Who Is Making Music For Black Children?
Words: Ongisa “Gigi Gumspoon” Mckenzie
Visuals: Sade Clacken Joseph
Family-friendly pop and children's music don't often reflect their brown listeners. But these 10 Black artists are making music catering to our children and culture.
With more substance
And more meaning
A message, intended
To leave them with something much more to believe in
Musiq Soulchild, “Givemorelove,” Soulstar (2003)
“Mommy, I want that one!” My 4-year-old daughter pointed to a blonde-haired, blue-eyed doll on the shelf at our local big box store. The doll was smiling inside her box, wearing the same cheery blue dress as the smiling brown-skinned, curly-haired doll in the box next to her.
“How about this one?" I pointed at the brown doll. "She’s very pretty, don’t you think?”
“But I want this one.”
My heart broke a little. Not my baby. We are a proud Black family. My husband and I are both educators. We watch TV shows with Black characters, we buy Black toys and books for our kids. So what gives? How had white beauty standards seeped into my household despite our best efforts?
Later, in the car, I heard my daughter sing “All About That Bass” by Meghan Trainor. My first thought was that I am not a fan because, hello, misappropriation. My second thought was that I had to find some cutesy, catchy songs she could sing by a Black musician.
I searched for songs that gave our kids permission to be joyful and confident...
When I was a small child, I was exposed to music by Ella Jenkins. She is a Black woman from the Southside of Chicago and she just so happens to be the Mother of Children’s Music. Her album You’ll Sing a Song and I’ll Sing a Song was on heavy rotation in my kindergarten class in the mid ‘80s. She started as a blues musician who played folk guitar and sang with soul. In the 1970s she began volunteering with kids in the YMCAs and rec centers of Chicago. That led her to perform on local TV and record a folk album for children.
Dozens of albums and a few decades later, Ms. Jenkins has amassed a great deal of recognition, including a Grammy and an American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers Lifetime Achievement Award. And she set the tone for others, including popular children’s musicians Dan Zanes and Laurie Berkner. Grammy Award winner Dan Zanes, formerly of the '80s band The Del Fuegos, started jamming with some other New York City dads at the park and eventually put out a tape. His guitar rock sound is similar to that of Laurie Berkner, also based in New York. Since her debut in 1997, she's been featured on the Today Show and the Sprout TV network for kids.
The idea of making music for Black children has appealed to many artists in other genres, but is often cast aside as a quickie or novelty project. Some artists may use children’s music to toss a bone to fans who have kids, or to bring in younger fans who can’t listen to their adult tunes just yet. Erykah Badu began her career in the early ‘90s hosting a local TV show called Kid’s Lives and taught children’s drama and music classes in Dallas. Soul artist Ayanna Gregory, daughter of comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, released her first children’s album I Dream a World in 2013. Rapper Andre 3000 of Outkast even released an animated show Class of 3000 and, of course, scored the hit soundtrack. Ziggy Marley, son of the legendary Bob Marley, has won Grammys for his children’s reggae albums. So there is interest here, but who’s doing it now? How do we find music that is tailormade for our kids?
I searched for songs that gave our kids permission to be joyful and confident, despite the negative images that society constantly floods into their psyches. I wanted lively material to keep them engaged and that would teach useful concepts. So-called “family-friendly” music in the mainstream is at best culturally tone deaf, and at worst completely devoid of Blackness. I knew that world-renowned children’s musicians like Raffi or Greg & Steve were popular among the white preschool set. But I felt that at a certain level, our Black digital-age children would not be moved by it. Music and media in general is fast-paced nowaday. Folk music is more a subculture that children's ears aren't used to hearing. Most instruments they hear in cartoons, video games, and the like are electronic.
I started using my experience as a singer-songwriter to fill the void for my own kids’ sake. As a blueswoman, I realized my kids just weren't into my music. So I combined electronic sounds and some helpful tunes I was already improvising for my children. If I wanted them to eat their veggies, a song would pop up. Maybe they were struggling to handle an argument with a peer—they could count on me for a quick ditty to help them cope. Most of the songs occurred very organically, and the persona I created—Gigi Gumspoon—took on all the things I wish to represent for them. She is friendly, proud, loving, intelligent, and concerned for others.
