By Sam Street via This Is Dig
From Aretha Franklin to Prince and Miles Davis, the most influential black musicians of all time have made the music world what it is today.
The roots of pop, jazz, soul, R&B, hip-hop, gospel, house, folk and disco music can all be traced to black musicians. So many of today’s most popular genres, trends and artists just wouldn’t exist without the work of the most influential black musicians of the 20th century, all of whom helped lay the groundwork for music as we know and love it today.
This list of the 20 most influential black musicians of all time ranges from Aretha Franklin to Prince and Miles Davis, but it is just a small selection of the hundreds of black artists, singers, musicians and producers who have shaped popular culture.
20: FRANKIE KNUCKLES (1955-2014)
New York City native and Chicago house legend Frankie Knuckles is often referred to as The Godfather Of House Music – a big title, but one that highlights the impact of his career. His production techniques and use of “peaks and valleys” helped influence the EDM scene as well as all subgenres of electronic music while also influencing pop acts such as Michael Jackson and Diana Ross. Knuckles passed away in 2014, but he remains an underappreciated influence not just on electronic music, but also on popular music as we know it today.
Must hear: Frankie Knuckles Presents Your Love
14: BILLIE HOLIDAY (1915-1959)
Known as Lady Day, Billie Holiday was one of 20th-century music’s first icons. Holiday’s singing style was unique, as she treated her voice like an instrument, often changing the tempo and delivery of words to great effect. Strange Fruit, released in 1939, remains her best-known track and would become strongly connected to the civil-rights movement that followed in the decades after.
Must hear: Strange Fruit
13: GRANDMASTER FLASH (1958-)
It’s near impossible to spotlight just one single figure who revolutionised hip-hop music. DJs, rappers and producers like Dr Dre, The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur, Afrika Bambaataa and Rakim all deserve their dues for helping shape the genre into what it is today, but for the purposes of this list of the most influential black musicians, we’re highlighting Joseph Saddler, more commonly known as Grandmaster Flash. His pioneering work in the 70s and 80s – which included inventing the scratching technique – helped lay the groundwork for all the hip-hop artists who followed. Featuring seven minutes of incredible rapping over a funk-infused beat, the 1982 cut The Message, released by Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five, remains one of the greatest hip-hop tracks of all time. And it had a message, too, pushing hip-hop into realms of social commentary. In 2007, the group became the first hip-hop collective to be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame.
Must hear: The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash And The Wheels Of Steel
12: MICHAEL JACKSON (1958-2009)
One of the most influential black musicians in any genre, Michael Jackson’s impact is undeniable – though his later career was dogged by controversy. Jackson started out with his brothers in the Motown act Jackson 5, before going solo and releasing timeless albums such as the R&B-infused Off The Wall and more traditional pop records the likes of Thriller and Bad. Throughout his life, Jackson was always at the forefront of musical trends, and he redefined the music video format with Thriller, which remains one of the best music videos of all time. His discography more than earns him the title of King Of Pop.
Must hear: Thriller
11: JIMI HENDRIX (1942-1970)
With his headline performance at 1969’s Woodstock Festival, Jimi Hendrix showed the whole world that he was one of the best guitarists of all time, cementing his place among the world’s most influential black musicians in the process. His improvisational ability and pioneering studio techniques helped define psychedelic rock while also influencing the future of blues music. Songs such as Purple Haze and Hey Joe remain spellbinding listens; it is heartbreaking to think that his career lasted less than five years, due to his premature death, in 1970, aged 27.
Must hear: Voodoo Child (Slight Return)
10: BOB MARLEY (1945-1981)
Without a doubt the most famous reggae singer ever, Bob Marley took the world by storm in the 60s and 70s. As leader of The Wailers, his music was not just passionate, groove-filled and catchy to listen to, it also carried real-world messages. Such songs as Get Up, Stand Up and Redemption Song helped to spread a message of unity and peace in divided times, as Marley taught the world about the Rastafarian movement. Continuing to inspire generation after generation, they remain as relevant now as they did upon first release.
Must hear: Get Up, Stand Up
9: PRINCE (1958-2016)
Prince is one of the most diverse artists the world has ever seen: his music flowed from pop to funk to soul to rock to R&B as he flawlessly merged genres in such iconic tracks as Purple Rain, 1999, Raspberry Beret and When Doves Cry. His incredible falsetto, flamboyant personality and unbelievable performances had a huge impact on the music scene, and, as one of the most influential black musicians of the 80s, his influence can still be heard in all genres of music, including those he didn’t pioneer himself, like hip-hop.
Must hear: When Doves Cry
8: STEVIE WONDER (1950-)
Stevie Wonder is a one-of-a-kind musician. Despite losing his eyesight at a young age, by 13 he would become the youngest artist to top the Billboard charts, and he’s still creating brilliant music. Wonder was always on the cusp of the latest trends and music technology; performing almost as a one-man band, he was also one of the first musicians to experiment with sampling, synthesisers and vocoders. He has a talent for blending R&B, electronica, pop, soul, funk and jazz, and he even influenced hip-hop. Throughout his career he’s used his platform to support various important causes: he was one of the leading campaigners to make Martin Luther King, Jr,’s birthday a national holiday in the US, and in 2020 he released two politically charged singles in support of another wave of Black Lives Matter protests.
Must hear: Living For The City
7: MUDDY WATERS (1913-1983)
One of the most influential black musicians in both the blues and rock’n’roll genres, Muddy Waters has been cited by Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin and AC/DC as a formative influence, while The Rolling Stones even named themselves after Waters’ 1950 track Rollin’ Stone. Hailed as The Father Of Modern Chicago Blues, Waters’ DNA can still be traced in modern rock music.
Must hear: Mannish Boy
6: MILES DAVIS (1926-1991)
Throughout a career that spanned five decades, Miles Davis was always at the forefront of jazz. In his early years, he collaborated with some of the founding fathers of bebop, such as Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, but he always challenged his audience’s expectations. His 1959 album Kind Of Blue is essential, while other records, such as 1970’s Bitches Brew, helped birth the fusion genre. Hip-hop legends the likes of Madlib and The Notorious B.I.G. sampled him, while singers such as John Legend and Damon Albarn have emphasised Davis’ influence and inspiration.
Must hear: So What