the listener on a sonic journey combining pop, funk, soul, R&B, psychedelic rock and more, using a futuristic sci-fi landscape where she’s depicted as a robot as an allegory to her experience as a Black woman in America. The debut contains a perfect blend of upbeat anthems (“Faster,” “Locked Inside,” “Cold War”), poetry-like rap songs (“Dance or Die,” “Tightrope”) and songs that are more like experiences with gorgeous strings (both overtures, “Neon Valley Street,” “BaBopByeYa”). It’s an incredible feat that she replicated this genius with the album’s follow-up, “The Electric Lady,” which continues Mayweather’s story with a looser side. On her most recent endeavor, Monáe opts instead for more contemporary pop. Mayweather isn’t lost forever, but this time, Monáe is dropping the act slightly and writing music about her own being as a “Dirty Computer.” The album, along with a corresponding movie, tells Monáe’s story clearer than ever before with songs about her sexuality (“Pynk,” “Make Me Feel”), tunes about dancing against the backdrop of a decaying world (“Crazy, Classic, Life,” “Screwed”) and ones about being a messy human (“So Afraid,” “Don’t Judge Me”). With a laser focus, Monáe brings to light issues most wouldn’t think about, with worldbuilding and genre-mixing skills that make her one of the greatest artists of the 2010s. “You see my color before my vision,” she sings on “Dirty Computer”’s closer, “Americans.” “Sometimes I wonder if you were blind / Would that help you make a better decision?”
— Sam Franzini
The Advent of Jazz
When it comes to Black influences on music, the genre of jazz is one of the most important musical developments that have been heavily influenced by and created through Black artistry. Jazz and blues were pioneered during a time of segregation, and as Black musicians like W. C. Handy and Jelly Roll Morton struggled to record and distribute their music among the white population, all-white bands were given these opportunities easily. Additionally, the only platform for Black musicians to perform was often minstrel shows, which degraded the quality of the music and made it hard for jazz to emerge as a serious form of music. White musicians such as Chet Baker and Bix Beiderbecke profited off of bringing jazz to the white, middle-class population, while the Black artists that created the genre were often left behind. Jazz, which has, in turn, inspired the genres of rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and soul, was born from a place of struggle and grief that transformed into a vibrant art form, and it is important to recognize its history and the importance of its African American influence.
— Eleuthera Wang
Hattie McDaniel Becomes the First Black Person to Win an Academy Award in 1940
Born in Wichita, Kansas, in 1893 to two former slaves, Hattie McDaniel was a Black actress and singer who became the first Black person to be nominated for and receive an Oscar for her portrayal of Mammy in the extremely successful and renowned historical film, “Gone with the Wind.” Based on Margaret Mitchell’s novel of the same name that takes place in Civil War-era Georgia, “Gone with the Wind” premiered in 1939 to rave reviews, but McDaniel, who won the award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role at the 12th annual Academy Awards, was unable to attend the award ceremony with the rest of the cast due to Jim Crow laws that were still in effect in California. In her moving acceptance speech, McDaniel said, “I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope that I shall always be a credit to my race and the motion picture industry.” An immensely polished and gifted performer, McDaniel appeared in over 300 films throughout her career and was inducted into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame in 1975.
— Sunidhi Sridhar
White Musician Elvis Presley Gets Credit for Big Mama Thornton’s 1952 “Hound Dog”
As one of the most popular and recognizable tracks in rock ‘n’ roll icon Elvis Presley’s discography, not many people are aware that “Hound Dog” — a swinging, jazzy number released in 1956, — was originally recorded by Black R&B singer Big Mama Thornton. Born in Alabama in 1926, Thornton signed a contract with Peacock Records in 1951 and met songwriting partners Jerry Leiber and Michael Stoller the following year. The pair penned and composed the tune for Thornton’s bluesy, commanding voice, and “Hound Dog” landed at the top of the R&B charts as well as spawned several covers. When Presley re-recorded the song in 1956, however, his version generated much more acclaim and revenue than that of Thornton’s. His appropriation of Black music highlights the prestige and prosperity that has been disproportionately afforded to white musicians at the expense of Black musicians throughout the history of American pop culture.
