Four Black Music Documentaries You Should Watch
In honour of Black History Month, here are four music documentaries that celebrate Black musicians and their contributions to the music industry.
For Love & Country (2022)
What constitutes “white music” or “Black music” and who decides? This is what For Love & Country aims to address and subsequently answer. This film sheds light on the ways in which Black country music artists have been pushed to the margins of the genre despite playing an integral part in the origins of country music. Director Joshua Kissi explains that he hopes people will have a “different appreciation for the genre of country music and the artists who so boldly choose to stand in the light.”
For Love & Country features personal interviews and performances by several mainstream and up-and coming Black country artists including Grammy nominated and CMA and AMA winning Jimmie Allen, Four-time Grammy nominated Mickey Guyton, singer-songwriter BRELAND, singer-songwriter and producer Blanco Brown, singer-songwriter Amethyst Kiah, Grammy nominated Allison Russell, songwriter and producer Shy Carter, pianist and singer-songwriter Frankie Staton, rapper Mike Floss and rising country stars Reyna Roberts, Brittney Spencer, and Willie Jones.
This film does a great job at exposing the fact that genre is a marketing strategy. Until this film, I didn’t realize just how critical marketing played into the myth that country music is only made for and by white people. For Love & Country not only gives a voice to the Black artists breaking barriers in the country music scene, but also to Black Nashville residents who have always listened to and enjoyed country music. Through personal anecdotes, I learned a lot about the greater struggle that Black artists face in the country music scene. While there are constant barriers in place, representation is so important in shifting perceptions of country music as a whole. I also enjoyed the inclusion of musical performances by several of the featured artists. It created great intimate moments to break up the heavier subject matter.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway for me is that country music is Black music. While there was a complete erasure of Black people in country and bluegrass, we know that Black roots music is the foundation of all music. Country music is storytelling and for so long Black people were not in charge of the narrative. BRELAND shares that “country music has always been the premier genre for telling stories, but so many have been silenced, erased, and rewritten.” This film inspired me to look even deeper into the role Black people played in the creation of country music.
You can stream For Love & Country on Amazon Prime Video
20 Feet From Stardom (2013)
“If given the opportunity, we will demonstrate our value beyond any reasonable doubt, so much so that going forward, when you start to define singing, it’s going to be based on this transformative sound coming out of these backup singers’ mouths.” – Dr. Todd Boyd
Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Feature and Grammy Award for Best Musical Film (2013), 20 Feet From Stardom shines a spotlight on backup singers who, until this film, had not been publicly acknowledged for the vital role they played in the music industry. Directed by Morgan Neville, this film highlights the Black women who sang in some of the greatest pop songs in history. Featured backup singers include Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Tata Vega, the Waters Family, Claudia Lennar, and Judith Hill.
Spanning from the 50s to present day, the film highlights Black female backup singers who were the backbone of the music industry. I really enjoyed that they included personal interviews with the backup singers as well as with the lead singers who employed them. Artists such as Stevie Wonder, Sting, Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger. There was also an extensive amount of live performance footage including a young Luther Vandross singing backup for David Bowie. I also really appreciated that rather than focusing too heavily on the oppression that many of these background singers faced, it also showed the joys and triumphs. It focused on the sisterhood and legacy that these Black female backup singers prided themselves in creating and being a part of.
One of my favourite scenes in the film is the story behind the recording of Rolling Stones’ hit Gimme Shelter. As Merry Clayton retells the story, we see her live reaction to hearing her isolated vocals from the night it was recorded. Mick Jagger also reacts to the recording, and we see how in awe he is of Merry’s talent. She is so in control, yet she completely improvised that final take. Backup singers don’t typically get the spotlight, but when they do they show just how talented they are. It was so meaningful to have her vocals take centre stage.
My biggest takeaway from this film is that Black women are the backbone of the pop music industry. While the faces in the spotlight are largely white, Black female singers shaped the sound of modern-day pop music. Singer-songwriter Janice Pendarvis explains that for backup singers “you don’t hold on necessarily to your individual vocal persona, cause you’re trying to get your persona to blend and mesh with other voices”. The ability to both accommodate and assimilate in spaces where you don’t feel welcomed is a skill that Black women have in spades. Historically, Black women have been the source of inspiration but were rarely recognized for their contribution. I’m glad that this film brought more awareness to this systemic issue.
You can stream 20 Feet From Stardom on Hulu in the U.S. and Apple TV in Canada.
Summer of Soul (2021)
“We hold these truths to be self-evident that Black history is gonna be erased” Oliver-Velez.
