ABOVE: Mahalia Jackson, far left, sings “We Shall Overcome” with civil rights leaders; Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., third from left, Rev. Jesse Jackson and Albert Raby, right, on Aug. 4, 1966, in Chicago. (Ray Foster / Chicago Tribune)
As we honor the enduring legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it is sometimes hard to view him beyond his historical figure. He was a trailblazing political activist, community organizer, and social strategist but he was also a husband, father, and friend. He loved the written word, but he also loved music, and it is often cited that gospel, jazz, and the blues were his favorite genres. Envisioning his presence in today’s musical landscape is also a step towards envisioning King as a person. Who are the artists that he would resonate with and fill his playlist? It’s pure speculation but it can be important because it allows us to bridge generational gaps, connecting the past with the present. By crafting an imagined modern-day playlist, we not only pay tribute to Dr. King’s unwavering commitment to societal change but also acknowledge his connection to community. This is an entertainment column about Houston but, as we prepare to honor Dr. King on his holiday, here are four Houston artists that I think would be on his playlist.
King was a lover of jazz, being quoted saying “Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.” Robert Glasper is a highly acclaimed jazz pianist, composer, and producer, and stands as a major influential force in music today. Known for seamlessly blending jazz with elements of hip-hop, R&B, and soul, Glasper has redefined the boundaries of his genre. He’s worked with Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Common, Kendrick Lamar, and more. His innovative approach has earned him widespread recognition and numerous accolades, including Grammy Awards. His work continues to add to the evolving landscape of modern jazz. He addresses modern day issues through his music, with themes of social consciousness and reflection woven into his compositions. Robert Glasper’s impact extends beyond the confines of jazz, as he continues to shape the musical conversation and contribute to the broader cultural dialogue on identity and social justice.
The MC rose to social media fame with Get Twisted Sundays where he would freestyle a verse while his wife, affectionately nicknamed Fat, would twist his hair. Since then, the Alief MC has become a rising figure in pop culture, dropping a series of albums, headlining sold out tours, appearing on the festival circuit, and appearing in blockbuster movies like Transformers. He is known for his independence, creating music and visuals with his own team. His latest release, moMINTs continues with his current theme of the color mint, which is donned by him, his family, and his dancers in all of the visual performances. Nwigwe’s lyrics delve into themes of self-empowerment, cultural pride, and social justice, reflecting a profound awareness of the world around him. He recently announced a partnership with Reebok so be prepared to continue hearing and seeing more from the westside MC.
When PJ Morton went to record the live version of his Grammy nominated album Watch The Sun, he tapped Houston’s own Susan Carol to sing on “Good Morning.” Carol has a warm, magical tone that can be heard on BJ The Chicago Kid’s “Snowflakes,” Kenyon Dixon’s “Here,” or Full Crate’s “Magnetic.” Her performance on “Good Morning” on Watch the Sun Live: The Mansion Sessions has helped to earn her a Grammy nomination. She is still a newer artist, and a lot of her more popular songs are where she is featured on another artist’s song but don’t sleep on her own offerings. Her 2021 EP Organic highlights her voice and songwriting ability and also shows why these other artists are reaching out to the young upstart for a feature.
It’s no secret that King deeply enjoyed and was influenced by Gospel music. He was good friends with Gospel legend Mahalia Jackson. During his famous address to the nation, she is quoted as encouraging him to “tell them about the dream.” If he were alive today it wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination that he would be a fan of Yolanda Adams. She is a powerhouse in the genre of gospel and has left an indelible mark on the music industry with her vocal talents and soul-moving performances. She has been called the Queen of Contemporary Gospel, the First Lady of Modern Gospel, and the Reigning Queen of Urban Gospel. Adams has released 11 studio albums, the last being released in 2011; but even with her latest offering being released over a decade ago, her influence in the music world remains strong.