9 Black Artists Of Today Discuss The Black Artists Of The Past Who Inspired Them

"She taught me about feeling, passion, and that every note doesn’t have to be right."

Music, like most art forms, is constantly evolving, as artists of today draw inspiration and influence from those who came before them to create their own individual sound. (Sometimes those influences might just surprise you.)

June is African-American Music Appreciation Month, an event described by President Barack Obama last year as a way to "honor the artists who, through this music, bring us together, show us a true reflection of ourselves, and inspire us to reach for the harmony that lies beyond our toughest struggles." 

And what better way to celebrate the contributions of Black music artists of past and present than by taking a look some of today's biggest stars and the musicians who inspired them? In their own words, artists such as Alicia Keys, Drake, and Beyoncé speak about the Black artists they most admire — and how their legacies impacted their own approach to music.


1. Alicia Keys

In 2006, Entertainment Weekly asked Keys (who at that point had won nine Grammys, and went on to win six more) who influenced her creatively. She named two authors, her mother, and several musicians, including Nina Simone.

"Love it or hate it, when you hear it you know that's Nina Simone," Keys said. "She taught me about feeling, passion, and that every note doesn't have to be right."

She also mentioned Marvin Gaye's 1971 album What's Going On, which she said "inspired me to write about things I saw with my own two eyes every day."

And as for legendary producer Quincy Jones? Keys said, "He [defied] boundaries, working on everything from Frank Sinatra to doggone Michael Jackson."

2. John Legend

Last October, Legend was the first-ever guest on the Sirius XM radio show Debatable, where hosts Mark Goodman and Alan Light asked the singer which artists he saw as role models. He named some true classics.

"The artists I always looked at were Stevie [Wonder], Marvin [Gaye], Nina Simone, Paul Robeson, Harry Belafonte, Bob Dylan," Legend said, later adding, "Personally, my approach has always been to be aware and be comfortable infusing my influences into my music but still trying to keep it new at the same time."

When it comes to Harry Belafonte, it would seem the admiration is mutual, as the iconic singer penned a profile of Legend for this year's Time 100 list, calling him a "wonderful artist" and "remarkable lyricist."

3. Nicki Minaj

Minaj told Hot 97 in 2013 that she admired several female rappers who came before her, including Foxy Brown, Lil Kim, and Remy Ma. "They sounded like me when I spoke. I just thought they really made an impact," she said. As for Missy Elliott and Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, "they weren't afraid to be goofy at times and I loved that as well."

But it was Jay-Z who inspired the title of her third studio album The Pinkprint. She told Power 106 that Jay is her "favorite rapper," and his album The Blueprint was, well, just that.

"I wanted to be like Jay-Z," she said. "I felt like with what I'm doing, I want female rappers to be able to pattern themselves with what I've done one day. And I think the album is so classic, it's gonna feel so good and it will probably be one that female rappers will look to as a 'pink print' for years to come."

4. Pharrell

In 2014, when Pharrell's hit single "Happy" was all the rage, he sat down for an interview with Oprah Winfrey, who asked him to share a playlist of his musical influences. The tracklist included "Do I Do" by Stevie Wonder, "Early in the Morning" by The Gap Band, "It Takes Two" by Rob Base & DJ E-Z Rock, and "September" by Earth, Wind & Fire.

But there was one song that seemed extra special.

"This is the reason why I make music to this day," Pharrell told Winfrey before pressing play on "Scenario" by A Tribe Called Quest. He proceeded to lip sync along to the lyrics.

5. Janelle Monáe

Monáe's science fiction influences are well-documented, but when it comes to music, she was lucky enough to have some of her biggest influences become her real-life mentors. In a 2011 interview with Punchbowl, Monáe said she was "friends" with the late Prince. 

"He's a mentor, and he's there for me, and he does care about my career," she said. "And I'm forever grateful for that, because I think it's important for artists to have an artist in their life who's been where you've been, who's gone where you're trying to go."

She also named Stevie Wonder as "somebody who cares about my career," explaining that he knew her album from beginning to end. "It just really encourages me to keep going," she added.

6. Beyoncé

In 2006, just before her second album B'Day hit shelves, Queen Bey shared her biggest influences with Entertainment Weekly. They included several Black musicians.

"There's definitely something beyond Lauryn Hill that's in her voice and her mind when she writes songs," she said of Hill's 1998 album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. "She's gifted and blessed."

She added that her mother always played Anita Baker and Luther Vandross at her hair salon, and she'd sing music by jazz singer Rachelle Ferrell during her voice lessons.

Beyoncé also made sure to mention Diana Ross: "She's an all-around entertainer: a great actor, a good singer, and a beautiful, elegant woman. She's one of the few singers able to cross over into really good movies."

7. Chance the Rapper

In an interview with Katie Couric, Chance the Rapper explained how his 2016 mixtape was influenced by gospel singer Kirk Franklin, who is featured on one of the tracks. Chance said he rediscovered Franklin's music during a difficult time in his life.

"When I started listening to that, I was like, 'Okay this is what I need to be working on,'" he said. "It got me into a range of music, and understanding how chords work and not just how important pitch is, but how important tone is, and working with a lot of people."

In 2013, Chance shared his favorite albums with Complex. They included two by Michael Jackson. He called 1979's Off the Wall "the greatest album by the greatest entertainer of all time."

8. Drake

In 2011, Drake told SoulCulture TV about how much the late singer Aaliyah meant to his development as an artist.

"Aaliyah has had probably the most impact on my career," he said, "because when I made a choice to start singing it was because of something that my father had told me which was, 'There's no rapper out there that sings and raps and does both things well … and in order to be successful you're gonna need something other than just what everyone else is doing.'"

Drake said he looked to Aaliyah for inspiration to develop his singing talent. He didn't want his reference to be a male singer, he explained, "because then I would sound like that person."

"She almost spoke from a guy's perspective at points and she'd say things that were funny, things that were witty," he continued. "I felt like that was the first time I could really sing a woman's lyrics and not feel like I was singing a woman's lyrics because she was speaking generally."

9. Solange

Earlier this year, after the release of Solange's album A Seat at the Table, her sister Beyoncé interviewed her for Interview magazine and asked what the inspiration was for "the sweetness and the honesty and purity in your voice."

"It was very intentional that I sang as a woman who was very in control, a woman who could have this conversation without yelling and screaming," Solange said, "because I still often feel that when black women try to have these conversations, we are not portrayed as in control, emotionally intact women, capable of having the hard conversations without losing that control."

She went on to name some famous voices who inspired that way of singing.

"As you said, I have always loved Minnie Riperton, and I loved Syreeta Wright and really identified with a few of her songs that she and Stevie Wonder did," she said. "She was saying some really tough shit, but the tone of her voice was so sweet that you could actually hear her more clearly."


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