However, to expand the children's selection and keep things fresh, I started tracking down other artists’ music online. I’m excited about what I’ve discovered, and I truly hope talented musicians everywhere will begin using their skills to give our kids this missing piece of the cultural media puzzle. Here’s what I found:
The Top 10 Coolest Musicians for Kids of Color
1. Gigi Gumspoon
I’ll kick off the list with my own project. Washington, D.C.-based Gigi Gumspoon is an upbeat, pop-flavored character who sings about everything from eating vegetables and ABCs to listening to elders and the African philosophy of ubuntu (collectivism and humanity). Her focus is developing social and emotional skills in early childhood to produce better personal outcomes for the future. Check out the new release The Gigi Gumspoon Show.
2. Uncle Devin
Also based in the D.C. area, Uncle Devin is a veteran of the children’s music scene. He is a trained percussionist who teaches children about various instruments and their sounds. His book The ABC’s of Percussion and its companion CD are carried in many local public libraries. He has performed nationally and won numerous awards for his music and community work.
3. Kuumba Kids
Founded in 2008 by Bashea Imana, or “Iya,” Kuumba Kids is a collection of materials, including music, that are meant to inspire students to be interested in African culture. It is also meant to set a foundation in the arts that fosters academic and social growth. The music features vocals of both Iya and a chorus of children accompanied by various Black musical stylings.
4. Culture Queen
Give your kids the royal treatment and check out Culture Queen. She brings music that addresses children as royalty and tells them how special they are. In her debut album I Like the Me I See, the songs are about self-esteem and being proud of their African history. She has been performing all around the DC area and has even been featured on NewsOne Now with Roland Martin.
This production company in Ft. Washington, Maryland started out with Multiplication Hip-Hop, featuring a live cartoon character named Dezmo in 1999. Edu-Basics gained a buzz through street sales and wound up in homes and classrooms all over the country. Their rap songs not only appeal to children’s ears, but teach them solid math and reading concepts in a fun and memorable way.
6. Jali D.
David Foreman, aka Jali-D, is a Baltimore-based accomplished percussionist and spoken word artist who simultaneously combines his talents into an art form he calls “rappercussions.” His intelligent and creative rhymes have entertained and educated both children and adults nationwide. Along with his work in schools, Jali-D has recorded an educational music CD called Mind Rhymes, and has written a score for an FDA/Cartoon Network health campaign.
7. Big Don
Down South hip-hop flavor makes Austin, Texas artist Big Don stand out. His authentic sound makes kids feel like they are listening to the radio. The songs delve into manners, dancing, nursery rhymes, and what kids want to be when they grow up! Big Don’s Big Beats is a real winner. This is a must have for a jamming kids party!
8. Secret Agent 23 Skidoo
Arguably one of the most popular kids' artists, Secret Agent 23 Skidoo is no newbie to the music scene. Formerly rapping onstage with the likes of Run DMC and Mos Def, the Asheville, North Carolina musician has had three #1 radio hits on XM/Sirius Kids Place Live! and has played many prestigious venues. He was also recently nominated for a Grammy for Best Children's Album. Known as the “King of Kid-Hop," the songs are well-thought out and catchy. They especially appeal lyrically to older kids who get the punchlines.
9. Eddie Peeples
This Columbia, South Carolina musician is a music teacher and choir conductor. His album Sing a Song is a motivational collection that covers days of the week, following directions, and the four seasons. There are many different vocalists featured in the smooth, gospel-style tracks. It also has a few danceable tunes.
10. Brother Yusef
Mainly performing in the grown-up world of the blues, Brother Yusef has developed a collection of blues songs for children. According to his CD Baby page, Brother Yusef’s album Kids Get the Blues Too puts “a blues twist to some old children's classics, cool enough for grownups to dig. Ya dig?” It exposes children to a music style with which they may not be familiar, but is lyrically familiar enough to enjoy. Tracks include “3 Little Monkeys” and “Hey Diddle Diddle.”
As you may have noticed, many of the artists I've found are based in the Washington, DC metropolitan area. If you know the of others you think should be on this list, please add them to the comments below!
Ongisa “Gigi Gumspoon” Mckenzie is a Washington, DC -based music artist. She's a mother of two, a public school teacher, a licensed realtor, and a Howard University alum. She also fronts a roots blues band, Conjure Woman, and serves on the Maryland Association of Social Services Boards to make a difference for children and families in the area.