— Sunidhi Sridhar
Lauryn Hill’s “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”
Despite only having one studio album, Lauryn Hill is regarded as one of the best female rappers of all time. Beginning her music career as a member of the ‘90s hip-hop group Fugees, Hill became a musical force with her lyrical flow and genre blending. Her 1998 critically acclaimed debut album, “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill,” combined genres of hip-hop, reggae, R&B and doo-wop. She received 10 Grammy Awards nominations for the album and won five of them. “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” became the first hip-hop album to win the Album of the Year Award and Hill became the first female rapper to win the Best New Artist Award. Hill not only opened the door for women in the hip-hop and rap scene but also revived the genre. Her use of combining singing with rapping is notable as a precursor to the popular, melodic rap form seen in the hip-hop scene today. With rappers such as Kanye West, JAY-Z, Missy Elliott, Nicki Minaj and more citing Hill as an influence, Hill’s influence on hip-hop is unparalleled.
— Marisol Cruz
Tyler, the Creator’s Carefree Expressions
Launching onto the music scene as the de-facto leader of hip-hop collective Odd Future in the 2010s, Tyler, the Creator has always been pushing artistic boundaries and freely expressing himself without caring what others think. His 2017 album, “Flower Boy,” in particular, saw a blooming of Tyler, with a more polished sound and lyrics opening up about his vulnerabilities and sexuality. In 2019, Grammy-winning “IGOR” tells a story of heartbreak, with Tyler caught in the middle of it. Fusing pop, R&B and soul, Tyler showcases his ingenuity in storytelling and music production as he sings about how the man he fell for is in love with his ex-girlfriend. Tyler is truly a creative and does not restrict himself to simply music-making. He directs his own music videos, had his own TV show and is a fashion icon. The Odd Future donut letter logo was everywhere in the 2010s, and his transition from skater street style to his current preppy “suave grandpa” style has been one to watch. With his own fashion brands — Golf Wang and Golf le Fleur — to collaborations with Converse, Lacoste and Louis Vuitton, he has cemented himself as a force in fashion. Tyler ultimately refuses to be boxed in and creatively expresses himself in any way he wants to, and he assures his fans to do the same: “Tell these black kids they could be who they are / Dye your hair blue, shit, I’ll do it too.”
— Marisol Cruz
Frank Ocean as a Trailblazer
Frank Ocean has reached icon status, shaping the genre of alternative R&B and stamping his influence on current artists today. Starting out as a member of hip-hop collective Odd Future, Ocean began releasing solo music with his 2011 mixtape “Nostalgia, Ultra.” His 2012 album “channel ORANGE” solidified Frank as a musical force of nature. The album entails a genre-bending blend of neo-soul, funk, R&B and hip hop sound with different, unique storylines for each track that are still managed to be fleshed out and feel personal. The release of the radio-themed album was also accompanied by an open letter on Tumblr penned by Ocean revealing that his first love was with a man. The letter ushered in both support and hate, especially within the R&B and hip-hop scene. He followed up the album with the critically acclaimed “Blonde” in 2016, a career-defining abstract and experimental album with lush instrumentation accompanied by lyrics of heartbreak, loss and sexuality. While Frank hasn’t dropped an album since “Blonde,” he has dropped an array of singles and also started his own luxury company, Homer. His influence can be seen all over the current state of R&B and hip-hop today. Newer artists like Brockhampton’s Kevin Abstract and Lil Nas X have credited Ocean with opening the door for queer artists of color to express themselves.
— Marisol Cruz
Little Simz’s “Sometimes I Might Be Introvert”
Little Simz’s “Sometimes I Might Be Introvert” effectively became an instant classic when it dropped less than a year ago, on Sept. 3 in 2021. From its behemoth opening track “Introvert” to the more subdued but incredibly effective closer “Miss Understood,” the 19 tracks of S.I.M.B.I cover soundscapes and lyrical topics as diverse as the very city of London Simz grew up in. With instrumental palettes ranging from dramatic orchestral arrangements to stripped-down rap-ballads, from Afrobeat to smooth, upbeat soul and even incorporating robotic autotune flows over acid drums followed right after by ‘80s disco, Simz somehow blends together all these styles with her equally creative lyrics and flawless delivery. Whether it be rapping about her estranged relationship with her father, the heartfelt diary entry to her older sister, the constant “introvert” war inside her or the hard drive full of classics in her attic, Simz does not miss once on the hour and five minutes of runtime this album blesses us with. In an industry dominated by men and incredibly concentrated in the United States, Simz’s ability to artistically topple anything in recent memory — on top of being released within a week of two goliaths, Ye’s Donda and Drake’s Certified Lover Boy, both of which it floors — is a feat that will surely go down in the musical history books.
— Adam Majcher
A version of this article appeared on pg. 8 of the Feb. 17, 2022 print edition of the Daily Nexus.