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Black Voices in American Music: The Playlist

Nina Simone, in performance in 1964.
Getty Images
Getty Images
Nina Simone, in performance in 1964.

Black voices created some of the first truly American music – the sorrow songs and spirituals of people in bondage, singing of freedom and hope. Along the winding road of American history, Black artists have leaned into the power of music as an expression of progress and protest, joy and pain, courage and conviction.

This playlist, and the stories behind the songs, bring together generations of essential voices that have, through trials and triumphs, made extraordinary music echoing with the irrepressible, irresistible sound of hope.

The music in this collection traces the lineage of Black musicians. These are my artistic ancestors, the shoulders I stand on. It's music of bold vision, "beyond category," as Duke Ellington put it. His New World A-Comin' envisions a world built on peace, brotherhood and unconditional love. Nina Simone cries for freedom; Julius Eastman embraces radical self-expression. Wynton Marsalis urges us to be present in our democracy; Aretha Franklin and Rhiannon Giddens give thanks for the possibility of redemption in "Amazing Grace." The young composer Shawn Okpebholo reaches all the way back to our beginnings as he reimagines the traditional spiritual "Oh, Freedom."

This playlist is a work in progress – a family tree branching outwards, grown from strong roots and reaching to the rising sun of a brand new day.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lara Downes
Lara Downes is among the foremost American pianists of her generation, a trailblazer both on and off the stage, whose musical roadmap seeks inspiration from the legacies of history, family and collective memory. As a chart-topping recording artist, a powerfully charismatic performer, a curator and tastemaker, Downes is recognized as a cultural visionary on the national arts scene.