From Celia Cruz to Rihanna: 15 Albums That Shaped Music
This story is a part of the ZORA Music Canon, a celebration of Black women musical artists.
The ZORA Music Canon, our list of the most iconic albums by African American women, honors 100 masterworks and the Black American artists who created them. But we know Black women’s impact is not exclusive to the United States. It’s worldwide and limitless. To celebrate the vast reach of the diaspora, this list celebrates Black women from around the world whose influence exceeds borders.
Celia Cruz was the Queen of Salsa and a global sensation who stood out with her vibrant outfits, distinct voice, and her authenticity to Cuba’s rich musical history. In 1966 she released Son Con Guaguancó, her first record as a solo artist. The album was significant in many ways. It marked her life in exile in the United States while establishing her musical approach to fuse Afro-Cuban son and guaguancó rhythms with elements of rumba, mambo, and cha-cha.
Miriam Makeba, endearingly known as Mama Africa, was the South African singer-songwriter who spent the majority of her career exiled from her home country for speaking out against the atrocities of apartheid in her music. Though her 1967 album Pata Pata has upbeat and melodic moments, it was the theme of social justice that made her purpose much greater than being an entertainer. “I made that decision,” Makeba told NPR in 2006. “And from then on, I was branded that artist who sings politics.”
Poly Styrene was an icon in the punk scene, becoming the first woman of color to lead a punk band, as well as being one of the first Black women in rock in the U.K. Leading X-Ray Spex, Styrene, who was of Somali descent, was the creative force behind the success of the band, despite only releasing one album, Germfree Adolescents, with the original members in 1978. The debut, with Styrene at the helm, achieved critical acclaim.
Grace Jones is the epitome of confidence and multifaceted talent. The Jamaican-born singer-songwriter, producer, model, and actor is progressive with her music, diving into reggae, funk, post-punk, and pop. You can hear those sounds in her 1981 album Nightclubbing. The album showed an evolved Jones, who moved past her earlier disco repertoire and gave us one of the greatest hits in “Pull Up to the Bumper.” Donning a black blazer and flattop, with a cigarette in her mouth, she also produced iconic album art to match.
Sade is the Nigerian-born British singer-songwriter whose mystery and charm is felt in the sound of her raspy-textured voice. After overcoming stage fright during her three years of singing backup for Latin funk band Pride, she would release “Your Love Is King,” the lead single on the 1984 album Diamond Life. Journalist and author Danyel Smith tells ZORA that Diamond Life is an “audacious debut,” and marvels at the lyrics. “Songwriting at genius level,” Smith says. “Sade hovers above the intersection of strength and vulnerability: a siren, a daredevil, an angel.”
Oumou Sangaré is the Malian beacon of Wassoulou music, a historical region touching Mali, Guinea, and Côte d’Ivoire. In 1989, Sangaré released her most defining album, Moussolou. It spoke on behalf of African women in a way her contemporaries didn’t. The songstress, whose songs center around love and freedom of choice in marriage, landed a Grammy for best pop collaboration with vocals in 2011 for her contribution to “Imagine,” alongside Herbie Hancock and a star-studded line-up.
Patra, one of Jamaica’s outspoken female dancehall artists, stepped onto the scene after a stint as a DJ in the late 1980s. Her debut album in 1993, Queen of the Pack, symbolized the artist’s desire “to empower women across the world,” she told the Jamaica Gleaner last year. She added, “for me it was about being a woman and respecting my African roots and culture. I had the braids at the time to represent the African thing, too… it’s a complete package for me, it’s a sex appeal thing and I was representing all girls because somebody had to say it in that time.”
Angelique Kidjo is the multilingual Beninese singer best known for being among the greats who gave African music a global platform. She tapped into the continent and diaspora’s diverse musical influences including Afropop, zouk, jazz, and Congolese rumba. Kidjo’s 1994 album, Ayé, produced her first Grammy nomination for the song “Agolo.” She would go on to win four Grammys — including best world music album for her Celia Cruz commemorative project in 2020.
The Unstoppable Genius and Glory of Black Women in Music
This list of the 100 most iconic albums by African American women gives artists the recognition they rightfully deserve
Tania León is a lauded Cuban-born classical composer, educator, and adviser for the arts. Since moving to the United States in 1967, she became a founding member and the first musical director of Arthur Mitchell’s Dance Theater of Harlem. León has written chamber works, orchestral works, solo piano, vocal works, and operas — most notably Scourge of Hyacinths — which took home the BMW Prize for best new opera in 1994.
Les Nubians, the neo-soul French-Cameroonian duo, are the French-speaking musical group known for a successful crossover moment in the United States with their popular song, “Makeda,” from their Grammy-nominated 1998 record, Princesses Nubiennes. The duo, sisters Hélène and Célia Faussart, were awarded with a Soul Train Lady of Soul award for best new artist, group, or duo a year later.
Rihanna, who recently celebrated the 15-year anniversary of her first single, “Pon de Replay,” is an absolute powerhouse. When she dropped Good Girl Gone Bad in 2007, the Bajan would-be mogul showed her sonic range by switching up her sound with bangers like “Don’t Stop the Music” and “Shut Up and Drive.” The chart-topping success of the album’s lead single “Umbrella,” a collaboration with Jay-Z, elevated her profile, giving way to her meteoric rise. The track also gave Rihanna her first Grammy. Her albums Loud and Anti followed, captivating audiences now awaiting her next project.
Floetry, the Black-British duo of Marsha Ambrosius (The Songstress) and Natalie Stewart (The Floacist), not only reintroduced the use of poetry and spoken word throughout music, but also helped develop what we now know to be neo-soul. The group’s 2002 album Floetic features timeless singles like “Floetic” and “Say Yes,” which was on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart for 20 weeks.
10 Under-the-Radar Artists to Listen to Now
Leikeli47, Mereba, and Mickey Guyton headline our list of musicians who deserve your attention
Alison Hinds’ 2007 debut album Soca Queen was the soca artist’s declaration that she indeed owns that label. A native of Barbados, she introduced the world to a different approach to the festive sound. In tracks like “Faluma” and “Roll It Gal,” Hinds doesn’t hesitate to celebrate the Caribbean’s connection to the African continent. With Trinidad and Tobago having the genre on lock, Hinds put Barbados on the soca map.
Nicki Minaj is one of the most influential female rappers of all time. With her nimble lyrical ability, Minaj has the most Billboard Hot 100 hits of any female artist, surpassing Aretha Franklin’s record in 2017. She currently has 109 hits (and counting) to her credit. The Trinidad and Tobago-born star, who also represents Queens, New York, made a statement with Pink Friday in 2010. The project would go on to peak at number one on the charts and be certified triple platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America.
FKA Twigs is the genre-bender who’s truly a performance artist in her own right. The Jamaican-British singer-songwriter draws from electronic music, R&B, trip-hop, and choral music to express how she pushes through pain and heartbreak in search of happiness. Magdalene, her sophomore project released in 2019, does just that. Yale professor Daphne Brooks describes the album to ZORA as “the sonic realization of Black feminist existentialism and spiritual questing.”
Follow ZORA on Spotify for playlists our editors curated just for you, with songs from each of these game-changing artists.