For whatever reason, the term “experimental” is largely reserved for white artists like John Cage, Bjork, Sunn O))) and Brian Eno. But take a broader view and artists like Jimi Hendrix, Afrika Bambaataa, Sun Ra, and Miles Davis were also, loosely speaking, “experimental,” each pushing the limits of their respective sounds. Their legacy is continued today by black musicians like Erykah Badu, Valerie June, Shabazz Palaces, and The Internet, with their unconventional and unexpected takes on soul, hip-hop, blues and gospel, each with their own individual artistic color palettes.
The artists who appear in this list fall under that latter definition of “experimental,” testing the boundaries of each of their chosen genres and then defiantly striding across them.
Zeal and Ardor
Zeal and Ardor bring new meaning to the words “black metal.” A mix of gospel and black spirituals with searing, distorted riffs, producer Manuel Gagneux’s music is the result of an a message board challenge to meld black music and black metal. Devil is Fine recreates the songs slaves sang while working in fields, ladling the melodies of spirituals in heavy bursts. The title track opens with eerie acapella, which later explodes into full-on death metal. Devils is Fine is a dark exploration of the depths of slavery, tackled with a brash musical adventurousness, for music that is disturbing, defiant and iconoclastic.
When it was first coined, the term “shoegaze” was meant as an insult, used to describe bands who looked bored on stage. But there’s nothing boring about The Veldt, or their album, The Shocking Fuzz of Your Electric Fur, a euphoric rock opus that commands attention. “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” vocalist Daniel Chavis exclaims over and over on “Sanctified,” a song that, like Zeal and Ardor, explores spiritual themes. Equally influenced by A.R. Kane, Cocteau Twins and My Bloody Valentine, The Veldt takes “shoegaze” to new heights, fusing it with soul music and powering it with Chavis’ breathtaking vocals. To hear his voice is to hear a singer transcend any confines of genre expectations. When Chavis sings, he raises the standard for rock vocalists.
Weaving elements of soul, R&B, and pop, Ayo Leilani—aka Witch Prophet—creates bold, transformative ballads that you can also dance to. “Funeral for a Killer”’s controversial lyrics (“One day I’ll shoot you down!”) accentuate Ayo’s rich, soulful vocals, which flow smooth as honey over her sleek urban pop. Prophet’s music is deeply resonant, full of creative twists and turns.
Signor Benedick the Moor
Following the release of 2013’s El Negro, Signor Benedick the Moor released the harrowing Maiden Voyage Suite as a way to explore the historical trauma of slavery. Blending the sound of modern rap with deep lyrical insights into the historical past, the album launches with an 11-minute track that examines a voyage across the vast and turbulent sea. Maiden Voyage Suite is brief yet sadly timely, highlighting the pain and confusion black people share.
Otis Jones Music and Movement
Otis Jones Music and Movement combines pop and smooth jazz, perfectly blending the two on his new album, Eventually. Jazz is often considered the domain of older, seasoned musicians, but Otis Jones Music and Movement’s meticulously composed tracks show maturity and understanding of the spirit of jazz. They prove experimental jazz and Black music can be constructed by artists of any age.