February is African American History Month. During this time, we honor the contributions of the many African American men and women who helped make our country great. From the beginning, African Americans have played a powerful role in everything from politics and human rights to science and the arts.
Music wouldn’t be the same without the influence of African American artists. Gospel, blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, soul, funk, reggae, and hip hop are just some of the musical legacies created by African Americans. Can you imagine what today’s music might sound like without these contributions? We don’t want to!
To celebrate African American History Month, we want to highlight the African American artists who have influenced music. But a complete list would have hundreds of names, so after much consideration we narrowed our selection down to 12 favorites. Each of these artists have played a profound role in shaping the world of music.
1. Louis Armstrong
One of the greatest jazz musicians of all time, Louis Armstrong broke barriers and created music that has touched the hearts of millions. In a career spanning five decades, Armstrong helped popularize solo improvisation and ushered in multiple new jazz sounds. His song “What a Wonderful World” is frequently included on lists of the best songs of all time.
2. Ella Fitzgerald
Often called the “First Lady of Song” or the “Queen of Jazz,” Ella Fitzgerald was a singer whose rich voice quickly became iconic. Rising to fame in the 1930s, Fitzgerald made profound impact as a jazz vocalist and paved the way for future generations of African American singers.
3. Billie Holiday
Born Eleanora Fagan, Billie Holiday began singing in Harlem nightclubs and found a niche thanks to her amazing voice. Her unique style pioneered a new technique of singing phrases and tempos. Soon, Holiday signed a recording contract and became one of the most influential singers of the jazz era.
4. Ray Charles
Ray Charles is a legend of American music who fused gospel, country, and R&B into a new genre that became known as “soul.” Although he lost his vision at a young age, Charles never let his blindness slow him down. In his lengthy career, Charles wrote multiple hit songs and won 17 Grammy Awards. Rolling Stone named Ray Charles #10 on their 100 Greatest Artists of All Time list in 2002.
5. Aretha Franklin
Perhaps best known for the hit song “Respect,” Aretha Franklin was one of the most popular singers of the 1960s and came to be known as the “Queen of Soul.” Although she also wrote songs and played the piano, Franklin is perhaps best remembered for her powerful, energetic voice.
6. BB King
Riley B. King, better known as B.B. King, was a highly influential guitarist, singer-songwriter, and record producer who became known as the “King of Blues.” An extremely prolific performer throughout his life, King pioneered a new style of soloing that focused on vibrato and string bending.
7. Jimi Hendrix
Considered by many to be the greatest guitarist of all time, Jimi Hendrix is an American icon. Sadly, Hendrix’s career was very short-lived; he passed away at age 27. But he left the world with a powerful legacy that popularized the electric guitar and changed the world of music forever.
8. James Brown
Known for many hit singles including “Sex Machine” and “Get Up Offa That Thing,” James Brown was a spirited performer whose funky approach to soul and R&B influenced generations of future musicians. Hailed by many as the “Godfather of Soul,” James Brown’s career lasted over 50 years.
9. Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder, born Stevland Hardaway Morris in 1950, is one of America’s greatest living singer-songwriters and producers. Blinded shortly after his birth, Stevie Wonder was a Motown child prodigy before his adult career took off with “Superstition,” one of the greatest pop songs of all time. He has sold over 100 million records worldwide.
Prince was an American icon whose music dominated the 80s and early 90s. His one-of-a-kind voice, songwriting talent, and bold, extravagant public persona helped create the modern definition of a pop star. Even after his heyday, Prince continued to shape the musical landscape by mentoring younger artists and constantly evolving his own sound. Sadly, Prince passed away unexpectedly in 2016.
11. Dr. Dre
Andre Romelle Young, better known as Dr. Dre, is a producer, rapper, songwriter, record executive, and entrepreneur who is considered one of the pioneers of hip hop. Dr. Dre first rose to fame with gangsta rap icons N.W.A. in the 1990s before solo debut album The Chronic cemented his own career as a musical innovator.
Finally, we couldn’t compile a list of influential African American musical artists without the Queen herself, Beyoncé. Originally a member of the female group Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé released her first solo album in 2003 and soon became one of the most powerful women in music. Her amazing performances and hit songs have influenced countless younger artists and Beyoncé continues to blaze trails today.