Playlist: Celebrating Black History Month

Ultimate Ears Black History Month Playlist
Celebrate Black History Month with artists who provide the soundtrack to our lives across genres. Includes Aretha Franklin, Kendrick Lamar, Thundercat and more.




Black history is American history. And it’s made daily. 


Please join us in celebrating Black History Month with a playlist of songs from artists whose music is woven into the fabric of American popular culture. Included here is a selection of songs from the 1960s civil rights movement to the present day. These Black artists are making history with new production styles, modern composition techniques and fearless songwriting that dares to speak truth to power. 


Press play to bring the noise with Black artists who provide the soundtrack to our lives across genres—jazz, hip-hop, R&B, soul, techno, house, folk blues, funk, psychedelic rock, experimental music, free improvisation and hardcore punk.

Aretha Franklin — “Think”


With 112 singles on the Billboard charts and over 75 million albums sold, Aretha Franklin is one of the most significant figures in the history of American music. A singer, songwriter and pianist, Franklin first hit the charts in 1966 with an impressive run of top-ten singles on Atlantic Records.


Franklin was a noted feminist and civil rights activist. When Franklin speaks on issues of sexism and racism in songs like “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”and “Respect,” the urgency in her voice is impossible to ignore.


Her accomplishments are too numerous to list in full. She toured with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., sang at the inauguration of Barack Obama, and in 1987, the “Queen of Soul” was the first woman to be inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.


“Think” first appeared in 1968 as a single from the album Aretha Now. In 1980, Franklin re-recorded the song for her showstopping cameo appearance in The Blues Brothers.


Sly & the Family Stone — “I Want to Take You Higher”



Psychedelic rock meets soul music on Sly & the Family Stone’s “I Want to Take You Higher,” from the 1969 album Stand! But the Family Stone combined more than musical genres—the San Francisco collective was one of the first major American rock bands to be both racially integrated and gender inclusive.


For a B-side, the legacy of “I Want to Take You Higher” is A-plus. The song was a Top 40 hit for both Sly Stone and Ike & Tina Turner, whose cover version charted above the original on the Billboard Hot 100. 


At the 1969 Woodstock festival, Sly & the Family Stone hit the stage hard to deliver a timeless high-energy performance. During the band’s 3AM set, Stone whips the audience into a frenzy with a spine-tingling crowd participation chant of “higher!” It’s one of the festival’s most memorable moments, preserved on film in the 1970 documentary Woodstock.


Public Enemy — “Fight the Power”


Burn, Hollywood, burn. Public Enemy lit up the rap singles chart and the multiplex with their incendiary anti-establishment battle cry, “Fight the Power.” Director Spike Lee commissioned P.E. to make a track to be the musical motif for his 1989 film Do the Right Thing and received one of the most historically significant songs in hip-hop.


On “Fight the Power,” the Bomb Squad pull samples from “Planet Rock,” James Brown and civil rights attorney Thomas “TNT” Todd to stitch together the perfect beat for Chuck D. and Flavor Flav to bring the noise. With Do the Right Thing picking up two Academy Award nominations and “Bring the Noise” named the year’s best single by The Village Voice, there was no escaping Public Enemy in 1989.


In 2020, Public Enemy returned to keep fighting in support of Black Lives Matter with an updated music video for “Fight the Power.” In 2021, Rolling Stone declared “Fight the Power” the second-best song of all-time.


Muddy Waters — “(I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man”



Psychedelic rock collides with the Chicago blues on Muddy Waters’ 1968 version of the blues standard “(I’m Your) Hoochie Coochie Man.” Written by Chess Records house composer Willie Dixon, Waters originally recorded the tune in 1954 as a classic stop-time shuffle. On the Electric Mud version, Waters collaborated with members of the psychedelic soul group Rotary Connection to infuse the blues with free jazz influences and a wild wah-wah guitar sound.


Critics pannedElectric Mud upon release. Pete Welding in Rolling Stone called the album “a great disservice to one of the blues’ most important innovators.” As it turns out, Muddy Waters was once again ahead of the curve. “The rhythm seems to anticipate hip-hop by three decades,” writes music journalist Gene Sculatti. Chuck D of Public Enemy calls Electric Mud “a brilliant record.”


In 2003, members of Rotary Connection joined Chuck D and the Roots to celebrate the album’s influence in Martin Scorsese’s PBS documentary series The Blues.


