Black people in America have some of the richest musical histories in the world. Through joy and pain, Black music has transformed, drawing upon the traditions of the diaspora and the ingenuity of a creative people, to bring sunshine to darkness and rain to the driest of hearts. From blues to jazz to gospel to hip-hop, our songs have woven the threads of American culture into a tapestry and become a symbol of hope and being heard. So, in 1979, President Jimmy Carter designated the month of June Black Music Month. In honor of Black Music Appreciation Month, I am sharing songs from the soundtrack for MY life, gifted by Black musicians.
When my faith is frail – Trust Me by Richard Smallwood and Vision
Richard Smallwood is probably my absolute favorite artist in the world. His masterful way of bringing scripture to musical life while blending gospel with classical, jazz, and blues is what made me fall in love with music and pursue it seriously. The substance of the songs, on the other hand, has gotten me through many hard times. As I bride, I even walked down the aisle to one of his songs. I could have chosen almost anything from Smallwood’s catalogue, but “Trust Me,” in its simplicity is the perfect reminder that God is sovereign and in control.
When I feel like singing…Sweet Afternoon
Gospel made me fall in love with music, but big ballads made me fall in love with singing. The stage was once one of my favorite places, and one of my favorite things to do is escape into a good song and tell a great story. Avery Sunshine paints wonderful portraits with her vocal abilities, songwriting, and piano playing. I just hope my performance at Nashville’s Listening Room did this song justice.
When I need positive vibes…Chains (Optimistic) by Sounds of Blackness
Sounds of Blackness isn’t just a performance ensemble, they are a cultural institution. This year, Sounds of Blackness celebrates 50 years of advancing the history and culture of Black people through music. Songs like “Optimistic” have become anthems of hope and light for all people during trying times. This song has such as positive message, set to a slamming blend of gospel progressions and hip-hop style. It always keeps my head UP and bobbing.
My favorite love song – Love All the Hurt Away by Aretha Franklin and George Benson
When two of the greatest artists in the world get together for a duet, expect fireworks. There is something about finding the one whom your soul loves after enduring many heartbreaks. “Love All the Hurt Away” perfectly expresses the treasure of a love gone right. Aretha Franklin and George Benson also provide just the right balance of vocal prowess and restraint, like fudge royale ice cream with the perfect swirl.
When I need to get in a groove – Chameleon by Herbie Hancock
The incomparable Herbie Hancock has been redefining jazz for over 60 years. Over the course of 50+ albums, Hancock gave us standards like “Watermelon Man” and enduring favorites such as Rockit, a milestone at the intersection of jazz and hip-hop. I put the entire Headhunters album toward the top of my list, but “Chameleon,” in its superb simplicity, is a vibe to get lost in.
When I’m feeling nostalgic – I Wish by Skee-Lo
Ah, the ’90s. A much simpler time. “I Wish” is an everyman’s anthem. From the Bernard Wright sample to the infectious hook, the song is swimming with the revelry of normalcy that you can’t help but love. It takes all the “almost,” “not quites,” and “might-have-beens” of Skee-Lo’s shortcomings (no pun intended), and spin them into something celebratory. How cool is that?
When I Need To Smile – On Your Face
If “turn that frown upside down” was a song…
I can’t say that I’ve ever heard an Earth, Wind, and Fire song that made me sad. “On Your Face” is no exception. The way the baseline walks down and back up is like a music metaphor peaks and valleys in life. It’s as if they saw my chin falling and used music to lift it up. It sounds like meat on a hot grill in my Grandma’s backyard. Maurice White’s vocal attitude speaks irreverently to sorrow – throwing it the musical bird – and I love to hear it.
When I’m feeling homesick – I Ain’t Studdin’ Ya – Bobby Rush
My Dad was a mechanic when I was growing up, and he did a great majority of his work on a mobile basis. I spent many an afternoon riding around various neighborhoods in the city. I was really fascinated one day when we passed by this house in Hemingway that had these giant iron music notes on the side. Dad explains that it’s the house where Bobby Rush lives. It was on that day my heart swelled with pride that there was celebrity in my neighborhood.
You see, when most people think of the blues, they think of the Robert Johnsons and B.B. Kings of the world. When you turn on 90.1 WMPR in Jackson, MS, you’ll hear homegrown legends like those two, but you’ll hear them sandwiched in between a steady layer of the likes of Mel Waiters, Sir Charles, Pokey Bear, and Nellie Tiger Travis. As a matter of fact, it’s one of the few places you might hear a Mississippi Mass song immediately followed by “Mr. Sexy Man” on Sunday morning. I kid you not. Anywho, the film Dolemite Is My Name may have introduced “I Ain’t Studdin’ Ya” to new audiences, but this song and its contemporaries were part of the soundtrack to my childhood.
When I need to relax – Show You the Way by Thundercat ft. Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins
I turned on Chris Rock’s Tambourine special on Netflix one day, and I heard an iconic drum riff – the intro from the Isley’s “Footprints in the Dark.” I was fully prepared to jam, but I instead received something pleasantly different, so much so that I had to Shazam the song. It was “Them Changes” by an up-and-comer named Thundercat. This cat’s musicality was so captivating that I had to look him up. Low and behold, I was blessed with this collaboration with two of my all-time favorite artists, Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins. “Show You the Way” is warm like the first rays of sun after you open the curtains in the morning. Or better yet, it sounds sweet like syrup and smooth like butter on hot pancakes. The flavor just bounces. It’s easily one my favorite songs.
Wanna hear more, check out the entire playlist here on YouTube.