African American Pop Divas

African American Pop Divas

To top off this year’s African American Music Appreciation Month, we’re looking at some of the leading ladies of the pop stage! 

So…what is “pop” music?

Pop music seems like an all-inclusive label. After all, any song that tops charts or plays on the radio is often labeled “pop.” However, there are some defining characteristics of pop songs: 

  • They’re short: Songs usually range 2-4 minutes in length.
  • Basic format: Most pop songs have a standard verse-chorus form. The chorus usually has repetitive lyrics and melodies, making it easy to recognize and remember. 
  • Universal appeal: Unlike most genres, pop is designed to be liked by, well, everyone! The themes are often universal and include love, broken hearts, and feel-good sentiments. 

All of this makes pop music perhaps the least controversial genre out there…right? Well, as we’re about to see through our pop divas, that isn’t always the case! 

Aretha Franklin (1942-2018)

“I sing to the realists; people who accept it like it is.” 

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, to a Baptist preacher and a Gospel singer, Aretha Franklin  started singing and playing piano at an early age. By age fourteen, she’d made her first recordings, including tracks for the album Songs of Faith. By age sixteen, she went on tour with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose funeral she would sing at ten years later. However, it wasn’t until 1965 that she had her first big hit, I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Loved You). Over the next two years, Aretha released many of her best-known songs, including (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman and the ever-empowering Respect.

Aretha became an icon for both the Civil Rights Movement and feminism. In the same year that Dr. King died, she sang the national anthem at the Democratic National Convention. Since then, she was invited to sing at three presidential inaugurations (Carter, Clinton, and Obama)! 18 Grammys, first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame…it’s no wonder she was dubbed the “Queen of Soul.” When she died, many famous performers, including Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, and Jennifer Hudson, sang at her funeral. In 2020, a film about her life entitled Respect is set to come out, starring Jennifer Hudson as the Queen of Soul herself.

Whitney Houston (1963-2012)

“I decided long ago never to walk in anyone’s shadow; if I fail or if I succeed, at least I did as I believe.” 

One might say that Whitney Houston was destined for musical greatness. Born to a musical family in Newark, New Jersey, Whitney grew up surrounded by musicians. Her mother, Cissy Houston, was an R&B singer, and Whitney even counted Aretha Franklin as an honorary aunt! Although many record companies offered her deals as a teenager, her mother insisted she first finish high school. When Whitney did begin recording as a soloist in 1983, she skyrocketed to fame. Her rise helped pave the way for other African American female performers to share in the limelight. Then, in the early 1990s, she became an unforgettable icon of both stage and screen. 

Let’s look at just a few of Whitney’s projects from the 90s: 

  • 1991: Sang the Star Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl, hailed as one of the most moving televised performances of all time
  • 1992: Co-starred with Kevin Costner in the movie The Bodyguard. Also recorded six songs for the soundtrack, including her still-famous cover of Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You.
  • 1995-6: Starred in two award-winning films: Waiting to Exhale (1995) and The Preacher’s Wife (1996)

Whitney would go on to star in other films and release several more albums through the 90s and 2000s. Then, at age 48, her life was cut tragically short. She touched many people with her emotional voice, and her career inspired countless other performers. In her home state of New Jersey, flags were flown at half-staff to honor her passing. At her funeral, Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, and Kevin Costner were among the many famous names to memorialize her life.  

Alicia Keys (1981-present)

“There’s too much darkness in the world. … I want to bring a certain light to the world.” 

Like many of her predecessors, pianist/singer/songwriter Alicia Keys (born Alicia Augello Cook) had a challenging childhood. Unlike many of her predecessors though, she did not come from a “musical family.” Still, she surrounded herself with music, listening to her mom’s jazz records and singing in school plays. Then, when Alicia was 7, a friend gave her a gift that changed her life: an old upright piano. She immediately began taking Classical piano lessons, sometimes practicing up to 6 hours a day!

Music allowed the young Alicia to express her emotions that were otherwise hard for her to convey. She felt especially drawn to “blue, dark, shadowy” compositions of Beethoven, Chopin, and Satie – a sentiment that can be heard in her own songs. 

At age 15, Alicia signed her first record deal. In 2001, she released her debut album, Songs in A Minor. The album earned her five Grammy Awards the following year, and her song Fallin became a number-one hit single. Since then, she’s gathered an extensive list of awards and nominations, was dubbed “The Queen of R&B,” and has been featured twice in Time Magazine’s list of 100 most influential people. Her music has helped introduce the beats and vocal stylings of traditionally “black” genres to the mainstream. Alicia is more than a musician, though. Following in the footsteps of performers like Stevie Wonder, she’s also an active humanitarian, philanthropist, and activist. This girl IS on fire! 

Beyoncé (1981-present)

“Your self-worth is determined by you. You don’t have to depend on someone telling you who you are.”

Beyoncé hardly needs an introduction. She’s an international best-selling artist, an acclaimed actress, has accumulated numerous awards, and is one of the most nominated women of all time at the Grammys. Born in Houston, Texas, Beyoncé was recognized early on for her soaring, flexible voice. Her career took off in the late 1990s when she sang with the popular group Destiny’s Child. After going solo in 2007, she racked up dozens of hit singles and has become, to many, one of the greatest entertainers alive. 

Beyoncé is also an accomplished actress, even playing other music icons to critical acclaim. She portrayed Diana Ross in Dreamgirls (2006), then Blues singer Etta James in the musical biopic Cadillac Records (2008). She’s even in the 2019 remake of The Lion King as Nala. (Keep an eye out for our upcoming tutorial for Can You Feel the Love Tonight!) She’s performed live at two Super Bowls and both of President Barack Obama’s inaugurations. Like many of the artists we’ve highlighted recently, Beyoncé is also a vocal activist and philanthropist. 

While certainly known for up-beat pop hits like All the Single Ladies, Beyoncé’s music also explores relatable themes of mental health and personal fears. Her music continues to evolve, challenging the boundaries of pop music today. 

Moving Forward

We hope you’ve enjoyed this year’s African American Music Appreciation Month! Who are some of your favorite pop artists? Can you hear any influences in their music like jazz, classical, blues, rock, and funk? Chances are, you probably can! After all, these genres feed into each other, inspiring and shaping the musical landscape of the present and future. 

Remember to check out our special AAMAM Spotify Playlist, and keep an eye out for future posts and tutorials! And just in case you missed our other AAMAM posts…

Why We Celebrate African American Music Appreciation Month

Classical Creators 

Blues & Jazz Geniuses 

Funk & Motown Masters 

Rock & Roll Royalty 

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