Black History Month: Black Artists Talk About Their Black Influences and Inspirations

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

February is Black History Month and American Songwriter wanted to reach out to some of our favorite Black songwriters and musicians to ask them about their career influences when it comes to Black artists who have helped them along the way or even inspired them from afar.

Below you will see stories and responses from acclaimed musicians like Leon Bridges, Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Malina Moye, Big Freedia, and many more. So, without further ado, let’s dive into some living breathing musical history and see who these artists look to for musical, spiritual, and communal guidance.

Tank (of Tank and the Bangas): “Growing up all I heard was how my daddy sounded just like Stevie Wonder. The only thing that I had to test that theory was an old wedding tape from the ’80s where I heard him belt out the wrong lyrics to Stevie’s ‘Keep Our Love Alive.’

“Stevie has been a staple in my life ever since my dad passed away. Stevie’s records make me feel closer to him and they give me a look into what he envisioned through his lyrics. He is a master of weaving stories through his melodies, lyrics, voice, and piano, I literally feel lucky that I was able to love him and his music so long. I can truly say that I was a child of one of the best eras in music when the world created Stevie Wonder, and how wonderful it is.”

Leon Bridges: “Anyone who knows me knows that I am obsessed with Ginuwine. As a young adult growing up in the early ’00s, I scanned the radio and BET for Ginuwine songs. There are so many things about Ginuwine—his creative lyrics, his solid voice, his choreography, his wild videos. Ginuwine was just always doing his own thing and so confidently. When you think about it, he was really ahead of his time. The broom dance alone should be canonized in every dance school. Ginuwine’s songs are part of my life memories and I appreciate him inspiring me.”

Malina Moye: “I think there were many incredible artists who paved the way and were the blueprint for so many of us today. For me, Prince did just that. He broke boundaries musically. He took risks in fashion, was an entrepreneur, incredible entertainer, brilliant guitarist, and a fearless trailblazer. When I performed for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tribute concert honoring our legend Chuck Berry, I saw the influence and musical lineage of Sister Rosetta Tharpe before him, then down to Jimi Hendrix, to Sly and the Family Stone, Graham Central Station, Parliament Funkadelics, to Prince, down to myself and many other artists. Being our authentic selves is our expression of freedom and it gives others courage to do the same.”

Ayron Jones: “For me, when I think of Black Americans that have had the greatest impact on my music career, I think of two people. In 2010 I got the opportunity to join Janelle Monae’s Wondaland camp on my very first tour. It was the first time I’d ever been surrounded by Black creatives operating at the highest level of the music industry. Everyone in that camp left a lasting impression but Janelle’s power and artistry left stood out above the rest. She was my reason for pursuing a career as a solo artist.

“The other person that was enormously influential was Sir Mix A Lot. In 2012, I was playing at a dive bar in Seattle’s University district when Mix walked in. He was so impressed that he offered to produce my first indie record. Creating, and then later dropping, that record was the single most important moment of my life. Mix A Lot became a big mentor, constantly sharing stories of his experiences as a recording artist, growing up in Seattle, and teaching me what I needed to know to be signed by a major label. To this day I think of him as my big brother, he’s the person I call when I need guidance, whether it be in the industry or personal, he is there today as he was from day one. 

“These two people defined what it meant to be a Black artist for me. Exuding excellence, intelligence, and creativity set me on the path I’m on today. I am forever grateful for my experiences with them.”

Big Freedia: “Michael Jackson was amazing, but I have always absolutely adored Janet Jackson. I remember when Control came out. We listened to it over and over again. Then I saw the video for ‘Rhythm Nation’ one day at my house. I was maybe 10 or 11 years old. I was mesmerized by the video. I couldn’t believe it, I wanted to be her. I begged my mom to get me a military-style jacket and boots. I still watch that video today. Janet is one of the original Divas, before it was common to see women with a message in music. Her fashion style inspired me, of course, but her bold attitude and confidence absolutely impacted me and who I am today!”

Phonte (of Little Brother): “Meshell Ndegeocello is one of my biggest artistic influences. There’s a sense of adventure and fearlessness in her work that I find really inspiring. She’s a musical chameleon and I never know her next move, but I’m always curious to see where she’s going to go. Anybody that can keep their audience guessing after a 30-year career deserves the utmost respect.”

Christone “Kingfish” Ingram:
“I like to look at the local people in my community—all the different people in my community who I’ve grown up around [in Clarksdale, Mississippi]. Some even who are no longer with us. I like to listen to them talk about their stories and read about their stories and learn how they navigated through all the hardships. But how throughout they still kicked it and still played the blues and still loved it for sure.”

Liv Warfield (formerly of Prince’s New Power Generation): “There are many artists who have shaped the trajectory of my career. To name a few: Joyce Kennedy of the band Mothers Finest, rock and soul goddess. With Joyce—I was transformed. Her voice and energy on stage were unmatched. Joyce opened up many doors for black artists. Prince directly impacted my love of language to music. With innovation, independence, and creation on its highest levels. He was continuously educating us about our musical history, hence how I learned of the band Mothers Finest. 

“Grace Jones is another artist who constantly pushed the boundaries. Not only with music but in fashion. To me, beauty is in representation. Tina Turner, Sarah Vaughn, Pearl Bailey, Rainbow Brown, and many many more are the standing ovation. We may never know all of their names but our musical lineage is long with many layers. We celebrate you and more!”

