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Celebrating Black Artists: Part 5

In this article, we will celebrate Black artists and groups who were influential in shaping Rock music. These artists and bands started their careers in the early '70s through the '90s, beginning with Bill Withers and ending with Gary Clark, Jr.

Don’t forget to review all of our other artist lists.

Bill Withers
Photo Credit: Getty Images

Instrument

Vocals 

Genres

Soul, Funk

Notable Songs

Use Me, Ain’t No Sunshine, Lean on Me

Biography

In just fifteen years in the music business, Bill Withers made a huge impact. He had a smooth yet funky delivery that sold millions of records and appealed to Soul and Pop fans alike. Born in West Virginia in 1938, Withers joined the Navy when he was 17. When he got out nine years later, he pursued a musical career and had his first hit in 1971 at the age of 32.

“Ain’t No Sunshine” from the album Just As I Am, was Bill’s first hit. Produced by Booker T Jones from Booker T and the MGs, the album also features MG Duck Dunn on bass and folk rocker Stephen Stills on lead guitar.  The song won a Grammy, and Bill hit the road on tour. He soon recorded his follow up album Still Bill, which featured “Lean on Me” and the ultra funky “Use Me”. The next hit was “Lovely Day” from the Menagerie album. Bill’s final hit was a collaboration with saxophonist Grover Washington Jr., “Just the Two of Us”.

In 1985, fed up with dealing with record labels, Bill Withers walked away from the music business and never looked back. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015 and passed away in 2020 at the age of 81.

Historical or Cultural Context

Bridged Soul and Pop

Artists/Acts He Influenced

John Legend, Darius Rucker, Ben Harper

Photo Credit: Richard E. Aaron | Redferns

Instruments

Vocals, guitar, keys, drums, bass

Genres

Funk, Pop, Rock

Notable Songs

1999, Little Red Corvette, Let’s Go Crazy, Purple Rain

Associated Artists/Acts

Vanity 6, Sinéad O'Connor, Chaka Khan, Sheila E, Sheena Easton, The Time, The New Power Generation, Madhouse

Biography

Prince, born Prince Rogers Nelson, was an American singer-songwriter, musician, record producer, dancer, actor, filmmaker and cultural visionary. He was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota to a Jazz singer mother and pianist and songwriter father. His parents split up when he was young and he bounced back and forth between their homes seeking understanding and acceptance from both his parents and his siblings. 

Prince signed his first recording contract with Warner Brothers Records at the age of 19. After a string of albums, he achieved a measure of success with mostly R&B releases. In 1985 Prince won an Academy Award for Best Original Song Score for the soundtrack to Purple Rain, a movie loosely based on the singer’s life. Purple Rain propelled Prince to superstardom - it produced four Top Ten singles and has sold more than 25 million copies worldwide. Prince continued to release successful albums throughout his storied career, and is considered one of the most prolific artists in music history. In his lifetime he released 39 albums and is rumored to have left behind hundreds of recorded but unreleased songs in his “Vault”. Prince also wrote several popular songs for other artists, including “Manic Monday” and “Nothing Compares 2 U”. He scored two more soundtracks for his own movies Under the Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge as well as the Batman soundtrack in 1989.

Prince was a charismatic performer, a renowned singer with a huge range and incredible falsetto, and one of the most underrated guitar players in Rock. In addition to his immense talent and amazing songwriting abilities, Prince was considered revolutionary because of the deals he struck with record companies, and for being an artist that brought to light the oppressive nature of recording contracts. In 1992 he signed a record deal worth $100 million. It was an unprecedented amount of money at that time, and was more than either Michael Jackson or Madonna had ever negotiated for a record deal. 

In 1993 Prince changed his name to a symbol becoming known as “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince”. This was to both bring awareness to record industry unfairness and to allow himself to continue to record and distribute his own albums without being legally obligated to Warner Brothers. He stated that Warner Brothers had been limiting the amount of music he could release, controlling when and how he was allowed to release it.

