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

Danyel Smith
ZORA
Published in
8 min readJun 15, 2020

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This story is a part of the ZORA Music Canon, a celebration of Black women musical artists.

The story of the ZORA Music Canon is rooted in the genius and glory of Black women musicians. It is a story of talent and difficult work, of emotional truth and dare.

This list goes from Ella Fitzgerald inventing the jazz vocal with 1950’s Ella Sings Gershwin to last year’s Jaime, a reinvention of self from Brittany Howard. The 70-year line between them is held up by women as brilliant and distinct as Lena Horne, Whitney Houston, Minnie Riperton, Donna Summer, Tina Turner, Kelis, Janet Jackson, Esperanza Spalding, Mariah Carey, and Cardi B. The chronological throughlines are compelling — singers on the strapless shoulders of the giants before them. But there’s rebel poetry in this list, too. It’s in the perpetual influence of the Black woman artist on the music, style, and culture of a country in which she is at once minimized, admired, and made a glowing fetish.

The virtuosity comes through loud, though. It bubbles up like Sister Sledge’s urgent “Lost in Music” from their masterly 1979 We Are Family. It melts into Alicia Keys’ allow-me-to-introduce-myself “Piano & I” from 2001’s Songs in A Minor. It swells like hot glass into Lalah Hathaway’s full-blown cover of Luther Vandross’ “Forever, for Always, for Love” on her 2004 Outrun the Sky. Solange follows with her 2016 “Cranes in the Sky,” hollering from every second line ever, from every Brooklyn stoop in the world, from every space where Black women want A Seat at the Table but feel that the world is being built up without them. Mavis Staples sings too from that porch, that church parking lot, wielding her mic like a mace, leading her Singers — each of us — as goes the call from her 1972 Be Altitude: Respect Yourself — “just another soldier in the army of love.”

The ZORA Music Canon, the 100 most iconic albums by African American women, is a celebration. It also functions as amends for the fact that there were not and are not a plethora of media spaces in which Black women in music, in step…

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Danyel Smith
ZORA
Writer for

@danamo | 2013-14 Knight Journalism Fellow @Stanford University | top secret project: @xHRDCVRx | http://thesmithian.tumblr.com/ | http://about.me/danyelsmith