Betty Davis — “Dedicated to the Press”



Always ahead of her time, Betty Davis is a pioneer of the aggressive ‘70s funk sound, pairing deep grooves with raw, sexually charged lyrics that set the stage for Blowfly’s dirty raps, Dr. Dre’s G-Funk machismo and Cardi B’s sextuple-platinum, sex-positive hit, ‘WAP.”


Born Betty Mabry in Durham, North Carolina, Davis moved to New York City where she met and was briefly married to trumpeter Miles Davis. Betty introduced Miles to Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone, influences that would inspire the bebop icon’s “electric period” and help birth a new genre—jazz fusion—with the 1970 album Bitches Brew, for which Betty provided the provocative title.


As a singer, songwriter and arranger, Davis released three solo albums: Betty Davis, They Say I’m Different and Nasty Gal—a stone-cold funk classic that was largely dismissed upon release in 1975, but reached new audiences after being reissued in 2009. On “Dedicated to the Press,” Davis sets the record straight for gossip column muckrakers over a rubbery thumping bassline and plucky clavinet rhythms. 


Bad Brains — “Attitude”


Bad Brains break more than just the sound barrier with “Attitude,” a raging 80-second blast of hardcore punk fury that helped jumpstart the modern DIY underground. After being banned from every club in their hometown of Washington, DC, Bad Brains relocated to New York City, finding a new home at the Manhattan punk institution, CBGB’s. 


Despite having nowhere to play, Bad Brains remained popular in DC, where their early supporters included Black Flag vocalist Henry Rollins (then Henry Garfield) and Ian MacKaye, who would later document the growing DC punk scene on his Dischord label. 


On their 1982 debut, Bad Brains fuse hardcore punk with dub reggae, handling both styles with virtuosic musicianship. Lyrically, “Attitude” draws inspiration from self-help author Napoleon Hill and his concept of “positive mental attitude”—the belief that optimism and hope are essential to finding joy and defeating feelings of helplessness. 

Irreversible Entanglements — “Open the Gates”


“Open the gates / we arrive / energy time”


With these words, poet Camae Ayewa (aka Moor Mother) leads the “liberation-oriented free-jazz collective” Irreversible Entanglements through a transcendent cosmic jazz meditation focused on building a brighter future. 


Irreversible Entanglements formed in 2015 when three of its members performed at the same anti-police brutality demonstration. On “Open the Gates,” I.E. trim their experimental afrofuturist improvisations down to a more manageable (and playlist-friendly) size, but the full impact remains. 


The polyrhythmic percussion grooves, interstellar woodwinds and Aweya’s confident verse might recall the sounds of ‘70s free jazz, but when it comes to ideas, Irreversible Entanglements are all about the future. 

Thundercat — “Them Changes”


From sitting in with Suicidal Tendencies to a cameo appearance in Star Wars, there’s no telling where Thundercat might strike. The bass guitar prodigy and musical polyglot born Stephen Lee Bruner first clawed his way into the spotlight with the Los Angeles crossover thrash band Suicidal Tendencies and marked his territory in hip hop with his work on Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly.


“Them Changes,” from Thundercat’s 2017 album Drunk, is a breakup song disguised as a progressive space-funk odyssey. Saxophonist Kamasi Washington and producer Flying Lotus (programming, synthesizer) join Thundercat on a drum groove sampled from the Isley Brothers’ “Footsteps in the Dark” to provide the backdrop for surreal lyrics about a misplaced heart. 


BBC Radio 6 Music named Drunkalbum of the year, calling it “a complex modern soul record with a beautiful flow.” In 2022, Thundercat made his acting debut with a cameo appearance on the Disney+ Star Wars spinoff series The Book of Boba Fett.

Kendrick Lamar — “DNA.”


Kendrick Lamar grapples with stereotypes and his own self-image on “DNA.,” an unflinching deep dive into the Compton, California rapper’s upbringing and psyche from the 2017 album DAMN. 


For the track’s chaotic second half, Lamar asked producer Mike Will to build a beat around his acapella rap; the dramatic shift in production mirrors the feeling of being pulled in two directions—a hip-hop interpretation of the “double consciousness that sociologist and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois wrote about in his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk. 


In their review of DAMN., Vice called Lamar’s flow on the track “the most virtuosic display” on the album. Although “DNA.” was never released as a single, it still went triple platinum in the United States and Lamar performed the track at the 60th Annual Grammy Awards. 

Mourning [A] BLKstar — “Mist :: Missed”


From Cleveland, Ohio, Mourning [A] BLKstar is a self-proclaimed “multi-generational, gender and genre non-conforming amalgam of Black Culture dedicated to servicing the stories and songs of the apocalyptic diaspora.” 