On February 14th, 1996, Prince launched his website “The Dawn” and was one of the first major artists to distribute his music online, changing artists’ perceptions of what they could accomplish without a major label distribution deal. In 2004, he again proved that he could get around industry standards by giving away his Musicology album for free with the purchase of his concert tickets. In doing so, the albums were still counted by Sound Scan as album sales, and as a result Prince landed in the number 3 spot on the Billboard Charts.

Prince died in 2016 of an accidental overdose of pain medication. He left behind a legacy of true artistry, and his influence as a musician and a visionary has inspired everyone from Bruno Mars to Lady Gaga to Beck. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004.

Technical Innovations

The Dawn Website. Suing Warner Brothers and winning the rights to his masters. Beating Sound Scan by giving away albums for free and counting them as sales. 

Historical or Cultural Context

Fought against corrupt business practices in the music industry. Made big strides in figuring out how to release material at the dawn of the age of the internet.

Artists/Acts He Influenced

D’Angelo, Frank Ocean, Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, Alicia Keys, TLC, Miguel, Sheila E., Beck, Lenny Kravitz, The Weeknd, Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Janelle Monae, Cyndi Lauper, Usher, Bruno Mars, Andre 3000, Lady Gaga, Pharrell Williams

Bad Brains

Genres

Punk, Hardcore, Reggae

Notable Songs

Sailin On, Big Takeover, Attitude, Re-Ignition

Associated Artists/Acts

Soul Brains, Human Rights, Mind Power

Biography  

Bad Brains formed in 1977 in Washington, D.C. They actually began as a Jazz Fusion band called Mind Power. Inspired by the upstart D.C. Punk Rock scene, they began to play faster and with more intensity. To further separate themselves from the crowd, Bad Brains incorporated Reggae and Rastafarian philosophy into the mix. Their technical skills allowed them to play with a precision and finesse that their Punk peers lacked.

Vocalist HR, his brother drummer Earl Hudson, bassist Darryl Jenifer and guitarist Dr. Know moved to New York City in 1979 and helped to jumpstart the New York Hardcore scene. Their renowned performances at venues such as CBGBs made them instant legends. Bad Brains has influenced several generations of bands including Minor Threat, Beastie Boys, Living Colour, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Foo Fighters.

Bad Brains are responsible for incorporating the concept of PMA, or Positive Mental Attitude, into the Punk lexicon with their song “Attitude”. Over the years, Bad Brains has had numerous lineup changes and some members have battled health issues, but the band continues to perform sporadically.

As the most successful Black Punk band ever, Bad Brains influenced generations of young Punks of all races. Taking their cues from early Black Punk bands such as Death and Pure Hell, Bad Brains were an inspirational force within the Hardcore scene.

Technical Innovations

Technically proficient Hardcore Punk

Historical or Cultural Context

Most significant Black Punk band, fusion of Punk and Reggae

Artists/Acts They Influenced

Fishbone, Living Colour, Foo Fighters, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Sublime, 311, Minor Threat

Fishbone

Genres

Ska, Punk, Funk, Soul, Rock

Notable Songs

Party at Ground Zero, Everyday Sunshine

Associated Artists/Acts

Dr. Mad Vibe

Biography

Fishbone was formed in 1979 in Southern California. The Fisher brothers (Norwood on bass and “Fish” Fisher on drums), along with vocalist/trumpeter Angelo Moore, guitarist Kendall Jones, trumpet player Walter Kirby II and multi-instrumentalist (trumpet, keys, vocals) Christopher Dowd created a sound that mixed Ska, Punk, Funk, Metal and Soul. The band’s live shows are legendary, with the charismatic Moore commanding the stage like a circus ringleader.

Fishbone broke into the early '80s L.A. club scene and were soon sharing bills with the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They released their first EP in 1985, which included their single “Party at Ground Zero”. The success of that song’s music video on MTV brought the band a wider audience. They reached an even bigger audience when the Beastie Boys tapped them as the opening act for the License to Ill Tour. In 1993 Fishbone joined the Lollapalooza tour. Fishbone brought Black music to a predominantly white alternative music audience. In this NPR interview, Norwood and Angelo speak about navigating race in the world of Rock and Roll.

