Celebrating Black Music Month: An NEA Crowdsourced Post

By Aunye Boone
Five Black men and one White man, wearing black suits, perform on stage

The Marsalis Family, 2011 NEA Jazz Masters, perform with bassist Jason Stewart at the tribute concert at the Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. Photo by Frank Stewart

Black Music Month is a time that our nation celebrates the creativity, innovation, and influence of Black artists and creatives across various genres, including jazz, blues, R&B, hip-hop, gospel, country, and more. Throughout history, Black artists have used their talents as a powerful medium to express emotions, tell stories, and advocate for social justice and equality. From the soulful melodies of Aretha Franklin to the revolutionary lyrics of Tupac Shakur, Black music has transcended time, connected people from different backgrounds, and provided a voice for the voiceless.

For this crowdsourced post, we asked NEA staff to share their favorite work of music by a Black artist. We hope that the responses below inspire you to groove, create a new music playlist, and honor the timeless tunes that resonate around the world!

I’m going to merge two of my favorite Black artists, Bill Withers and José James, and offer James’ cover of Withers’ “Lovely Day” as a favorite work. It’s such a gentle, uplifting song, and I love James’ tribute to Withers in this song and the rest of his album Lean on Me.
–Beth Bienvenu

My admiration for a talented artist who has always held a special place in my heart is Aaliyah Haughton. Aaliyah’s music has always resonated with me in a way that no other artist has. Her songs exude creative rhythms that one can’t help but move to, while her choreography adds an angelic touch to each performance. Her unique style and graceful presence truly made her a standout in the music industry. Whether it’s classics like “4 Page Letter” or “Rock the Boat,” Aaliyah’s music continues to inspire me.
–Toniqua Grigsby

I really enjoy the work of the Kenyan singer-songwriter J.S. Ondara, especially the song titled “Lebanon”—beyond beautiful!
–Eleanor Billington

One of my favorite albums is Loé Loá - Rural Recordings Under The Mango Tree by Betsayda Machado y Parranda El Clavo. The album features Afro-Venezuelan music rooted in the freedom songs of El Clavo, a village founded by escaped enslaved persons, and there is even a song dedicated to the saint of escaped enslaved persons. The trajectory of this ensemble is nothing short of extraordinary—just like the music genre they represent (Tambor), which is rumored to make dancers float!
–Jax Deluca

When I think of a favorite body of work, I think of an album where you don’t skip any songs. That album for me is Mariah Carey's Grammy-Award winning album, The Emancipation of Mimi—known for its masterful blend of R&B, pop, and hip-hop, highlighting Carey's remarkable vocal range and emotional depth. The album's catchy beats, timeless lyrics, and hit singles like “We Belong Together” and “Fly Like a Bird” helped create the melodic playlist of my middle school memories in the early 2000s.
–Aunye Boone

I’ll go with the album Here’s Little Richard by Little Richard. This album is the blueprint for nearly everything that came after it. Little Richard was and is the true King of Rock and Roll.
–Ben Kessler

I love anything by Beyoncé, but “Schoolin’ Life” from her album 4 is one of my favorites. It was on the deluxe edition and doesn’t get enough love—it’s a great song to play when you’re getting ready in the morning or need a little boost. “Just remember stay relentless/ Don't stop running until it's finished/ It's up to you, the rest is unwritten.”
–Carolyn Coons

I love “Home Maker” by Sudan Archives from her album Natural Brown Prom Queen (2022). There are so many different movements and beats in this song and she so flawlessly incorporates strings into her music, as a self-taught violinist. I think I’ve listened to this song about 1,000 times. Other great songs on that album are “Selfish Soul” and “OMG BRITT.”
–Kate Folsom

I have to go with something by the unbelievable Rhiannon Giddens. I’m in awe of her, honestly. She’s composed an opera, ballet, and music for film. She sings folk, blues, jazz, Cajun, gospel, rock, you name it. She won two Grammys, a Pulitzer, a MacArthur “Genius” grant. Her voice is so beautiful and soulful and her dedication to ‘lifting up people whose contributions to American musical history have previously been overlooked or erased’ runs deep. Choosing among her songs feels impossible, but I’ll take this opportunity to raise up one of two songs that she turned into children’s books: “We Could Fly,” co-written with Dirk Powell and illustrated by Briana Mukodiri Uchendu.
–Amy Stolls

A song that is near and dear to my heart is “Jesus is Love” by The Commodores. I am not at all religious, but that song reminds me of growing up in [Washington,] DC in the early 1980s. Donnie Simpson was the morning DJ on WKYS-FM, and he would end every single show with that song. Everybody knew that if it was 10 am, Donnie Simpson was playing ‘Jesus is Love’ on 95.5 FM. Hearing a gospel song every day on a secular radio station taught me the importance of the Black church in local DC, and it always makes me smile.
–Stephanie Scott

My favorite Wynton Marsalis albums are Big Train and Classic Wynton. When I began trumpet lessons, my instructor told my parents that the best way for me to develop my ear was to listen to instrumental music. Even though I switched from the trumpet to the flute, I always say my love for classical and jazz began at the same time because I received these two CDs.
–Xavier Boudreaux