by Inda Lauryn
The NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert series often showcases an array of eclectic artists, among them Black women music artists who break molds and show the full power of their skills within a limited space. While intimate, the setting brings a fun atmosphere to the performances, allowing audiences to get to know these artists in a different way. Here are five Black women artists who have given noteworthy performances in the series, all available on YouTube.
It’s difficult to ignore Esperanza Spalding’s presence for a number of reasons, one of them being the afro that crowns her head and her infectious smile. However, her 2012 album Radio Music Society cemented her as more than just a pretty face with an awesome mane and undeniable charm. Watching her in the NPR series shows that she is one of the greatest musical talents on this side of the century. Handling the bass while she sings, Esperanza gives us a taste of what Nina Simone would call “Black classical music,” including the track “Winter Sun” that was not included on her album Chamber Music Society’s American release.
British songstress Laura Mvula captured us all with her debut album Sing to the Moon with the carefree “Green Garden” and assertive “That’s Alright.” Her Tiny Desk performance slayed our lives as she displayed all the beauty of her voice beginning with “Father Father.” Choosing intimate ballads to accommodate the available string instruments, Laura shows us why we fell in love with her voice. Even with her pared down set, she displays the full power of her vocal prowess.
Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear
Honestly, how often do we find a mother-son singing duo? Ruth Ward accompanies her son Madisen’s jaunty vocals with her own powerful voice as they both strum guitars. Their folk and blues style has a sweetness to it that stems from their familial relationship. Ruth carries her son in a motherly fashion we don’t often see in a singing duo. Incidentally, this comes through most in their performance of “Sorrows and Woes,” which has its roots in protest and political music that still has personal leanings. Overall, their upbeat set shows why their debut album Skeleton Crew may catapult them to widespread recognition.
PHOX (Monica Martin)
PHOX seems an unlikely outfit at first: a band of six with vocalist Monica Martin at the helm performing music even the most devoted indie, alt connoisseurs would be remiss to name. However, the Wisconsin band’s Tiny Desk performance provides the perfect example of why the group works. Like a secret weapon, Monica performs with her band mates-slash-roommates, displaying an easy rapport between their Wisconsin-inspired musical style and her smoky, smooth, laid back vocals. We get a glimpse of a few tracks from their self-titled debut album including the exquisite “Slow Motion” in this set.
Valerie June came to us with a Tennessee twang housing a powerful voice and a crown of locs that immediately made her a style icon. However, Valerie’s performance in the NPR series shows why she is a catalyst behind a revival of Black women’s voices in country and folk music. Her impressive guitar work on her single “Workin’ Woman Blues” displays a perfect dexterity to go along with her vocals. While her voice recalls old-school Southern backwoods juke joints, her lyrics are timeless whether strumming a guitar or banjo.
While admiring these women, you can also check out other performances from the Tiny Desk Concert series as well as NPR Field Recordings featuring artists such as Jazmine Sullivan, KING and Sevyn Streeter and Music Front Row with artists like Elle Varner. Next to seeing them live in person, these music series are a great opportunity to enjoy a few live performances by Black women.
Inda Lauryn has previously been published in Blackberry, A Magazine, Interfictions, The Toast, and Callaloo, as well as had her work featured on blogs such as Black Girl Nerds, Bitch Flicks, and AfroPunk. She is currently working on a novel and countless other unfinished writing projects, occasionally blogs at Corner Store Press and shares music playlists at MixCloud.