Celebrate African American Music Appreciation Month with NEA National Heritage Fellows!

By Don Ball

At the National Endowment for the Arts, we look forward to June, when we can share our appreciation of African-American music with the rest of the world during African-American Music Appreciation Month. While the agency has championed jazz for decades, especially with its NEA Jazz Masters program, what people might not realize is that our NEA National Heritage Fellowship program also honors and celebrates African-American music.

So let’s take a look at some of the great artists who have been honored over the years.

Bessie Jones (1982 NEA National Heritage Fellow) is best known as a member of the Georgia Sea Island Singers, who were filmed by Alan Lomax in the 1960s, preserving the African-American songs and culture of the islands. Jones’ grandfather was a former slave and would share songs and stories of the “old ways” with her, which she would share with audiences. And just listening to her sing, you can feel the history.



Out of Louisiana comes Clifton Chenier (1984 NEA National Heritage Fellow), who blended the traditional sound of French Creole music with New Orleans rhythm-and-blues to create the modern sounds of zydeco. Chenier’s accordion-playing and ferocious live shows helped to popularize zydeco for national audiences.



The blues were created by African-Americans, providing a way of expressing the pains and joys of their lives. Probably the best-known Heritage winner in the blues would be B.B. King (1991 NEA National Heritage Fellow) with the stinging notes of his guitar Lucille and his mellifluous voice that influenced all the performers that came after him. His style of electrifying the delta blues made it popular with hits like “The Thrill Is Gone.”



Mavis Staples (2006 NEA National Heritage Fellow) was a member of the gospel group the Staple Singers in the 1960s, headed by her father Pops Staples (who had received a Heritage Fellowship in 1998), before heading into a solo career that mixed gospel with rhythm-and-blues and rock, working with people such as Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and bluesman Ben Harper.



Known as the “Godfather of Go-Go,” Chuck Brown (2005 NEA National Heritage Fellow) created his distinct blend of funk, jazz, and rhythm-and-blues in the nation’s capital. After a stint in prison, he decided to pursue music professionally, eventually forming his band the Soul Searchers. He scored a number one hit with the song “Bustin’ Loose” and his music has been sampled by rappers due to its strong beats.



Barbara Lynn (2018 NEA National Heritage Fellow) came out of the Texas rhythm-and-blues scene in the 1960s, unusual at the time for playing guitar (left-handed to boot) and writing her own songs. Her music influenced younger Gulf Coast musicians like Marcia Ball and Lou Ann Barton, and was popular enough that the Rolling Stones even covered a song of hers on 1965's The Rolling Stones, Now!

We've just announced the 2019 class of NEA National Heritage Fellows! Meet them here, and save the date for the 2019 NEA National Heritage Fellowships Concert on Friday, September 20, 2019.