A Different Beat

Lianne La Havas
Lianne La Havas

With my purple Beats by Dre draped over my ears, mind and body quiescent, I bid farewell to the last remaining days of Black History Month.  A silent celebration of old school R&B and funk tunes shuffling on my phone.  But I suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder and my focus is soon interrupted with thoughts of the music industry in general and the urban, R&B, Hip Hop track specifically.  I think of how hard it is for groups and individuals to break through and break out in a genre that is dominated by a popular few.

A.D.D. kicks in again and thoughts move on. I start thinking of black musicians today who choose a different trail to blaze. Who choose to dance to a different beat. And why not if the path is viable. There is a proliferation of white artist carving out successful careers in the R&B and Hip Hop fields. Robin Thicke, Maclemore & Ryan Lewis, Eminem, and Justin Timberlake are just a sample of those capitalizing on the “cool white boy” phenomenon in traditional black music genres.

If you flip the script, you’ll discover that their are a number of black artists forging successful careers in alternative genres with their extraordinary talents.  Allow me to introduce you to a few of my favorites.

Lianne La Havas set the public radio music world on fire with her debut release Is Your Love Big Enough which was awarded ITunes album of the year 2012. La Havas, born Lianne Charolette Barnes, is a folk singer, soul singer, and singer-songwriter from England.  Her music is usually filed in the “alternative” music section. Public radio gravitated to this young musician because of her mature vocals and excellent songwriting ability.  Is Your Love Big Enough was one of my favorite albums last year but don’t take my word for it. You can judge for yourself:

Another artist that’s caught my attention over the past few years is singer Santigold.


Born Santi White, Santigold is an alternative rock, singer-songwriter who hails from Philadelphia, PA. With a haunting voice at times, Santigold’s in-your-face style draws on dance hall themed grooves and discontentment. Her most recent album, Master of My Make Believe, received critical acclaim. It’s not likely that you’ve heard her on traditional commercial R&B radio stations so I offer you this sample.  Disparate Youth, with its driving beat, edgy guitar, and steady groove, is without a doubt my favorite Santigold song:

This next group is likely too “twangy” for some of you but it doesn’t mean that the Carolina Chocolate Drops aren’t one of the more celebrated bands in their field.

Carolina Chocolate Drops
Carolina Chocolate Drops

This African American string band made a huge splash on the folk music scene in 2005 and their 2010 album, Genuine Negro Jig, won the Grammy Award for Best Traditional Folk Album. They are usually categorized in the folk, Americanna, bluegrass, and old-time categories. Rolling Stone describes their style as “dirt-floor-dance electricity”. The latest iteration of the band includes classically trained vocalist Rhiannon Giddens, Hubby Jenkins, Malcolm Parson and Rowan Corbett. Before you pass them off as “hillbilly” music, open your mind and lend a critical ear:

What’s been true about the creative spirit of African Americans since landing on this continent remains true today and that is that it can not be contained or confined  to any one construct. When we are moved to create, regardless of the forum or media, we express ourselves in genuine and authentic ways.  And we should be the same way as consumers of art.

Why Nina?

Nina Simone

If you know me or follow me on social media, you know that I often have Nina Simone moments. Mood swings when only Nina Simone’s music will do.  I’ve had more than a few of you ask, why Nina?  What’s the obsession?  It is usually a time when I am somber, mellow and reflective.  Getting lost in Nina’s voice is effortless.  It’s rich and complex.  It warms me like a favorite blanket.  Comforts me like a mother’s embrace.  Carries me like a river.  Today happens to be a Nina Simone kind of day.

One could argue that somber moments call for uplifting music.  That’s not true in my case.  For me, somber moments, reflective moments call for contemplative music.  Nina Simone’s music, whether a heartfelt ballad or funky blues, is contemplative and it is so because her voice is seductive and hypnotic.  Feeling somber?  Listen to “My Man’s Gone Now” or “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and Nina will share the moment with you.  She let’s you know that she indeed understands what you are going through.


Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina in 1933, Nina Simone is perhaps one of the most under-appreciated vocalist in jazz history.  She didn’t have the technically flawless voice of Sarah Vaughan or the swing of Ella Fitzgerald.  What she did posses was an uncanny ability to tell and sell a story.  An ability rivaled only by Billie Holiday.  As a musical griot, the High Priestess of Soul understood the pain of being misunderstood, unloved and uncomfortable and parlayed the bitterness of life into a song.  On stage and through song, Nina Simone represented the pride and soul of a people.


Most music fans under a certain age today attribute the song “Feeling Good” to Michael Buble.  There is no comparison, in my opinion, between the two.  Buble’s performance is technically sound.  There is no denying his talent as vocalist.  But when Nina sings “It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me” you understand the pain, the hurt and sorrow of an old world that makes the new world so much sweeter.  The proclamation of freedom is immediately clear.  Feeling good having risen from a place of misery.  That song was successful because of Nina’s ability to sell the pain.

Nina is good company when I’m down.  Nina makes the sweet moments sweeter.  Nina puts me in touch with my own wretchedness.  Makes me feel sexy…  Makes me feel proud…  Makes me feel soulful.  And that is Why Nina.