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twenty black voices

Our Final Black Voice for the New Century in our month long series  is the British singer from Birmingham, Laura Mvula. Her music is all about combining diverse influences. They range from her Caribbean background to her time spent studying composition at the Birmingham Conservatory. 

She also has a unique way with vocal harmony stacking odd intervals together to great emotional effect with a nod to her time spent as the Director of more than one choir. Her debut album Sing to The Moon was long-listed for the Brit Awards last year. And this is only the start.

Janelle Monáe created an entire alternate world with her first releases: a sci-fi musical landscape where alter ego Cindi Mayweather serves as a way to explore issues of race and class. Sure, this could this end up incredibly boring, or nerdy, or just music to avoid, but not in Janelle Monáe’s hands. The 28-year-old has a funky style, and draws you in with passion, intelligence and fun.

Watching her step and sing through the video for “Tightrope” (from her 2010 full length debut The ArchAndroid) you want to follow her.  In 2013 music fans continued to do so as Janelle Monáe put out her second disc The Electric Lady.  With her futuristic vision, she is not only one of the 20 Black Voices for a New Century, she is a voice for the next century.

It’s not often nowadays that a blues guitarist achieves such a wide reaching buzz, but when you see Gary Clark Jr. live, it’s easy to understand why he has been the subject of so much attention.  The Austin native began playing the guitar at the age of 12, and was taken under the wing of famed local promoter Clifford Antone, owner of the local blues club Antone’s.  By the time he was 17, Austin’s mayor had declared a “Gary Clark Jr. Day” in the Live Music Capital of the World, and Clark was balancing his fame there with high school. 

After two albums on a smaller label, Clark released his major label debut Blak and Blu in 2012.  In a genre where the older vanguard fret about disappearing interest, Gary Clark Jr. ignites an enthusiasm for the blues that makes him an obvious choice as one of the 20 Black Voices for a New Century.  He “Ain’t Messin ‘Round”!

20 Black Voices for the New Century: Celebrated soul singer Sharon Jones is a case study on the importance of passion and persistance in music. Raised on funk and regularly performing at New York City gospel churches, she didn’t break out right away. In fact, she held down a day job as a corrections officer at Rikers Island into her early 40s, when a session gig singing with the legendary Lee Fields sparked her full-time professional singing career. 

Jones may have been a late bloomer, but she moved fast, building a name with her band The Dap-Kings and carrying the banner of Daptones Records, which released all six of her albums - from 2002’s Dap Dippin’ to the current Give the People What They Want, released in January after Jones’ triumphant return to the stage following treatment for pancreatic cancer. She’s a powerhouse vocalist, a charismatic performer and a dedicated soul who does not let anything come between her and her music.

20 Black Voices For A New Century: Much has been made about Pharrell’s big hat that the fashionably fashionable Pharrell Williams wore during the recent Grammy Award ceremonies. Even as much as it was the subject of a lot of conversation, the hat hasn’t overshadowed the fact that Williams is one of contemporary music’s most versatile and industrious musicians, producers, singers and rappers. As part of the production team The Neptunes, and as a member of the band N.E.R.D. with Chad Hugo, they’ve produced numerous hit songs, working with Jay Z, Snoop Dogg, Ludacris, Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears and Busta Rhymes. Williams though continues to step out on his own. Working solo, Williams also produced two of last years biggest records -  Daft Punk and Robin Thicke, and songs by Miley Cyrus and Beyonce’ - and he’s releasing a new solo album, G I R L, on March 3rd.

Read more: 20 Black Voices for a New Century 

20 Black Voices for the New Century: Rap isn’t typically thought of as an overly sensitive genre, but that didn’t stop Kendrick Lamar from making a remarkably personal and introspective statement with his 2012 debut good kid, m.A.A.d city. A loose narrative about growing up in the notoriously rough urban sprawl of Compton, the album places him not in the center of the action but on the sidelines. He watches his neighbors struggling to make ends meet and reacts emotionally. He witnesses gang violence through his circle of friends, but is never an instigator. He wants to get out, he dreams of big things; he feels trapped and resorts to escapism through alcohol.

