100 iconic albums by African American women
Each day over the past couple of months, as I learned more about the lives and brutal killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and Rayshard Brooks, I felt I was becoming unrooted and undone by the constant reminders that in America, to be Black and breathing is, and has always been, a threat. Compounded by the barrage of details about brute police force used during protests and the ongoing coronavirus news cycle, the gravity of it all is immeasurable. And exhausting. Wading through the layers of grief and devastation, I reached for the music that grounds me and gifts me with much-needed truth and light.
First, I put on some Mahalia Jackson. Her booming voice on “I’m on My Way” from her Live at Newport 1958 album demonstrates an irrepressibly determined spirit. Joy was sparked when I made my way to Sister Sledge’s We Are Family, which had me twirling in my living room once “Thinking of You” came on. When I reached for Solange’s “F.U.B.U.” from A Seat at the Table, to hear her sing “made this song to make it all y’all’s turn / For us, this shit is for us,” I thought, that’s exactly the spirit of what we’ve been working on at ZORA.
The albums mentioned above are a part of the ZORA Music Canon, a project celebrating the 100 most iconic albums by African American women. This is not just a list of great works. It’s a collection of music that can help us make sense of the world and raise our spirits as we process these times. Albums that celebrate our magnificence and give us language for our melancholy.
To help compile the list, the editors of ZORA collaborated with leading authorities in music, including Danyel Smith, a journalist and author who penned an introduction for the list, “The Unstoppable Genius and Glory of Black Women in Music;” MC Lyte, a rapper, DJ, and businesswoman; Naima Cochrane, a music and culture writer and former entertainment executive; Jordannah Elizabeth, a music journalist and lecturer; Daphne Brooks, a professor of African American, women’s, and gender studies at Yale University whose writing covers race, gender, and popular music; Naomi André, a professor of Afroamerican, African, and women’s studies at the University of Michigan whose research focuses on opera and issues surrounding gender, voice, and race; and Olivia Dope, a DJ and recording artist. Then the ZORA editors vetted and refined the collection while keeping you — the ZORA reader — top of mind.
We also put together a list of albums by Black women of the diaspora to honor the contributions of Celia Cruz, Rihanna, Sade, and other artists whose music influence is global. We compiled a list of emerging and under-the-radar Black female artists you should listen to right now too.
Taken altogether, this project offers a chance for discovery and rediscovery — and a moment of reprieve, to get lost in the music that helps steady us. Masterworks that we can all take root in.
Christina M. Tapper, deputy editor
Have more albums to add?
If we missed an iconic album, drop us a line in the comments section of the list or tell us about it on Twitter. Tag us at @zoramag with the hashtag #ZORA100 and tell us why the album is part of your personal canon.
🎧 Plus, follow ZORA on Spotify for playlists our editors curated just for you, with songs from each of these game-changing albums. 🎧