Trailblazers: the quietly influential Black artists who changed music forever

As part of Black History Month, we pay tribute to some of the pop culture iconoclasts who laid the groundwork for so much art we know and love today

At the time of writing, eight of the songs sitting in the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 were created by black musicians. There was a time when this might not have seemed possible, but history – be it recent or way, way back – is filled with amazing black artists who were pioneers in their fields, pushing the black musical movement forward. Yet some of the artists in question are perhaps not celebrated as much as they should be, or perhaps haven’t always received their dues. Here we pay tribute to the quietly influential black musicians who changed music forever.

Jackie Shane

Shane, born in Nashville, Tennessee, took the Canadian soul scene by storm as a prominent figure in the local Toronto circuit in the early 1960s. Her 1962 single ‘Any Other Way’ climbed to Number Two in the city, but throughout her career she was dogged by speculation about her sexuality and gender identity, which was fuelled by her lyrics (Tell her that I am happy / Tell her that I am gay,” she sang on that aforementioned hit). Shane retired from public life in the early ‘70s, but enjoyed a resurgence when a new retrospective collection of her music was released in 2017. By this time she’d come to be considered an icon, having started the good fight for the inclusivity of trans black women in music decades earlier.

Mamie Smith

Vaudeville star Mamie Smith was in the performance business from the age of 10, touring with an act called the Four Dancing Mitchells, and once a teen she danced for vaudeville legend Salem Tutt Whitney’s company The Smart Set. But in 1920, aged 29, after a bit of persuading from Perry Bradford, a popular songwriter at the time, she broke the colour barrier in music, becoming the first black artist ever to record a blues song. ‘Crazy Blues’ was filled with heartbreak and droopy trumpet sounds; her record label, Okeh Records, received death threats warning them not to continue to record with black artists. However, their resilience and continued support for Smith helped her to become a true trailblazer.

DJ Clive ‘Kool Herc’ Campbell

Sugarhill Gang may have recorded the first ever hip-hop song, the buoyant ‘Rapper’s Delight’, in 1979, but three people preceded the gang to get hip-hop off the ground. Yes: you know Grandmaster Flash was the first New Yorker to mix his DJ sets and his apprentice and Grand Wizzard Theodore invented scratching, but hip-hop – in essence – started in Jamaica. After soundsystem culture was adopted in the Bronx – due to immigration into the area – a Jamaican man named Kool Herc took dub culture and used two turntables with isolated instrumentals to emphasise the breakdown in a song. He created the ‘Merry-Go-Round’ theory that’s fundamental to all music of today, taking the breakbeats in a song and playing them back-to-back to get people dancing.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Credit: Getty

It’s fun to follow the thread of idolatry: Justin Bieber idolised Usher, for example, who in turn idolised Michael Jackson – and so forth. Well, Elvis Presley, ‘The King’, was inspired by gospel star Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She made spiritual music go pop in 1938 with ‘Rock Me’ and her hit ‘This Train’, the latter a more secular version of the gospel tune ‘This Train Is Bound For Glory’, substituting her acoustic guitar for an electric one. Her ‘30s and ‘40s gospel tunes were precursors to Presley’s rock’n’roll sound, and Little Richard was singing her songs before he became a huge star himself. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a rocking soul sister ahead of her time.

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges

Dubbed the ‘Black Mozart’, Chevalier de Saint-Georges was born to a wealthy father in the 1740s and was educated in France before joining the French Army in 1791. Saint-Georges began to compose classical symphonies after playing his violin for other French composers, such as François Gossec. Saint-Georges even conducted and was a soloist for François-Joseph Gossec’s famed orchestra Le Concert Des Amateurs. Saint-Georges’ impact was, of course, unheard of at the time.

George Washington Johnson

Johnson became the first-ever black recording star thanks to his hit 1890 song ‘Born A Slave, Street Performer’. A former slave, Johnson was an exponent of ragtime, a syncopated melodic style pioneered in the late 1800s, often played on the piano with accented accompaniment – and his distinctive ‘raggy’ whistling style made him stand out. However, his artistry seemed deep-rooted in racism and anti-blackness, as those very whistles were used for songs such as ‘The Whistling C**n’ and ‘The Laughing Song’; novelty songs that mocked his own race. At the same time, Johnson helped to elevate the profile of black stars in music, opening the door for other black musicians to flourish, showing that black music could sell in white America.

Louis Jordan

In the ‘30s, the swing era was defined by massive orchestras and blaring, jazzy tunes. Arkansas’ Louis Jordan created uptempo, dancey music that encompassed jazz, blues and boogie-woogie. He was one of the first musicians to make upbeat blues; Jordan’s musical sound was arguably the precursor to rock‘n’roll and R&B, his still-incredible 1945 hit ‘Caldonia’ featuring a yelped vocal delivery that would be adopted by hell-raisers such as Little Richard decades later. No wonder he’s been dubbed ‘The Grandfather of Rock’n’roll’.

Gladys Bentley

Bentley pushed for the inclusion of LGBT+ people in music: an entertainer during the Harlem Renaissance, she was among a flurry of great black talent revolutionising what art could be in New York in the Roaring ‘20s. She performed famed speakeasy the Clam House; no mean feat for a black, lesbian performer dressing in male clothing. She even used her platform to showcase drag queens in the early ‘30s when she headlined Harlem’s Ubangi Club. Bentley made sure the world saw just how talented the queer community are, and just how proud she was to be a part of it.

Janet Kay

The 1970s saw an influx of chirpy reggae tracks into the UK Top 40, and lovers rock (romantic reggae, basically) icon Janet Katy pushed the high notes with her 1979 Number Two smash ‘Silly Games’. This made Kay the first ever black female recording artist to have scaled the charts with a reggae song in the UK. Now 62, she later released the 1984 banger ‘Eternally Grateful’ and appeared in the cult sitcom ‘No Problem’ (the first black TV show created and conceived by a black theatre company). Trailblazer Janet Kay went against the grain.

Millie Small

Credit: Getty

Millie Small, who sadly died aged 73 earlier this year, helped to kickstart the commercial success of reggae and ska thanks to her 1964 hit ‘My Boy Lollipop’, which rocketed to Number Two in both the US and the UK, having shifted a massive seven million copies worldwide. The song was brought to her by Island Records founder Chris Blackwell, her high-pitched singing voice making the record an unforgettable track that’s commonly regarded as the first-ever ska hit, and which remains the biggest song in the genre to date. This was four years before Toots and the Maytals coined the term ‘reggae’ with their song ‘Do the Reggay’, making Smalls an artist way ahead of her time – and the world’s first international Caribbean star.