Quinn DeVeaux: “When I listen to ‘Southern Nights’ by Allen Toussaint I sink into a world like no other.  A world of comfort and strangeness. The blend of styles, the storytelling, the utter whimsy—all astounding. Few songs and few artists have brought me such joy. From songs like ‘Working in A Coal Mine’ to ‘Right Place, Wrong Time’ to ‘Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky.’ I’m reminded to attempt uniqueness and to try and take listeners on a luscious sonic journey.”

Eva Walker (of The Black Tones): “I talk about Jimi Hendrix quite a lot because he was a very big part of why I do what I do. That being said, it is hard to choose just one artist, so let me start off with an honorary shout-out to Hendrix and Blind Willie Johnson. But the artist I want to pick to highlight today has also been a significant influence.

“Son House is one of my favorite songwriters and guitarists. I first heard the music of Son House when I was around 19 years old. His voice, his lyrics, his guitar playing, how he delivers his storytelling can’t be replicated—it’s his. It immediately had me mesmerized. One of my favorite songs of his is the classic, ‘Death Letter Blues.’ In this song, we’re hearing the steps taken during the loss of a loved one. From getting the news in a letter to standing at the burial ground. We’ve all been there.

“These folk stories, and how grim they may be, are a painful yet common part of life. Maybe I’m more of a folk-goth than most, but these kinds of songs and stories that are told without sad-sounding chord progressions, but rather upbeat string plucking blues, is my favorite. And I believe Son House is one of the stone faces carved out in the Mount Rushmore of that genre.”

Ednah Holt: “This is easy: The Supremes. They helped me realize my childhood dream was to become a singer. Then, when Diana Ross went solo, I was determined to become one. But I also have to give full credit to my teacher and mentor, the famous Jazz singer, Rita DaCosta, who later married Stanley Turrentine, the famous jazz saxophone player from my hometown, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Rita became Rita DaCosta Turrentine.) Rita took me under her wing and taught me the ropes of show business. She was my vocal coach, designer of my performing wardrobe, and was ‘Simply The Best’ (as Tina Turner would sing) friend. She was always there for me. Rita was positive no matter what occurred and would always see the best side of any situation. She definitely guided me through my career and I will always be grateful to Rita for entering my life when I was a young artist starting in show business. Hopefully, I am paying the greatness she shared with me forward to my students and other young artists. Thank you, Rita!”

Lynn Mabry: “My vocal inspiration, the one who I identified with the moment I heard her, was Gladys Knight. At around 12 years old, my mother use to play various albums in our home often, and when I heard ‘If I Were Your Woman,’ something clicked with me. Her tone was familiar, her melodies resonated, and how she approached every line was, to me, effortless.  

“After hearing this song over time, I began to memorize it and I started singing along. I felt as though I was channeling her, as I heard our tones being quite similar. Not in the metaphysical sense, but I could hear my voice in her voice. The more I sang along, the closer I felt to her. One day, I stood in front of my bedroom mirror and sang each line, emulating her the best way I could. It was amazing! It actually felt right.

“I was blessed to meet her decades later and was able to share with her that she was my inspiration. Because of Ms. Knight, and the song, I felt I had a decent singing voice. Who knew that one day my career would shift and I would actually become a singer by trade. Thank You, Gladys!”

Parisalexa: “Being black and having a career in music is such a privilege. A privilege contingent upon the perseverance of all the incredible black musicians that came before me. Some that were stolen from, some that never got their day in the sun, some who were even enslaved while creating their art. The fact that I can own what I create, say however I feel, and turn that into a profession reminds me how far we have come as black creators. We are magic, we’ve been magic and I’m so proud.”

Donald Johnson (of Khruangbin): “Marvin McQuitty was immensely influential to me, not only as a musician but as a person. I grew up listening to Marvin on gospel music recordings with Fred Hammond & Radical For Christ. As a drummer, he always prioritized playing what was necessary. I’d spend countless hours listening to those songs trying to replicate his groove and overall style.

“I saw Fred Hammond in concert sometime around the early 2000s at Compaq Center in Houston. I was playing keys for a local supporting artist that evening, so I had the opportunity to watch Marvin set up his drums at soundcheck. I picked his brain and asked a lot of nerdy drum questions. He answered all of them with a kind smile as if we were friends. I’ve looked up to many musicians over the years because of their talent, and I’ve been extremely disappointed upon meeting some of them because they weren’t nice people. Marvin was different. He treated me, an unknown young musician, with dignity and respect. Despite our brief encounter, his compassion changed the course of my life that afternoon.

“Marvin passed away in 2012, and I was deeply saddened when I heard the news. I consider myself extremely fortunate to have crossed paths with a person of Marvin’s character; not only for his musical gift but for the indelible impact he made on numerous people through his humility and kindness.”

Julius Rodriguez: “Meshell Ndegeocello is my role model artist. Besides her captivating voice, virtuosic bass playing, and brilliant songwriting and arranging (which together already is a complete package), I’ve admired the way in which she reinvents with every new project, while also maintaining a unique and unapologetic sense of herself. Rather than try to classify styles and let herself be pigeonholed, she focuses on humbly giving to the music. The result has proven to be some distinct, vulnerable, and incredible songs. In this variety, Meshell Ndegeocello has shown me the depth and complexity of what black music is, and made me eager to learn about and continue the lineage.”

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