In the music industry, it is difficult for many artists, especially Black entertainers, to have full control over their artistry. Unfortunately, their creativity is usually usurped by executives who are not in tune with true works of art, focusing solely on sales. Once they have a formula that works on the charts, they love to stick to it for as long as possible, usually resulting in the same type of songs being played over and over again on the radio. To add insult to injury, Black artists are usually molded into certain stereotypes that are detrimental within the Black community and project a false image of Black culture to the world. The authentic artistry of talented Black men and women turns into a propaganda machine which is disheartening, especially to those of us who remember groundbreaking mainstream artists like Prince, Marvin Gaye, Grace Jones, A Tribe Called Quest, Queen Latifah, Wu-Tang Clan, Lauryn Hill, Outkast, and Erykah Badu, to name a few. Therefore, it is always refreshing to see a fearless Black artist follow their lead by creating art from the heart and not letting their status change their scope. This two-part series is my small token of appreciation for 10 current Black artists that march to the beat of their own drum. Here are the first 5 artists:
1. Dawn Richard – The most underrated indie superstar. Dawn Richard is a force to be reckoned with. Known for her unique spin on R&B music and striking visuals, the New Orleans native is the ultimate independent artist, from starting her own label to building her own stage on tour. Dawn garnered name recognition through her previous groups’ successes with Danity Kane and Dirty Money but gained much respect from critics once she created a lane on her own with her “Progressive R&B” – an innovative sound that goes beyond the confines of traditional rhythm and blues. She adds a little bit of electronica, trance, dance, hip hop and African rhythms to her R&B melodic vocals, blending the mashup seamlessly while still maintaining her pen game. Furthermore, Dawn has been breaking the mold with her stunning visuals working with a slew of animators, making her, arguably, one of the most underrated superstars out. Hopefully, one day, the world will get to really understand why Miss Independent should be on the top of the charts.
2. Kendrick Lamar – The jazz musician trapped in a rapper’s flow. TDE’s most popular artist holds his star status for good reason. Kendrick Lamar is pushing the rap genre to its limits with jazz-inspired records, jaw-dropping performances, and sharp lyricism. He has shaken up the music world with his latest album, To Pimp A Butterfly, becoming an instant classic for many hip-hop heads and an inspiration to overall music enthusiasts and musicians alike- even David Bowie! He also released another incredible album before Butterfly titled good kid, m.a.a.d. city where he gave us an intimate look into L.A. streets reminiscent of Nas’s Illmatic, and served us his appetizing leftovers after the feast of Butterfly with untitled unmastered. In addition, he showed his appreciation for jazz music, more subtly on his first two unofficial albums – Overly Dedicated and Section 80, which created the buzz around him prior to his first official debut record. There is no telling where he will go next but it is without a doubt that he will give 1000% and have some jazz influence in the overall project and for that, we can always appreciate his artistry.
3. Janelle Monae – The electric lady. “I’m an alien from outer space,” she proclaims on Violet Stars Happy Hunting! and I am starting to think that’s true because her impeccable style, music, talent, business sense is starting to look otherworldly. She is a singer, songwriter, producer, performer, businesswoman, actress and Cover Girl. In all her ventures, she always finds the lineage between her work and her message. She has stated in many interviews that she wants to represent the Other – the marginalized people through her work and she has been able to do that through her cutting-edge music that blends a little soul, rock, funk, R&B, hip-hop and some futuristic vibes while empowering the misunderstood, the dismiss and the broken with her moving lyrics. Her music is so good that legendary artists have taken note like Outkast, Diddy, and Prince who have all played influential roles in her musical path. She even got the chance to duet with the Purple One. How electric is that!? She also delivers on her representation of the Other through the films that she chooses to be a part of with the critically-acclaimed Moonlight that is a coming of age story of a young gay Black man and the soon to be released Hidden Figures that puts a bright spotlight on three intelligent Black women who played a major role in NASA’s historic launch of astronaut John Glenn. And if that wasn’t enough, she also runs her own record label, Wondaland Arts Society, where she mentors and guides plenty of super talented artists from Jidenna to St. Beauty. She is the definition of a bawse, proving to be one electric lady.
4. Solange – The mellow songstress with bright boldness. When Solange first stepped onto the scene, she was constantly bombarded with questions about her well-known sister, Beyonce. After awhile, she began to get noticeably frustrated, not answering those tired question. She simply wanted to be seen as not Beyonce’s sister but as Solange Knowles – an artist in her own right. Ever since her first record, Solo Star, she showed signs of being “outside the box.”. It was most evident on the songs that she played a significant role in as singer, songwriter, and producer. Since then, she has been able to have more control of her sound and became bold with her work not only in her music but also in fashion, business, and her overall message. Since those days as a solo star, she has built a name and brand for herself with her own record label, Saint Heron which recently released her critically-acclaimed record, A Seat at the Table, serves as the creative and art director of her own sneaker collection with PUMA, is the music consultant for one of this year’s most popular shows, Insecure and has written one of the most eloquent pieces of underhanded racism on her own website. She is definitely someone who has always been her own woman and maintained her individuality in such a glaring spotlight.
5. Childish Gambino – The renaissance man.
Donald Glover a.k.a. Childish Gambino does whatever he wants and gives zero fucks what anybody thinks about it. Before we dive into his latest record that stunned Questlove, let’s look at his other work. When he was in his early 20s, he wrote on a major television show, 30 Rock and even made a few cameos. He then went on to become one of the standout characters on the hit series, Community. When he got bored with that job, he started to dabble with rap music with mixtapes and EPs under the name Childish Gambino because why not? Two years later, he did a funny stand-up special on Comedy Central called Weirdo. And then, he went right back into his music, releasing his debut full-length album, Camp which was followed by Because the Internet and STN MTN/Kauai. On the last two records, he stepped up his lyrics, added more depth to the production and evoked a vast range of emotions through his words, sounds, and vocals. Not to mention, he also put together a well-written screenplay for Because the Internet and basically trolled the internet literally while promoting the record. Brilliant. Then this year, he decided to create his own dope ass television series, Atlanta, release an epic 1970s funk/soul-infused record that features no rapping, Awaken, My Love!. Shortly after the album release, he dropped a link on his Twitter page with no explanation that leads you to an app where you can see him perform one of the leading tracks, Me and Your Mama. And he shows up and shows out! I am beginning to wonder what can’t this man do!? Maybe he can’t swim. I can see that.
Please check out next week’s post where I list 5 more current Black artists that are marching to the beat of their own drum!