A Playlist To Celebrate Black Music Month In North Carolina

Author: By Carly Jones, Music Director, North Carolina Arts Council

The contributions of Black North Carolinians to the music realm spans all genres and could truly be one of those multi-disc collectible box sets that you buy on late-night television (do they still have those?). In fact, during the early 2000’s the NC Arts Council researched and developed the African American Music Trails of Eastern NC, to celebrate the rich musical heritage of African American musicians in North Carolina. This music trail celebrates some of the most transformative African American figures in the history of jazz, gospel, and popular music, including five members of the James Brown band, Little Eva, Thelonious Monk, Reverend F.C. Barnes, Maceo Parker and many more. Many of the great Black musicians, who were born in North Carolina, relocated to cities outside of the South during the Jim Crow era. However, their early experiences in N.C. shaped the music they created to help their people back home. Many of those songs are on this list. There is no definition of “blackness” and Black music cannot be put in a box. From Max Roach’s We Insist! Freedom Now Suite to Little Brother’s Minstrel Show, there are hundreds of albums from North Carolina musicians that stretch across generations and speak to the Black experience. This playlist is a little taste of the many sounds that make up the beautiful tapestry of North Carolina’s Black musicians. 



Record cover featuring a picture of Roberta Flack playing the piano

Tryin’ Times— Roberta Flack, Black Mountain, N.C.

This is a song off of Flack’s debut album First Take. Many people know Roberta Flack for her velvety love ballads. “Tryin Times” is a social commentary on the conditions African Americans faced in the late sixties. Through the song, she sings about Black strife, riots in the ghetto, ‘inhumanity to man” and the need to come together as brothers and sisters to make our country better.

John Coltrane live at Birdland, Coltrane playing the trumpet

Alabama — John Coltrane, Hamlet, N.C.

This powerful piece is John Coltrane’s instrumental response to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four young Alabama girls in 1963, which was a turning point in the Civil Rights movement. Coltrane patterned his saxophone playing on Martin Luther King’s speech, delivered at the church three days after the bombing. Like the powerful speech, “Alabama” changes its tone from one of mourning to one of empowering determination. 

"They say I'm Different" by Betty Davis

They Say I’m Different— Betty Davis, Durham, N.C.

Betty Davis, the Queen of Funk. Before she became the trailblazing, feminist, Afrofuturistic, funk goddess she is known to be, she was a young girl raised on her grandmother’s farm in Reidsville, N.C. In “They Say I’m Different,” she sings about her grandmother's collection of blues records (B.B. King and Elmore James) that inspired her love affair with blues and rock 'n' roll, and she sings of the pleasures of farm life while unapologetically throwing in her individuality. Artists like Prince, Erykah Badu, and Janelle Monae have all cited Davis as a large influence on modern music. 

Painting of Carolina Chocolate Drops


Hit ‘Em Up Style —  Carolina Chocolate Drops, Durham, N.C.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops is an iconic North Carolina Black String Band trio, including original members, Rhiannon Giddens, Dom Flemmons and Justin Robinson, all singers and multi-instrumentalists. The twang of North Carolina shines through in this ingenious arrangement of Blu Cantrell’s hip-hop fused R&B hit from the early 2000’s. Hit ‘Em’ up Styleis part of their Grammy Award-winning album Genuine Negro Jig that featured a blend of traditional Carolina folk, early 20th century “race” music, and modern pieces to create a truly eclectic album. 

Shirley Ceaser

It’s Alright, It’s Ok— Anthony Hamilton & Shirley Caesar: Charlotte & Durham, N.C.

This song brings together two of North Carolina’s homegrown music titans from two different generations: The Queen of Gospel, Shirley Caesar, a 12-time Grammy-award winning artist, and the Neo-Soul giant, Anthony Hamilton, a 17-time Grammy nominated artist. Hamilton’s southern church roots shine through in this collaboration with gospel royalty, in an uplifting song about continuing to push forward against the struggles of life. It was the first collaboration between these North Carolina legends - but hopefully not the last.


