Black History Month: UNSUNG - The Songwriters

A roundup of vibrantly gifted songwriters and composers, from R&B and rock to jazz and classical.

Amythyst Kiah. Credit: Anna Hedges

Welcome to week three of UNSUNG, a four-part series of articles celebrating Black History Month at TIDAL Read. In this roundup we highlight some of our favorite current songwriters and composers of color — all of them successful and brilliant, though still sometimes overlooked by the broader music-appreciating public. The series closes out next week with a look at producers; also be sure to check out our surveys of underrated musicians and vocalists– Ed.

Cedric Burnside

Growing up in the North Mississippi hill country might have been enough to instill the blues into singer, drummer and guitarist Cedric Burnside, as it has for generations of locals including Mississippi Fred McDowell, Junior Kimbrough and Jessie Mae Hemphill. But Cedric also carries the blood of his grandfather, legendary bluesman R.L. Burnside, in his veins. So it’s certainly not surprising that he’s the latest artist to haul that lineage into the modern day, honing the region’s West African-derived strain of the blues with a ragged, electrified edge and blunt force rhythm. The bold tintype image on the cover of Benton County Relic, released in 2018, captures the spirit of his songwriting: vintage, even archaic methods employed for vital new work. The results have garnered him Grammy nominations as well as a string of Blues Music Awards for his drumming.

Amythyst Kiah

Tennessee native Amythyst Kiah is a postmodern Americana stylist, infusing elements of modern R&B, alt-rock, blues and bluegrass into her songs. Releases like 2017’s Amythyst Kiah & Her Chest of Glass showcased a staggering talent level — notably a robust voice that journeys from guttural lows to soulful head singing. But her songwriting breakthrough came via an all-star collaboration with likeminded artists Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla and Allison Russell. The quartet’s first record, 2019’s Songs of Our Native Daughters, opens with Kiah’s resilient “Black Myself,” a tribute to self-love in a society bogged down by racism.

Nicole Mitchell

The former first woman president of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, flutist and composer Nicole Mitchell fully embodies the influential organization’s “Ancient to the Future” motto. Her writing for her multifarious ensembles — Sonic Projections, Frequency, Black Earth Ensemble and Black Earth Strings, among others — swirls together influences from new music, avant-jazz, contemporary art and African traditions into an Afrofuturist vision heralded by Sun Ra and author Octavia E. Butler. Her singular work ranges from the far-seeing explosiveness of Mandorla Awakening II: Emerging Worlds to her urgently engaged settings of poems by Haki Madhubuti, Liberation Narratives, though both share a similarly ambitious scope.

Nova Wav

Clever sampling and interpolating can be an art in itself, but Nova Wav — the songwriting and production duo of Brittany “Chi” Coney and Denisia “Blu June” Andrews — take a hands-on approach to their minimalist beats, largely constructing them from the ground up. Their liquid grooves and atmospheric hooks have been all over R&B and pop radio in recent years: Kehlani’s “CRZY” and Ariana Grande’s “in my head” are both late-night bangers with choruses for days, earning maximum mileage out of woozy synth pads and booming drum patterns — the perfect frameworks for the tracks’ charismatic vocalists.

Gregory Porter

His 2010 debut, Water, instantly vaulted Gregory Porter to the top tier of the jazz world, where his smooth elegance and embracing integrity make him the natural heir to his idol, Nat King Cole. In a less vapid pop cultural moment, though, he’d be a capital-s Superstar; his rich baritone, trademark look (the chin-strap Kangol atop the teddy-bear charm) and socially conscious lyrics should earn him a place alongside Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway and Bill Withers. Though he’s never closed his eyes to the troubles around him, the original songs on Porter’s forthcoming release, All Rise, respond to the travails of the current day with a smolder rather than a shout, and his uplifting meld of jazz, soul, gospel and blues soars higher via the contributions of a choir and the London Symphony Orchestra strings.

Makeba Riddick-Woods

Makeba Riddick-Woods has shared credits with some of R&B and hip-hop’s elite writer-producers: Timbaland, Ne-Yo and The-Dream, among other heavyweights. But she doesn’t need the marquee boost: A signee to JAY-Z’s Roc Nation production house, Riddick-Woods has worked with a pop and rap who’s who, from Beyoncé to Jennifer Lopez to Mariah Carey to T.I. But her definitive partner is Rihanna, and she’s helped coax out some of the singer’s most dynamic vocal performances on a string of 2000s LPs. A definitive example is the dancehall-influenced 2009 hit “Rude Boy,” a torrent of powerfully sultry rhythms and breathy runs.

Daniel Bernard Roumain

To gauge the versatility of composer-violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain, just glance at his list of past collaborators, a wildly eclectic résumé that includes electronic pioneer Ryuichi Sakamoto, experimental hip-hop artist DJ Spooky and minimalist composer Philip Glass. Roumain, a classically trained player with a doctorate in composition, has built a career out of the unorthodox — blending elements of symphonic, rock, jazz, funk and rap throughout his various solo albums, operas and chamber pieces. One of his most haunting compositions is 2008’s “Blimp/Sky,” with his elegant violin draped over damp piano chords and sampled human speech.

Ben Williams

As a bass player, Ben Williams has more than proven his chops over the last decade: He won the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition in 2009, released a pair of scintillating quintet albums under his own name and was enlisted by Pat Metheny for the guitar great’s heavy-hitting Unity Band. With his third album, I Am a Man, Williams asserts an even more expansive musical identity. While the songs still sport ferocious bass grooves, Williams makes his debut as a singer on a soulful collection indebted to P-Funk, Prince, Marvin Gaye, the jazz/R&B/hip-hop blend pioneered by the Soulquarian crew (the Roots, D’Angelo, Common) and more. The title references the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, which Williams powerfully parallels with today’s Black Lives Matter movement.


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