10 Blackest Songs: How Does Blackness Sound?
Editor’s note: The following article is an editorial, and the opinions expressed are those of the author. Read more opinions on the Grio.
The idea of choosing the 10 Blackest songs is daunting. The darkness is deep, dynamic and complex. But it’s black music month, then we have to do it. Here’s my list, and in the next two weeks, my music-loving brothers Panama Jackson and Matthew Allen will come up with their list of the 10 blackest songs. But you know what it is – I’m curious to see what they’ll say, but between us, that’s the real list.
Yes, musicians have done a better job of articulating Blackness than artists of any other art form, but Blackness is so deep it can’t be summed up in a single song. Yet there are songs that are so meaningful to the black community that they make up the playlist of who we are. There are songs that tell the story of being black in a deep way. There are songs that show the essence of being Black in their own way. And there are songs that are the apotheosis of a genre of black music.
In making this list, I looked for songs that fit those values - I asked myself 1) is this deeply meaningful to the black community? or 2) does it tell the story of being black in America? or 3) does it somehow show the essence of being black? or 4) is it the zenith of a genre of black music?
In putting together this list, I spoke to a few musicians for their input and took their advice, but ultimately followed my instincts, which drew me mainly to soul, funk and blues, and not towards hip-hop or disco. Maybe it’s because I believe soul, funk and blues are often in conversation with what it means to be black in a more open way than the latter genres. Obviously, hip-hop and disco are extraordinarily dark, and their exclusion casts no shadow – hip-hop is my musical mother tongue – but when I hear the 10 songs below, I get chills in my black soul and my face wrinkles. up as I start to swing. They have a control over me that goes beyond my awareness. They are, to me, the sound of Blackness. (Presented in no particular order.)
“Redemption Song”, Bob Marley: It is the legendary natural mystic who sings the song of the Blacks. It begins by taking us from Africa and lands on the imperative for us to free ourselves from mental bondage. It means destroying colonialism and white centrism, but it also empowers and liberates black people by telling us that true freedom is within our reach. The message is powerful and the messenger sings a timeless song.
“The Problem Man”, Marvin Gaye: Marvin sings a kind of spiritual history of black people—”I came on hard, but now I’m cool. I couldn’t make it sugar, respecting the rules. “We had to fight to get there, and we had to find creative ways to slip through the matrix, but now we’re cool, and when Marvin says, ‘We’re cool’, there are so many meanings that fit to this word. Marvin is one of the blackest singers of all time – black male falsetto is a thing of beauty – and his performance on this record is historic. In the middle he raps – in 1972. Before the first time, Kool Herc released his set.
“Before You Let Go”, Maze with Frankie Beverly: It’s just the sound of joy. This song lifts me up every time. It has a special reverence among black people because it is the ultimate black party jam, ideal for barbecues, birthdays and weddings. Questlove once told me during his journey as a DJ that he learned to play “Before I Let Go” at every Black function. For example, this song is Blackfamous – everyone knows “Redemption Song”. but if you throw “Before I Let Go” on a mixed party, I think you’ll see a different reaction from blacks and whites. This song has been the ultimate black party jam for so long you’ve probably listened to it at 100 parties, so there are all kinds of positive associations in this song.
“Flashlight”, Parliament: This is the apotheosis of funk. It’s a legendary black party jam, and the musicianship here is an example of black excellence. The way they play with the beat is amazing. The song is so deep in the pocket it’s scary.
“Respect”, Aretha Franklin: She’s one of the greatest singers of all time, and you can hear the black church all over her style. If “Trouble Man” is a black man’s spiritual story, then maybe “Respect” is a black woman’s spiritual story. Aretha’s performance is incendiary, and the message is so real and direct: I just want respect. This song has become a feminist anthem, and it’s been in so many movies and TV shows that it will live on forever. It’s one of those songs that is played so often in America that I consider it one of those songs that comes in through the windows. You can’t help knowing “Respect”.
“Adore”, Prince: It’s the apotheosis of Prince, the apotheosis of 80s soul, the apotheosis of romantic love crooning. Prince’s performance as a singer is dripping with soul. He is one of the blackest music makers of all time. This song shows us his genius as a singer, but it also shows his genius as a writer. Consider This: For decades, the crux of black music has been the sense that Saturday night (and the bacchanalia that accompanies it) isn’t really that far removed from Sunday morning (and the sanctity of church ). Black music likes to combine the sacred and the profane by linking gospel and sexual music. One of the central stems of the conversation that black music has had with us for decades is that we can be sacred and secular at the same time or at least in the same body, and I think this song brings that conversation to its highest point. . I mean, come on, Prince describes having passionate sex while the angels watch and mourn the beauty.
“Superstition”, Stevie Wonder: The incredible funky of this record and the bluesy vocals of Stevie destroy me every time.
“Bam Bam”, Sister Nancy: The greatest dancehall song ever made.
“Mannish Boy”, Muddy Waters: The greatest blues song of all time. The blues is the root of black music as well as the root of the tree that is American music. If it’s a sound from this country, it’s the child or grandchild of the blues, so I can’t have a list that doesn’t speak to the blues. This song is an incredible performance by one of the masters of the blues, and it poetically describes the black American experience.
“Strange Fruit”, Billie Holiday: Black music has sometimes been a place where we can speak up and demand change. A place where we could be politically aggressive and boldly revolutionary. “Strange Fruit” is an attack on white supremacy and white domestic terrorism – it’s about lynching – and for Holiday to sing it in her time took courage. So the public performance of the song is a dark political act, but my goodness, the way Holiday’s iconic vocals pierce your soul is nothing short of amazing.
Honorable Mentions: There are so many others that I could have named. I thought of “Untitled” by D’Angelo. “Saturday Love” by Cherrelle and Alexander O’Neal. “Everybody Loves the Sun” by Roy Ayers. “Dad Was a Rolling Stone” by The Temptations. “Nothing Goes On But Rent” by Gwen Guthrie. “A Change Will Come” by Sam Cooke. “Chocolate City by Parliament. Almost anything by James Brown could be on this list. Same thing with Sly Stone, Nina Simone and Curtis Mayfield. I thought a lot about including some Miles Davis – “Bitches Brew” or “Kind of Blue” – because Miles is one of the blackest of all time, but jazz is such a different animal. popular music that I wanted to leave it out. But I could make a whole list with just Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Max Roach. In struggling to figure out how to include hip-hop, I considered Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” a kind of anthem for black resilience, and Jay-Z’s “The Story of OJ,” where he talks about what means being black and some A Tribe Called Quest and Public Enemy. But, maybe I’m too close to hip-hop.
Touré hosts the “Touré Show” podcast and the “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books.
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