The revolution could not be televised in 1969, but today it’s in HD. Academy Award recipient for Best Documentary Feature in 2021, Summer of Soul airs unseen footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival in Mt. Morris Park, Harlem, New York in 1969. At the time of the festival, there were huge shifts in culture as it pertains to style, music and politics. There was a huge rise in the Black Conscious Movement and music and revolution went hand in hand. Organizer Tony Lawrence created a platform for a wide array of performers that everyone could enjoy. Featured performers include Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight & the Pips, B.B. King, Mahalia Jackson, the Fifth Dimension, the Edwin Hawkins Singers, Max Roach, comedian Moms Mabley and Nina Simone.
The festival could not have happened at a better time. There was a lot of unrest at the time: President Kennedy assassinated in ‘63, Malcolm X in ‘65, and MLK in April ‘68. Protests and public demonstrations resulted due to people feeling let down by the system. “These musicians were expressing musically what we were thinking and feeling politically and culturally.”
What I loved about this film is the firsthand accounts of concert goers who were experiencing this footage for the first time. Many talked about the importance of seeing the wide array of talent on stage. Gospel act Pops Staples & the Staple Singers, Motown artist David Ruffin and soul funk group Sly and the Family Stone performed. Also, performances by Mongo Santamaria and Dinizulu and His African Dancers and Drummers showcased how diverse and expansive the Harlem community was. No matter the shade of brown or the language barrier, the commonality was in the music.
One of the most memorable moments in the film is festival attendees hearing the news of the moon landing. The general consensus was that the festival was way more relevant than the Apollo 11 mission. While it was great that people cared so much about going to the moon, that money would have been better spent feeding the poor Black and Brown people in Harlem. The hyper fixation with space and the moon only emphasized the lack of care and focus on what was happening in America. People starving, drugs, and the brutalization and murder of Black and Brown people by police, etc. Unfortunately, that is still the reality today.
With Woodstock happening the same year, it’s no surprise that this festival was ignored. Even marketing the festival as “The Black Woodstock” was not enough. The people in positions of power were not interested in a Black show, run by Black people, with Black artists. That’s why this documentary is so important.
You can stream Summer of Soul on Disney Plus
There will probably never be a more iconic, culture shifting Coachella performance until Beyoncé agrees to do another one. As now the most awarded person in Grammy history with a total of 32 wins, Beyoncé continues to raise the bar. Her two-weekend Coachella performance in 2019, was the first time in Coachella history that a Black woman headlined the festival. Directed by Beyoncé and videographer Ed Burke, Homecoming gives an in-depth look at the process of creating the ground-breaking show.
Beyoncé’s Coachella performance was a beautiful tribute to Historically Black College and University (HBCU) culture and Black culture as a whole. Homecoming does a great job at seamlessly transitioning between the first and second weekend performances. I stayed up until 2 am to watch the performance live on the first weekend, so it was great that while watching Homecoming I could also catch glimpses of the second weekend with a completely different costume scheme. After Beyoncé performs Lift “Every Voice & Sing”, we get our first look at the behind-the-scenes magic. I loved the inserts of Nina Simone speaking on the importance of Black people celebrating and embracing their culture. We learn that Beyoncé has always admired HBCU life. With this show, she wanted to reflect this subset of Black culture with all of its beauty, “swag” and passion.
I really enjoyed that Beyoncé allowed us to see her more vulnerable side. She reveals how difficult it was to get back into shape both mentally and physically after giving birth to her twins. We see footage of her looking unsure while learning choreography and not feeling completely in tune with her body. I loved that as she starts feeling more confident in her skin, we transition into the performance of “Flawless/Feeling Myself”. We also get to hear from some of the dancers who expressed so much gratitude for being in the show. They had so much pride in seeing Black culture shown in this way on such a big platform.
Spoiler Alert: with too many highlights to mention here, the one that will forever play in my memory is the reunion of Destiny’s Child. It was amazing to see Beyoncé, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams perform alongside one another looking and sounding as if no time has passed. They performed beautiful renditions of my personal faves, “Lose My Breath,” “Say My Name” and “Soldier.” I couldn’t help but get a bit emotional seeing the immense amount of love and sisterhood displayed on that stage.
All in all, Homecoming was a beautiful display of Black joy, beauty, passion, and resilience. In her own words, Beyoncé talks about how Black women often feel underestimated and underappreciated. “I wanted us to be proud of not only the show, but the process. Proud of the struggle. Thankful for the beauty that comes with a painful history and rejoice in the pain. We were able to create a free, open space where none of us were marginalized.”
You can stream Homecoming on Netflix
Feel like dipping your toes into the tunes before watching the films? Look no further – check out the link below for a beautifully curated playlist stocked with bangers and anthems found in each of the movies. Happy listening!