“Sojourner” — Rapsody, J. Cole, and 9th Wonder, Snow Hill, Fayetteville & Durham, N.C.

The ultimate North Carolina hip hop collab - one of the realest rappers of our time, Fayetteville’s own, J. Cole combined with the force of the fire-spitting, woman-empowering Rapsody from Snow Hill. The track, Sojourner, named after the great 19th-century abolitionist Sojourner Truth, combines the skills of two gifted lyricists and is filled with thought-provoking bars. The song is a very introspective work for both lyricists and North Carolina is laced throughout, ending with Rapsody’s line, “Carolina to the heart nobody here gon’ play us the day that we expire Carolina’s where they’ll lay us.” The record is produced by the Durham-based, Grammy-award winning hip-hop giant, 9th Wonder. This insightful track can be found on the Jamla Is the Squad II compilation album.

"Flash Light" Paramount

Flashlight— Parliament, Kannapolis, N.C.

The song you hear at every Black family cookout. The first number one R&B hit of any of the P-Funk groups came by way of North Carolina native George Clinton and his bandmates in Parliament. It was a massive hit becoming their second single to sell over one million copies. The song has had long lasting impact changing the face of funk scene, while also influencing the hip-hop and R&B scenes. It’s Clinton’s most sampled work - over 60 times including on Aaliyah’s Back and Forth, UGK’s Protect and Serve, Snoop Dogg’s The Shiznit, Salt-N-Pepa's I’ll Take Your Man, and Digital Underground’s Doowutchyalike.

Etta Baker with TajMahal

John Henry — Etta Baker, Morganton N.C.


Etta Baker is one of the most celebrated North Carolina Piedmont Blues musicians of our time and her recording of one of the most famous traditional folk songs of all time  “John Henry,” named after the great African American folklore legend, is exceptional. Although Baker’s instrumental version of this tune does not include the lyrical narrative, her expression and the feeling of the music shines through in her rendition; perhaps due to her own strength and resilience. After raising nine children and working in a textile mill, Etta became a professional musician in her sixties and played well into her nineties. Baker was known for her extraordinary guitar and banjo playing technique, and received numerous awards, including the North Carolina Heritage Award from the North Carolina Arts Council in 1989, the National Endowment for the Art’'s National Heritage Fellowship in 1991, and the North Carolina Award in 2003.

"Free Yourself" by Fantasia

Summertime—  Fantasia, High Point, N.C.

Off her debut album Free Yourself, Summertimeis what took Fantasia from American Idol winner to R&B star. Fantasia’s cover of the well-known classic turned jazz standard from Porgy & Bess, is infused with southern grittiness and soul. Her rendition showcases Fantasia’s vocal-prowess and showed the rest of the world that she wasn’t a flash in the pan. This empowering tune interweaves lyrics about southern life and the strength of African Americans. Fantasia’s memorable performance of this tune on American Idol, foreshadowed her Broadway debut as “Celie” in The Color Purple. 

Petey Pablo in front of a truck

Raise Up— Petey Pablo, Snow Hill, N.C.

“This One's for North Carolina! C'mon and Raise Up!” Anyone growing up in North Carolina during the early 2000’s remembers the pride this song brought us. Throughout the verses, Pablo literally raps a third of N.C.’s county names?. Petey Pablo brings raw emotion and fire in this top-25 hit. This list would not have been complete without this gem. 

To Be Young, Gifted and Black  Nina Simone, Tryon, N.C.

One of Nina Simone’s most treasured creations - the lyrics of this empowering song is intertwined in Black history. The prolific musician and activist wrote this piece as a tribute to her late friend, Lorraine Hansberry, the great author of A Raisin in The Sun, who was taken from us too soon at the age of 34. The song was considered an anthem of the Civil Rights movement and offered a song of pride for Black youth. “To be young, gifted and Black - oh, what a lovely precious dream. To be young, gifted and Black - open your heart to what I mean. In the whole world you know, there are a billion boys and girls who are young, gifted and Black - and that's a fact!”. The song still rings true today. Thank you, Miss Simone. 

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