illustration for article about black artists by Amy Young
The black experience has been both documented and molded by these figures. (Illustration by Amy Young, School of Visual Arts)
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illustration for article about black artists by Amy Young

American pop culture has been defined by black excellence for decades. From Gordon Parks to Aaliyah, black artists continue to influence the new generation.

Black artists have cemented their place in history. They have continuously broken barriers and documented their experience through their music, photographs, paintings and writing. Though these artists have passed away, the work that they have created continues to influence a new generation of artists.

1. Aaliyah

Known as the “Princess of R&B,” singer Aaliyah Dana Houghton was born in Brooklyn and raised in the city of Detroit. It has been 26 years since her 1994 debut, “Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number,” and 19 years since her fatal plane crash in 2001. Yet, the singer remains one of the most influential and enigmatic figures in popular culture today.

She created a sound that was novel to R&B at the time. The sound she revolutionized with her discography — soft, breathy vocals, synthesizers and irresistible beats — is still influential. Black artists today like J. Cole and Solange have paid homage to her in their own albums through remixes and samples. Drake has even memorialized the songbird in a tattoo on his back.

Aaliyah was not only influential through her music, but also in her unparalleled fashion sense. Her clothing choices were an effortless marriage of a tomboy aesthetic and classy, sultry gowns. She often wore oversized clothes, black sunglasses, crop tops, bandanas and sportswear. Many of these staples are now seen in contemporary fashion. Figures from our time such as Rihanna and Alexander Wang have also credited Aaliyah as an influence on their own style.

Aaliyah defied what women were supposed to look like in favor of staying true to herself. Her legacy is a testament to authenticity.

2. Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks was one of the most prolific photographers of the 20th century. His photojournalism is best known for its documentation of the African American experience, crime, poverty and the civil rights movement.

Parks was born into poverty in 1912. His early years growing up in Kansas were plagued with racial discrimination and struggle. He did not even pick up a camera until he was 25 years old. Parks discovered that his camera was more than just a tool to create photographs; it could be his weapon against injustice. He received a photography fellowship in 1941 with the Farm Security Administration, where he created one of his most iconic photographs, “American Gothic.” He went on to become the first African American staff photographer for Life magazine and produced fashion photographs for Vogue.

Throughout his legendary career, Parks explored different aspects of his artistic talents. In his later years, he wrote novels, screenplays and poetry, composed music and pursued filmmaking.

He adapted his memoir, “The Learning Tree,” in 1969, becoming the first African American to direct a major Hollywood movie. His sophomore film, “Shaft,” became one of the box office hits of 1971 and inspired a genre of blaxploitation films.

Gordon Parks’ work still influences the new generation of black artists today through his unwavering efforts to reflect the lives of African Americans through an honest lens. Kendrick Lamar paid homage to the photographer in his music video “Element,” recreating several of Parks’ most noteworthy photographs.

3. James Baldwin

James Baldwin is one of the most enduring figures in literary history. Through his essays, novels, public speeches and plays, Baldwin’s passion and eloquence were unparalleled in his exploration of the black American identity. This dedication to exploring marginalization and discrimination solidified Baldwin as one of the era’s leading black artists.

Born in Harlem, New York, Baldwin grew up in poverty. As a child, Baldwin was an avid reader and served as a preacher in a small church until he was 16 years old. It was this time period that would influence his first novel, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” published in 1953.

He left the church at 17 years old and began his studies at The New School. Baldwin supported himself with various jobs while penning short stories and essays. His time in New York left him sickened by the racial injustices he frequently faced and when he was 24, he chose to leave for Paris. His freelance work in writing caught the attention of another literary heavyweight, Richard Wright, who helped the young Baldwin secure a grant so he could support himself with his writing.

Baldwin’s time abroad allowed him to write about the black American experience with a needed distance. The writer once noted that “once you find yourself in another civilization, you are forced to examine your own.”

During the civil rights movement, he felt a responsibility to be a part of what was happening in his native country and chose to return. His novels and essays produced at that time established Baldwin as an essential voice of the movement. He aligned himself with organizations like the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) and toured the South lecturing on racial issues.

What makes the writing of James Baldwin impactful today is how it stands the test of the time. His influence is echoed in the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates and the films of Barry Jenkins. His words still resonate with the struggles of the black community today. James Baldwin’s depictions of the black identity, sexuality and the psychological effects of racism on the black community make him an essential figure in American history.

4. Jean-Michel Basquiat

Brooklyn-raised Jean-Michel Basquiat was one of the most acclaimed neo-expressionist artists of his time. In his early childhood, Basquiat showcased an early gift for the arts. Later, at the age of 8 years old, a car hit him, which resulted in a months-long stay in a hospital where he read, among other things, the famous medical text “Gray’s Anatomy.”

The images and writing contained in the medical text and graphic novels Basquiat read would go on to influence his future canvases. Before fame, Basquiat made ends meet by selling customized T-shirts and postcards. He was a part of the New York graffiti movement of 1972 and befriended fellow artist Al Diaz.

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The duo spray-painted all throughout New York City with the recurring motif “SAMO” (Same Old S—). Their graffiti art contained commentary on capitalism and consumerism. While their work received some media attention, Basquiat’s career truly began to skyrocket after he was included in an art exhibition in 1980. Basquiat was a product of the neo-expressionism movement, where he gained worldwide recognition alongside other painters.

Basquiat made frequent use of crowns in his paintings. The artist chose the symbol as his way of portraying African Americans as royalty and celebrating black power. Another frequent motif in his work was the West African griot. The griot communicated the history of West African culture through song and storytelling.

He often fused words, animals and other symbols in his paintings, which brought him critical acclaim. In the mid-1980s, Basquiat developed a close friendship and collaboration with Andy Warhol. His paintings captured racism, social injustice and marginalization.

The figures in his paintings were usually black with white outlines, serving as a commentary on the perception of African Americans. Though the young artist found quick success, a heroin addiction caused his untimely death at the age of 27. In his short life, Basquiat made an imprint on the world that could never be forgotten.

5. Nina Simone

“High Priestess of Soul” Nina Simone was born in 1933 in North Carolina. As a youth, she studied classical piano at Juilliard and performed in nightclubs. She released her first album in 1957. It contained the Top 20 hit, “I Love You Porgy.” She continued to release several albums through the ’70s.

Simone’s classical training allowed her to stand apart from her contemporaries. Her training allowed her to draw from an infinite pool of pop and gospel music. Listeners could not categorize her into one genre with its effortless blends of jazz and the blues. Mesmerizing vocals captivated anyone who listened at the first note.

In a 1968 interview, Nina Simone declared, “I’ll tell you what freedom means to me. No fear. I mean, really, no fear!”

She refused to fit herself into the boxes the world tried to force her in. Her music was both rebellion and truth, honoring herself and black artists like her.

In the mid-1960s, she became one of the staple black artists of the civil rights movement. Her song “Mississippi Goddam” was a response to the murder of Medgar Evers and the Birmingham church bombing. She wrote of the complexities of the multifaceted identities of black women in “Four Women.”

Though her artistry went unnoticed at the time, she continued using music as a voice for those that could not speak for themselves.

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