Stitched together by caring, comical and ultimately concerned voicemails from his parents, the album is stunning in raw honesty and willingness to acknowledge weakness, fear and other elements of the human condition that mainstream rap tends to eschew. Subtle and serene atmospheres set the mood; songs ran uncommercially long, allowing the gifted MC to stretch out and flex his storytelling muscle, but that didn’t stop good kid from going platinum.

Kendrick Lamar a game-changer in 21st century rap: a visionary who shifted the focus of the genre away from cinematic flights of macho fantasy and fiction towards raw snapshots of a hard reality in the hope of a better tomorrow.   

20 Black Voices for a New Century: Los Angeles collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, mostly known as Odd Future, is a bold new voice in American hip-hop. Led by rapper and producer Tyler, The Creator, other members of Odd Future include Earl Sweatshirt, Hodgy Beats, Domo Genesis, Frank Ocean, several producers and offshoot groups including MellowHype, The Jet Age Of Tomorrow and The Internet.

With early music blog support and a television debut on the Jimmy Fallon show (video of that performance above) that blew more than a few minds, Odd Future has been reckless and creative, obnoxious and thrilling, pushing any boundaries and emotional buttons as far and as hard as they can. Need more convincing? Read this NPR Music piece on why you should listen to Odd Future.

In 2011 at the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards, there were two very significant surprises when the award winners were announced. Arcade Fire won for Album of the Year, becoming the first indie act to do so, and Portland born jazz bassist, cellist and singer Esperanza Spalding won the Grammy Award for the Best New Artist, beating out Drake, Justin Bieber, Mumford & Sons and Florence & The Machine. Spalding was the first jazz artist to win the award since it was first handed out in 1960. 

Born to an African American father and a mother of Welsh, Native American and Hispanic descent, Spalding was a child prodigy at five when she taught herself how to play violin, followed by oboe, clarinet and double bass. A graduate of the Berklee School of Music, she debuted in 2006 and has released four albums including the most recent Radio Music Society which won a Grammy Award for Best Jazz vocal album. Spalding is a world class musician and has a singular musical voice. She can work within and between muscial styles including blues, soul, funk, hip-hop, jazz fusion, Afro-Cuban and Brazilian styles. With so much stylistic talent, Spalding defies any and all expectations of what jazz music is and should be.

Read more in our Twenty Black Voices for a New Century series here.

The Alabama Shakes have a raw emotion and directness in their songwriting that you can’t help but be drawn in by. The band came together in 2009, and within two years, thanks to powerful live performances, an enormous buzz developed around the group. While the band is clearly talented, much of the buzz was about the incredibly powerful singer Brittany Howard- you simply cannot look away when she is performing.  Jon Pareles of The New York Times compared her to Janis Joplin, a comparison that was then often repeated, but this young African American woman has a star quality all her own.  When she sings “Hold On.” you can’t help but want to cheer her on. The Alabama Shakes’ 2012 debut Boys & Girls suggests great things to come and for that they should definitely be counted among the Twenty Black Voices for a New Century.

Read more in our Twenty Black Voices for a New Century series here.

Our 20 Black Voices of the New Century series feaures one of the single most important songwriters, vocalists and rappers to emerge since 2000. Frank Ocean is originally from New Orleans but moved to LA in the wake of Katrina. He found a musical home originally as a songwriter for hire and later became part of the Odd Future collective with his friend Tyler The Creator. The turning point in his career was the release of the Nostalgia, Ultra Mixtape in 2011 and the song “Novacane.” When he released his album channel ORANGE in 2012 critics praised it as heralding a new direction in R&B and it went on to be nominated for six Grammy Awards. At the time of its release Ocean also posted on Tumblr about the importance of an unrequited same sex relationship in his teens and generally got great support from the often homophobic hip-hop community.

Read more in the series: Twenty Black Voices for a New Century here