The '90s found the band facing numerous lineup changes, with drummer “Fish” Fisher leaving first to pursue session drumming. Members came and went, with Suicidal Tendencies guitarist Rocky George playing with the band for over 10 years. In 2010, the documentary movie Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone was released to critical acclaim. In 2017, the original lineup (minus Kendall) reunited for a series of gigs.

Historical or Cultural Context

One of the first Punk/Funk/Ska bands

Artists/Acts They Influenced

No Doubt, Primus, Jane's Addiction, Sublime

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Instrument

Guitar

Genre

Rock

Notable Songs

Sweet Child O’ Mine, Paradise City

Associated Artists/Acts

Guns N’ Roses, Snakepit, Velvet Revolver

Biography

The guitarist Slash was born Saul Hudson in London, England, in 1965. His mother Ola Hudson was a fashion designer that worked with David Bowie and Ringo Starr and his father, Anthony Hudson, designed album covers. Slash’s family moved to Los Angeles when he was five years old and he grew up in California. In high school he began taking guitar lessons and became obsessed with '60s and '70s Classic Rock.

Slash began playing in bands in 1981 with his childhood buddy Steven Adler. In the band Roadcrew (named after a Motörhead song), Slash and Adler added bassist Duff McKagan. That band led to Hollywood Rose with lead vocalist Axl Rose and guitarist Izzy Stradlin. After the break-up of Hollywood Rose, Slash, Rose, Adler, Stradlin and McKagan formed the classic lineup of Guns N’ Roses. Their debut record Appetite For Destruction is the best selling debut Rock record of all time, with over 28 million records sold. It was released in July of 1987.

The lead single on Appetite For Destruction was “Sweet Child O’ Mine” which featured Slash’s iconic, melodic intro guitar lick. The record propelled Slash to Guitar Hero status as the band’s popularity grew. Inspired by Aerosmith, Eric Clapton, Van Halen, the Rolling Stones and Jeff Beck, Slash brought lead guitar back into the spotlight. His trademark black top hat was as ubiquitous as his Les Paul guitar. Sales of Les Pauls took off and Gibson has released several different Slash tribute Les Pauls. Ironically, the Les Paul used on Appetite For Destruction was actually a replica. Slash also has his own model of Marshall amplifier.

Guns N’ Roses’ fame grew, and so did controversy around the band. In 1988, the band released the album Lies and a Live EP. 1991 saw the release of two albums - Use Your Illusion I and II. The albums were released separately and debuted as the number one and two albums in the country. Internal turmoil led to various lineup changes and Slash left Guns N’ Roses in 1996.

Slash started his solo career in 1994 with Slash’s Snakepit and in 2002 formed Velvet Revolver with former Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland as well as GNR alumni McKagan. He also performs with vocalist Myles Kennedy as Slash with Myles Kennedy and The Conspirators. In 2016 Guns N’ Roses reformed with a lineup anchored by Slash, Rose and McKagan. The subsequent two and half year long tour became one of the top grossing tours of all time, proving the lasting influence of the band.

Historical or Cultural Context

One of the most popular guitarists of all time

Artists/Acts He Influenced

Avenged Sevenfold, Buckcherry, The Strokes, Buckethead

Lenny Kravitz
Photo Credit: Larry Darling

Instruments

Guitar, vocals

Genres

Rock, R&B, Funk

Notable Songs

Are You Gonna Go My Way, Always on the Run, Let Love Rule, Fly Away, American Woman

Associated Artists/Acts

Zoro, Karl Denson, Cindy Blackman, Craig Ross, Madonna, Slash

Biography

Lenny Kravitz was born into a show business family in New York City in 1964. His mother was actress Roxie Roker and his father worked in TV production. Kravitz was interested in music from a very young age, becoming proficient at guitar and drums, and was especially inspired by the R&B of the '60s and '70s, including the Jackson 5, James Brown, and Curtis Mayfield. When his mother landed a starring role on the TV show The Jeffersons, the family moved to Los Angeles where Kravitz became influenced by the local rock scene. 