Poet, producer, bassist and visual artist RA Washington provides beats and lyrics for the eight-piece experimental ensemble, integrating three-part vocal harmonies with punchy horns and trap beats into a unique postmodern, soul and gospel-influenced sound. 


Afropunk called their 2020 album The Cycle “an album that demands multiple deep listens,” with a melodic, soulful sound that “pushes their sonic boundaries into the distant future.” In September 2020, Mourning [A] BLKstar were featured on the cover of London, UK music magazine Wire

Mr. Fingers — “Mystery of Love”


Larry “Mr. Fingers” Heard inadvertently created what many consider the first deep house track in 1985 with “Mystery of Love,” a seven-minute electronic dance jam built around a revolving synth bass pattern. 


Heard played drums in rock cover bands around Chicago until a lack of creative freedom pushed him to pick up a Roland JUPITER-6 synthesizer and TR-707 drum machine and try going solo. On the first night with his new gear, Heard invented a new musical genre. 


Heard admittedly wasn’t much of a dance music listener, but his drummer’s instinct is felt throughout “Mystery of Love.” Though its bassline is repetitive, Heard’s endless supply of percussive variations is pure dancefloor magic. The pounding four-on-the-floor electronic production became the sound of electronic pop music throughout the ‘90s, sending artists like Janet Jackson to the top of the charts. 

Elizabeth Cotten — “I’m Going Away”


Elizabeth Cotten walked so Jimi Hendrix could run. The self-taught lefty guitarist and songwriter played an upside-down right-handed guitar using an unusual fingerpicking style which now bears her name. Cotten adapted her southpaw banjo technique to develop “Cotten Picking,” as heard on “I’m Going Away,” from the 1965 album Shake Sugaree, Vol. 2.


Cotten was born in Carrboro, North Carolina in 1893, but her professional performing and recording career didn’t begin until 1958—she was sixty six years old—when her talent was rediscovered by the folk-singing Seeger family, for whom she worked as a maid. At the Seeger house (which included a young Pete Seeger) Cotten relearned the guitar, ending a twenty-five year hiatus and signaling the beginning of her recording career. 


Despite her delayed beginnings, Elizabeth Cotten performed at the Newport Folk Festival and shared stages with artists like John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters. Her songs have been covered by everyone from Jerry Garcia to Devandra Banhart. 

Death — “Keep On Knocking”


Not to be confused with the Florida death metal outfit, the Detroit proto-punk band Death formed in 1964 when, after seeing the Who, the Hackney brothers—David, Bobby and Dennis— decided to change their musical style from funk to hard rock.


After their father’s death in 1971, they changed their name from Rock Fire Funk Express to Death, and in doing so, became without a doubt the first all-Black punk band, and arguably the first punk rock band ever, playing Alice Cooper-inspired hard rock riffs at a tempo like a 33rpm record sped up to 45. 


Death broke up in 1977, fading into obscurity just as the punk movement emerged at famous NYC venues like CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City. But while mainstream success eluded Death, record collectors traded their recordings like NFTs, with fans paying as much as $800 for an original 7” record, of which only 500 copies exist. 


Death reformed in 2009 when a tape containing unreleased material was sent to Drag City records and released as the album …For the Whole World to See. For the first time, audiences got to hear Death’s hard-rocking uptempto proto-punk and connect the dots from Death to the Ramones, Bad Brains, Living Colour and beyond. 

Nina Simone — “Take Care of Business”


Decades before hip-hop fused genres to create a new sound, Nina Simone mixed her classical piano abilities with pop songwriting, gospel rhythms and a jazz-influenced vocal style to become one of the leading figures of the Civil Rights Movement. 


Born 1933 in Tryon, North Carolina, Eunice Kathleen Waymon’s ambition was to become “the world’s first African-American pianist.” She briefly attended New York’s prestigious Julliard School of Music, but her musical training ended when she ran out of money and failed to secure a scholarship at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music, an incident she later attributed to racism in the documentary film What Happened, Miss Simone?


Waymon soon took the stagename Nina Simone and launched her performing career in nightclubs in Atlantic City and New York, playing show tunes from Porgy & Bess with her signature cocktail of styles. 


In 1964, Simone provided the Civil Rights Movement with a new protest song in the form of “Mississippi Goddam,” written in a single night in response to the murder of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers. 

On “Take Care of Business,” from the 1965 album I Put a Spell on You, Simone’s piano and voice feature in a lush big band arrangement from arrangers Hal Mooney and Horace Ott, who artfully place strings, percussion and horns between the notes of her melody.



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