Celebrating Black Music Month: Artists You Oughta Know

Black Music Month is the perfect time to open up our ears to new sounds, whether the latest offerings from our favorite musical acts or introductions to some we’ve yet to experience.  SoulTrain.com compiled a list of a few of the artists whose music deserves a prominent place in your collection!

Ayo

Hailing from France by way of Germany, singer/songwriter Ayo first emerged on the scene with her critically acclaimed debut album Joyful in 2006.  Her single “Down on My Knees” introduced listeners to the soft-voiced songbird (née Joy Olasumibo Ogunmakin), and its video was featured heavily on VH-1 Soul.  Joyful also featured a gorgeous cover of Abbey Lincoln’s “And It’s Supposed to Be Love”.   Ayo’s sound blends acoustic soul grooves with a strong pop sensibility, thoughtful and poetic lyrics, and danceable rhythms.  Her second outing, Gravity at Last, released in 2008 and topped the charts in France (eventually being certified platinum).  Her latest album Billie-Eve premiered in 2011.  Named after her daughter, Ayo’s newest offering is anchored by the single “I’m Gonna Dance” and features guest appearances by the likes of Saul Williams and guitarist extraordinaire Craig Ross.  It’s a lovely mélange of rock and reggae, and, along with her first two albums, definitely worth a listen!  Check her out at ayomusic.com.

The Soul of John Black

The name says it all!  John “JB” Bigham, better known as The Soul of John Black, delivers an exquisite combination of blues, rock, and of course, soul on his albums Good Girl Blues (2007), Black John (2009), and his most recent collection, 2011’s Good Thang.  Songs like “The Hole” and “Black John” almost sound as though they come from another era with their undeniable nod to the blues, while “How Can I” is evocative of R&B crooners like Al Green.  Having played with the likes of the legendary band Fishbone, the incomparable Miles Davis, and contemporary artists like Eminem and Nikka Costa, one might almost posit that it is a shame that this incredible musician seems to remain relatively unknown.  But according to his Facebook page, independent and college radio stations in Seattle, New Orleans, and Duluth, MN have been showing The Soul of John Black plenty of love.  Now you can, too.   Visit The Soul of John Black’s official website  to download Good Thang and to watch live performance clips.  His other records are also available on Bandcamp and iTunes.

Donnie

It is truly mind-boggling how massively gifted and innovative artists can put out ground-breaking music, yet continue to be shrouded in obscurity.  But that seems to be exactly what happened to soul singer Donnie, whose 2002 The Colored Section and 2007 follow-up The Daily News reign supreme among music lovers in the know.  With his rich, velvety vocals and substantive lyrics, plus comparisons to Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway, Donnie’s message-driven music is both thought-provoking and stirring without being preachy or oversimplified.  Tracks like “Beautiful Me” herald the Black beauty aesthetic and pride in the face of a popular culture that rarely values it; “Cloud” is the ultimate ode to perhaps one of the most tenuous issues in African American culture: Our hair.  And for the lovelorn among us, his song “Turn Around” perfectly sums up that all too-common sentiment that the one you’re looking for is right behind or before you…if you’d only reorient yourself.  “If I Were You”, the lead single from Donnie’s second album, enjoyed significant air time on VH-1 Soul (and was also featured as the theme song to BET J’s morning video program).  Far more introspective than The Colored Section, The Daily News boasts intensely personal songs like “Suicide” and social commentary on tunes like “Over the Counter Culture” and “Impatient People”.   We’ve not heard much from Donnie since his last album, but fingers crossed there is more from this brilliant artist coming soon.  Both his albums are available on iTunes and Amazon.

Alice Smith

If given only one word to describe Alice Smith, it would be this: Captivating.  It’s been more than five years since we were introduced to this extraordinary singer/songwriter by way of her debut album For Lovers, Dreamers & Me, and it is no surprise that Alice Smith’s fans have been clamoring for new material ever since.  The Grammy nominated artist possesses a voice like no other, iconic in its tone, texture, and range, warm like caramel and wild in its power.  Her single “Dream” opens For Lovers…, offering the first glance into the heart and mind of this woman.  “Know That I” is an exploration of vulnerability, and “Secrets” straddles the thin between lament and deniability as Smith admonishes the target of her missive that she has “trouble keeping things on the D.L. when they’re not seeds that I’ve sewn”.  “Love Endeavor” is one of those songs you can’t help but smile when you hear it, with the singer inviting the object of her affection to join her in an adventure of passion and intimacy even if only short-lived.  Although she has yet to release her highly-anticipated sophomore effort, Alice Smith has thankfully remained on the scene in the years since her inaugural release.  Just last year her cover of Cee-Lo Green’s hit “Fool For You” made waves on YouTube, and she’s recently performed with Yasiin Bey (the artist formerly known as Mos Def), Citizen Cope, and Gary Clark, Jr.  For all things Alice Smith, visit http://www.alicesmith.com/.

Speaking of…

Gary Clark, Jr.

I was first introduced to Austin, TX native Gary Clark, Jr. when he opened for Citizen Cope at the House of Blues in Dallas in 2010.  No sooner had he finished his first number (ironically, the song “Outro” from Gary Clark, Jr) than I had made my way to the merch table to purchase his CD.  With an appearance in the 2007 film Honeydripper alongside Samuel L. Jackson, and an impressive catalog of music under his belt thus far (2008’s Worry No More; 2010’s Gary Clark, Jr EP; and 2011’s Bright Lights Big City EP), this accomplished musician continues to leave audiences awe-struck following live performances.  After a much-talked about showing at this year’s SXSW, this summer finds Gary Clark, Jr. wielding his magic at major music festivals such as Bonnaroo, Summerfest (Milwaukee, WI), Lollapalooza, and the Essence Music Festival, as well as touring with the Dave Matthews Band.  He’s as stellar on stage as he is on wax, so do yourself a favor and get some Gary Clark, Jr. in your life.  Start here: http://www.garyclarkjr.com/.

–Rhonda Nicole

Rhonda Nicole is an independent singer/songwriter from Dallas, TX, based in the Bay Area.  Download her EP “Nuda Veritas” on CDBaby and iTunes, and follow her on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/rhondanicolemusic and on Twitter @wildhoneyrock

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