June is a month full of celebrations, as Pride and Caribbean-American Heritage Month also share its 30 days with Black Music Month in the United States. Founded by R&B songwriter-producer Kenneth Gamble of Gamble and Huff, music industry professional Dyana Williams, and radio DJ Ed Wright in 1979, Black Music Month went from a grassroots protest for the recognition of Black music to an official observance in 2000. Now in its twenty-second year, Black Music Month – also known as African-American Music Appreciation Month – has come full-circle in a time where Black artists are demanding rightful ownership of their art after decades of theft and cultural exploitation.
But Black music has spent decades being upheld in written form, and deservingly so. Black music’s influence on popular culture is immense. Michael and Janet Jackson changed the pop genre forever. Missy Elliott redefined women’s place in Hip-Hop as a lyrical and sex-positive trailblazer. Without Josephine Baker, the power of performance would look nothing like it does today. Reading books that both appreciate Black music’s existence and celebrate its artists’ contributions to global pop culture is just as necessary as streaming their work on the daily.
If you’re in search of a good read for Black Music Month, here’s a list of 15 books that center the myriad of genres and narratives in Black music, from jazz to hip-hop, from written celebrations of Black women in pop music to honoring Black LGBTQ+ artists in rap. While diving into the rich history of Black music, you’ll undoubtedly get some great recommendations to freshen up your playlists.
A Little Devil in America: In Praise of Black Performance by Hanif Abdurraqib
Divided into five “movements,” A Little Devil in America encapsulates the roots of Black performance in entertainment, with optics set on America’s consumption of Black culture in eulogy, jubilation and self-expression. Award-winning poet-essayist and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib dedicates poignantly-written vignettes to his fascination with Black performance, from Whitney Houston – despite the vocal powerhouse being an unskilled dancer – to soul and gospel singer Merry Clayton being the unsung hero on The Rolling Stones’ 1969 classic “Gimme Shelter.” In A Little Devil in America, Abdurraqib explores and honors the abstract form of Black performance.
Shine Bright: A Very Personal History of Black Women In Pop by Danyel Smith
Legendary journalist, editor and author Danyel Smith gives new life to her podcast Black Girl Songbook in Shine Bright, a memoir which intimately captures the impact of Black women in pop music. Beginning with a portrait of Phillis Wheatley, an 18th century enslaved woman who wrote and sang poems of freedom, Shine Bright retells the iconic careers of Aretha Franklin, Stephanie Mills, Mariah Carey and more, with Smith highlighting her own experiences while interviewing a number of the vocalists featured. While recounting her upbringing in Oakland, Smith gives reverence to Black women singers who laid the groundwork for the rising generation of modern pop acts.
The Motherlode: 100+ Women Who Made Hip-Hop by Clover Hope
Need a love letter to women in rap? Journalist and music critic Clover Hope pays homage to more than 100 female rappers, from Lauryn Hill to Nicki Minaj in The Motherlode, giving a sharp feminist approach to how women changed the course of Hip-Hop. While celebrating the hard-hitting bars and animated personas of women in rap, Hope also examines the misogynist gaze and objectification placed upon them, by breaking down the often sexually-charged lyricism of female rappers and analyzing their navigation of a male-dominated culture such as Hip-Hop.
Hip-Hop (And Other Things) by Shea Serrano
With existential rap-centric narratives from author and journalist Shea Serrano and eye-catching pop art from illustrator Arturo Torres, Hip-Hop (And Other Things) debates seminal albums in Hip-Hop, watershed cultural moments, and the nuances of legacy. As the third installment from his best-selling And Other Things book series, Texas native Serrano digs deep on the genre, spanning across five decades of Hip-Hop, where he hilariously ponders which Nas album is the most “Nasian” and if Cardi B was the reigning champion of 2018 with her Grammy-winning breakout album Invasion of Privacy.
Let Me Hear a Rhyme by Tiffany D. Jackson
For a YA perspective on Hip-Hop, author Tiffany D. Jackson takes it back to the ‘90s in her third novel Let Me Hear a Rhyme. Two Brooklyn friends Quadir and Jarrell are in grieving after the murder of their best friend Steph, and discover his unreleased music underneath his bed. Determined to take Steph’s music to the mainstream, Quadir and Jarrell partner with Steph’s younger sister Jasmine, posthumously naming their slain friend The Architect and promoting his demo to anyone that will give it a listen. The Architect catches the ear of a record label executive, but the trio of friends debate whether they should face the music and reveal the truth about Steph.
808s and Otherworlds: Memories, Remixes, & Mythologies by Sean Avery Medlin
808s and Otherworlds gives a voice to queer Black rap enthusiasts. Poet, essayist and artist Sean Avery Medlin puts verses from their 2018 album Skinnyblk in six “records” about cultural appropriation, interracial relationships, and their contemplation of Black masculinity. Harkening back to their childhood origins of Phoenix, Arizona, where Black children were few and far between, Medlin transcends space and time by putting their lived experiences to a Hip-Hop beat. Medlin’s conversation with Hip-Hop culture is vast, respecting the unflinching spirit of Southern trap music and even critiquing Kanye West’s infamous “slavery sounds like a choice” remark.