Kravitz’s debut album Let Love Rule - a throwback blend of Funk, Soul, R&B, and Psychedelic influences with a Rock edge - was released in 1989 and established him as an emerging new talent. He followed this up with Mama Said in 1991 and Are You Gonna Go My Way in 1993, two albums which produced massive hits and made Kravitz an international superstar. “Always on the Run”, his collaboration with Slash from Guns N’ Roses, modernized Funk Rock for the 1990s. He continued releasing successful albums throughout the 1990s, and in 1999 had another hit with his cover of The Guess Who’s song “American Woman”. In his storied career, Kravitz has released 11 studio albums, which have sold more than 40 million copies worldwide.

Kravitz is best known as a singer and guitar player. His riffs in “Are You Gonna Go My Way” were pretty much required learning for any guitar student in the 1990s. Kravitz has also found success as a songwriter for other artists, collaborating with legends such as Madonna, Slash, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, and Jay-Z. He has also become a successful actor, appearing in popular movies such as Precious and The Hunger Games. Kravitz is still releasing great music more than 30 years after his debut, and has been an influence on many artists in the music world, from contemporaries like The Black Crowes and Ben Harper to modern stars like Gary Clark Jr. and SAINt JHN.

Historical or Cultural Context

Black guitar hero in 1990s and modern rock

Artists/Acts HE Influenced

Black Crowes, Ben Harper, Gary Clark Jr, SAINt JHN

Living Colour

Genres

Rock, Funk

Notable Songs

Cult of Personality, When Love Rears Its Ugly Head

Biography

Formed in New York in 1984, Living Colour is the most successful Black Hard Rock band in history. Their song “Cult of Personality” from their 1988 album Vivid was a huge hit and was featured heavily on MTV, giving the band a worldwide audience. The band won the Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance in 1990, and again in 1991 for their album Time’s Up which featured the single “When Love Rears Its Ugly Head”.

The bands’ initial lineup was Vernon Reid (guitar), Corey Glover (vocals), Will Calhoun (drums) and Muzz Skillings (bass). Skillings was replaced by bassist Doug Wimbish in 1992. Reid’s fusion of Metal, Jazz and Funk earned the band instant notice. Prior to forming Living Colour, Reid was part of the New York avant-garde Jazz scene and continues to release solo music.  

Reid was instrumental in helping form the Black Rock Coalition in 1985. According to the BRC website, “The BRC opposes those racist and reactionary forces within the American music industry which undermine and purloin our musical legacy and deny Black artists the expressive freedom and economic rewards that our Caucasian counterparts enjoy as a matter of course.”

The band has released 7 albums, most recently 2017’s Shade which featured covers of songs by Robert Johnson and Marvin Gaye.

Historical or Cultural Context

One of the only successful Black Hard Rock bands, helped form Black Rock Coalition

Artists/Acts They Influenced

RATM, Body Count

Tracy Chapman
Photo Credit: Getty Images

Instruments

Vocals, guitar

Genres

Folk, Rock, Blues, Pop

Notable Songs

Fast Car, Give Me One Reason, Talkin Bout a Revolution

Biography

Tracy Chapman is a Grammy-winning singer songwriter. Her distinctive voice and social activism has earned her a strong international following. Tracy was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1964, and she began playing guitar and writing her own songs at age eight. She went off to study at a college prep school and then attended Tufts University.

While at college, Tracy began to perform and she soon caught the attention of a music publisher. After graduating college in 1986, Chapman signed with Elektra Records. Her first single “Fast Car” propelled her to instant celebrity. Her self-titled debut album won three Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist. She continued to release albums, and her fourth album, New Beginnings, featured the hit single “Give Me One Reason”, which won the Grammy for Best Rock Song and sold over five million copies in the US.

Chapman has continued to release music and tour, but her schedule has slowed down considerably. She continues to advocate and perform for various social causes such as civil rights and the eradication of poverty.

Historical or Cultural Context

Best selling female singer songwriter, advocate for civil rights and eradication of poverty

Artists/Acts She Influenced

Ani DiFranco, Ed Sheeran

Rage Against the Machine
Photo Credit: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

Genres

Hard Rock, Alternative Metal

Notable Songs

Bullet In The Head, Freedom, Bulls On Parade, Guerrilla Radio

Associated Artists/Acts

Audioslave, Prophets of Rage

Biography

Rage Against the Machine (often known to fans as RATM or Rage) was formed by Zack de la Rocha (vocals), Tom Morello (guitar), Tim Commerford (bass), and Brad Wilk (drums). The band's first performance was in 1991 in Orange County, California. Rage quickly gained popularity in the following year. They performed with the second Lollapalooza festival, toured Europe, and released the album Rage Against The Machine on the Epic Records label.