Love Radio by Ebony LaDelle
At seventeen-years-old, Prince Jones – also known as DJ LoveJones – hosts a relationship advice segment on Detroit radio show, Love Radio. When he meets Dani Ford, attraction between the two is mutual, but there’s just one challenge ahead of Prince: the two must fall in love within three dates. With Dani in her senior year of high school, she’s looking to attend college and settle down in New York City to become an acclaimed author. Prince on the other hand is the man of the house for his little brother and mom who’s battling multiple sclerosis. With music at the center of their romance, Prince and Dani flow naturally in a tale of Black love in Ebony LaDelle’s debut novel Love Radio.
Why Solange Matters by Stephanie Phillips
Stephanie Phillips, journalist and frontwoman of the punk trio Big Joanie, attended the 2017 Lovebox Festival in London the first time she saw singer-songwriter and performance artist Solange perform live. Feeling baptized by the experience, Phillips’ admiration for Solange grew deeper, with her groundbreaking third album A Seat At the Table having resonance with Black listeners worldwide. In Why Solange Matters, Phillips analyzes the singer’s progressive musical evolution from once being in the shadow of older sister and music icon Beyoncé to massive personal milestones, and intertwines Solange’s journey with her own experiences enduring generational trauma and institutionalized racism in the United Kingdom.
Enter the Blue by Dave Chislom
For a woman-led graphic novel similar to 2020 animated Disney film Soul, wander the pages of 180-page jazz epic Enter the Blue. Musician Jessie Choi swears off playing the trumpet after a mishap during a school performance, but when her jazz mentor, Jimmy Hightower, falls into a coma, Jessie is faced with “The Blue,” a portal which holds the history and artists from renowned jazz label Blue Note Records. On a quest to save Jimmy through vivid illustration, Jessie is also given a crash course of jazz standards, reconciling with her undeniable appreciation of the genre.
Chronicling Stankonia: The Rise of the Hip-Hop South by Regina N. Bradley
An expansive look at Outkast being a cornerstone of Southern rap from author, journalist, and educator Regina N. Bradley, Chronicling Stankonia gives tribute to Bradley’s origins of Georgia and relationship with Deep South Hip-Hop. Raised in Albany, Georgia, Bradley’s home state soundtracked her discovery of Hip-Hop culture through local marching bands and essential mixtapes, probing Bradley – affectionately known as “Gina Mae” – to deconstruct Outkast as elder statesmen for rappers from coast to coast that followed their lead. While encapsulating the duo’s spellbinding futuristic energy, Chronicling Stankonia also reinforces the southern Black experience.
Her Word Is Bond: Navigating Hip Hop and Relationships in a Culture of Misogyny by Cristalle “Psalm One” Bowen
Unabashedly feminist emcee, educator, and activist Cristalle “Psalm One” Bowen takes the gloves off on her debut memoir Her Word Is Bond. From a personal stance, Bowen chronicles the mistreatment of underrepresented, independent women rappers, and pushes for the music industry to be more inclusive of women of color in a genre where they’re often degraded on wax. A partial guide to aspiring artists wanting to take the leap of faith, Her Word Is Bond also serves as a demand for women in Hip-Hop to get the respect they deserve.
Mama Phife Represents: A Memoir by Cheryl Boyce-Taylor
In Mama Phife Represents, Cheryl Boyce-Taylor — poet, teaching artist, and mother of late A Tribe Called Quest member Phife Dawg — documents her son’s life through poems and retellings, also offering Phife’s collection of never-before-seen lyrics, journal entries and sketches. Through narratives of healing, Mama Phife Represents is an ode to a mother-son relationship, where Boyce-Taylor upholds her Trinidadian culture, embraces Phife’s dreams of rap stardom, and openly mourns words left unspoken before his passing at 45-years-old. Mama Phife cathartically bridges the gap between mourning and memories being a place of refuge.
Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound by Daphne A. Brooks
In Liner Notes for the Revolution, university professor and author Daphne A. Brooks proves that Black women artists can be radical. With liner notes summarizing the purpose of an album and the artist behind it, from Side A to Side B, Brooks detours from the usual music-focused academic book into a world where Black women in music are equally celebrated and devalued. Through storytelling, analysis and archival research, Liner Notes for the Revolution spans generations of Black women as musical pioneers, including Ma Rainey, Billie Holiday, and Tina Turner, and calls attention to their resounding influence.
It Was All a Dream: Biggie and the World That Made Him by Justin Tinsley
The Notorious B.I.G. would have been 50 years old this year, and even in a brief rap career that tragically ended at his peak in 1997, he’s still larger than life. Journalist and author Justin Tinsley follows Biggie’s rise as a Brooklyn-bred emcee in the ‘90s to his long-awaited takeover of the rap game through stories from close friends, collaborators, journalists and music executives who knew the rapper best. While tracing his impressive catalog, It Was All A Dream speaks to a societal perspective where Biggie lived through grapples with street life, police brutality, and rap coastal wars.
Dilla Time: The Life and Afterlife of J Dilla, the Hip-Hop Producer Who Reinvented Rhythm by Dan Charnas
Dilla Time isn’t simply a biography that immortalizes genre-shifting producer and occasional rapper J Dilla, the book schools readers on his career, sometimes-toxic interpersonal relationships and his genius “Dilla Time” musical time concept. From author, historian, and educator Dan Charnas – who taught New York University’s Clive Davis Institute course “Topics in Recorded Music: J Dilla” – and musicologist Jeff Peretz, Dilla Time follows how the beatmaker redefined the sound of Detroit Hip-Hop through soul samples, crafting an intergenerational influence of the genre before his untimely death at 32.
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