RATM is known for their aggressive music and political lyrics. Many of their songs feature lyrical themes speaking out against oppression, racism, police brutality, and censorship. Tom Morello’s heavy riffs, economical lead playing, and innovative use of effects pedals gave their music a unique Hard Rock sound, while Zack de la Rocha’s vocal phrasing and poetic, Hip Hop-style delivery were a major influence on Rap-Rock and Nu-Metal bands of the late 1990s and early 2000s. By 1994, the band’s debut album was certified platinum, selling more than one million copies. 

In 1996 Rage Against the Machine performed at the Tibetan Freedom Concert. In that same year, they released the album Evil Empire, which debuted at number one on the Billboard Top 200 chart. The video for their rock anthem “Bulls On Parade” was nominated for Best Hard Rock Video at the MTV Video Music Awards. 

Perhaps predictably given the band’s outspoken views, their career was not without controversy. In 1996, the band had an appearance on Saturday Night Live cut short after producers deemed their stage set up (featuring upside-down American flags) to be too inflammatory. The band also famously shut down the New York Stock Exchange during the filming of the music video for the song “Sleep Now in the Fire”. However, the band also put its money where its mouth was: RATM often performed for free at charity events or political causes, and even donated all of their profits from an opening slot on U2’s world tour to charitable organizations. 

Shortly after releasing another number one album The Battle of Los Angeles, RATM broke up in 2000 with Zack de la Rocha leaving for a solo career and the other musicians forming the band Audioslave with former Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell.

The band reunited in 2007, and joined forces in 2016 with Chuck D from Public Enemy and B-Real of Cypress Hill to create Prophets of Rage. Although the band has not been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame despite being nominated, their unique blend of Rock, Metal, and Hip Hop influences had an enormous impact on the music that was produced in the late 90s and early 2000s.

Technical Innovations

Tom Morello’s use of guitar techniques that have a DJ-like quality

Historical or Cultural Context

Ultra political 90s band that fused Hard Rock and Hip Hop influences

Artists/Acts They Influenced

RATM influenced the Nu-Metal genre in the 1990s

Gary Clark, Jr.
Photo Credit: Ryan Hunter

Instruments

Guitar, vocals

Genres

Blues, Rock, Soul

Notable Songs

Bright LightsAin’t Messin Around, This Land

Biography

Gary Clark Jr. is a Blues, Rock and Soul singer / guitarist from Austin, TX. Born in 1984, Clark was mentored by Blues club owner Clifford Antone. Antone arranged for a teenaged Clark to sit in with Blues legends Hubert Sumlin and Pinetop Perkins. Antone had mentored Stevie Ray and Jimmie Lee Vaughan in the same way. Clark is now part owner of the iconic venue.

Clark’s national breakout performance was at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festival in 2010 alongside BB King, Jeff Beck, Buddy Guy, and Clapton himself. His 2012 album Blak and Blu featured the hit “Bright Lights”. “Please Come Home” won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional R&B Song, while “Ain’t Messin Around” was nominated but did not win for Best Rock Song.  

Clark then released The Story of Sonny Boy Slim in 2015 with its single “The Healing”. The album’s sound featured more elements of R&B and Hip Hop alongside Clark’s bluesy soloing. In an unusual move for newer artists, Clark’s label Warner Bros also released two live albums, Live (2014) and Live North America (2016)

In 2019, Clark released the powerful This Land which won the Grammys for Best Rock Performance and Best Rock Song. The title track “This Land” is a blistering indictment of racism in the modern United States as covered in part in this interview.

Historical or Cultural Context

Young Blues phenom dealing with racism in the modern age

LEARN ABOUT OTHER BLACK ARTISTS

This article was last updated in September, 2020.