Words: Ongisa McKenzie
—Musiq Soulchild, “Givemorelove”
“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, appropriation. My second thought was that I had to find some cutesy, catchy songs she could sing by a Black children’s music artist.
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 Black children’s music artist 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 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 Berkner’s, 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 Black kids music 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 as a Black children’s music artist. In the early ‘90s, she hosted 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 tailor made for our kids?
I searched for Black kids music 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 the Black kids music 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:
1. GIGI GUMSPOON
I’ll kick off the Black kids music 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 with Culture Queen. She creates Black kids 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 D.C. 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 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. The late musician’s 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 win for parents looking for Black kids music. This is a must have for a jamming kids party!
8. SECRET AGENT 23 SKIDOO
Arguably one of the most popular children’s music 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 white 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 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’ll get the punchlines.
The Secret Agent 23 Skidoo band now performs as the SECRET AGENCY.
“Each of us with our own secret agent names, everybody taking the lead on center stage, representing in the spotlight and talking to the crowd,” writes 23 Skidoo in an email to mater mea. “It’s a better show, and it represents for and resonates with everybody that way. Check out the music vid we dropped to introduce the concept!”
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, giving a solid spectrum of Black kids music.
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 now shuttered 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.”
11. JAZZY ASH
Bright and warm like Southern Californian sunshine, Ashli St. Armant—better known to fans as Jazzy Ash—is a delightful vocalist who encourages kids to have fun and move with her songs. With the backing of her jazz band the Leaping Lizards, kids (and parents) will have a hard time not dancing to the band’s big horns and Ashli’s even bigger voice. If you’re looking for Black kids music, check out the “Simon Says” style video for her song “Teddy Bear” and the social-distancing friendly “Be Outside.”
12. PIERCE FREELON
Pierce Freelon, a Durham, North Carolina-based hip-hop, soul, and electronic artist and community leader, has some thoughts about being a dad. And he’s put them all into D.a.D., a collection of songs inspired by his fatherhood journey as a Black millennial dad in the South.
D.a.D. is a love letter to fatherhood and family, with the voices and experiences of Freelon’s daughter Stella and late father Phil featured in the album. (“Daddy Daughter Day” is a sweet celebration of the bond fathers share with their daughters, and Phil reminds us of the value and gift of artists.) D.a.D. also reinforces good self-care practices for your kids: “My Body” and “Bubble” are odes to consent, bodily autonomy, and the importance of setting boundaries.
13. DESMOND DENNIS
Parents who love R&B will love Desmond Dennis’s line of Cool Kid Jams albums. The two-time platinum song writer can siiiing, and brings soul to standard kids songs like oldies “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and new ear worms like “Baby Shark.” (He even as a YouTube playlist of music videos for his songs.) All four Cool Kid Jams albums are on Spotify.
14. ALPHABET ROCKERS
Alphabet Rockers are creating a more equitable world, one hip-hop song at a time.
The conscientious, two-time Grammy nominated group is just as much about their mission as they are about their music: “Our families need content that is healing, that reflects who we are and empowers us— that embraces Black liberation, Queer liberation, Indigenous rights, immigrant rights, and intersectionality.” Check out their YouTube channel for family-friendly music and learning. (They also have a podcast for kids called So Get Me, which highlights “how brave American kids stand up to hate and love their brave and beautiful selves.”)
Oakland-based musician Asheba can introduce your family to calypso—”the musical and folkloric oral tradition of Trinidad” of his homeland. Asheba sings old standards like “Skip to My Lou” and “Twinkle Twinkle” as well as his own tunes with a Caribbean joyful lilt that will make his Spotify channel a favorite for you and your kids. Asheba brings a global lens to your Black kids music search.
16. MISTER B
Dr. Anthony Broughton—though known by his fans as Mister B—is an educator who reaches kids through music. His educational videos make counting, saying the alphabet, and recognizing sight words fun!
17. LAVENDER BLUES
Recommended by Well-Read Black Girl founder, author, and mom Glory Edim, Lavender Blues is “an educational music program for babies and toddlers.” Host Lady B is bringing the same high energy of her in-person music and movement classes to Zoom during the pandemic, making Lavender Blues accessible to those outside of Brooklyn.
18. WEE NATION RADIO
Looking for great, family-friendly music 24/7? WEE Nation Radio is an online radio station that streams “R&B, Hip-Hop, Funk, Jazz, Go-Go and World music specially created for kids”—that means no curse words or adult content to worry about.
A Grammy-nominated “musician with a message,” SaulPaul empowers and inspires youth with his rap music and songwriting. You can hear his music (and watch videos together) on his YouTube page.
“Fyütch is a music and social justice artist who combines Hip-Hop and visual storytelling to educate, entertain, and empower the next generation with songs about fatherhood, spirituality, love and positivity.” Your kids may not get all the references in catchy songs like “This Kwanzaa” and “Sister, Sister,” but you will.
21. RISSI PALMER
Acclaimed country musician Rissi Palmer created a children’s album called Best Day Ever that has struck a chord with parents and children alike. The 10-song album is “all happy, all light, all ‘comfort food’ for the soul.” (Cool Black history fact: Rissi was the first Black woman in 20 years to appear on Billboard country charts.)
Having worked with artists like Missy Elliot and Timbaland, Cherri Moon of SNOOKNUK has brought her talents to the family music space. You can listen to her music on YouTube and Spotify.
23. AARON NIGEL SMITH
“Dance to the reggae rhythm, children / Don’t be shy.”
Your family won’t shy away from dancing and swaying to Aaron Nigel Smith‘s music. He taps into the “joyful spirit” of childhood and reggae with his music, which has been #1 on the Billboard Reggae charts and featured on PBS, People, and USA Today.
24. UNCLE JUMBO
Black children’s music artist Uncle Jumbo found inspiration in fatherhood. Watching his daughter learn how to crawl became “Where Are You Going Caterpillar?”, a bop that includes heartstring tugging lyrics like “Who is that little chunky leaf eater? / But now you can fly and got places to be.”
The catchy songs he was making up for his daughter became the impetus for three children’s music albums that are equal parts catchy, fun, and empowering. “I can be that person that kids are able to go to and have music that teaches them to love themselves, that gives them that self-love, that language of self-love,” Uncle Jumbo said in an interview.
25. DAN + CLAUDIA ZANE
“Grammy Award winning children’s performer Dan Zanes and Haitian-American music therapist / jazz vocalist Claudia Zanes have been making music with each other since the day they met in the fall of 2016.”
And we’re so glad they have.
The Zanes brand of soul and root music is socially conscious, thoughtful, fun, and soothing. You can watch their home-based music making on YouTube. (And when outside is open again, you can catch their performances, which they take great care to make sure is safe for children with sensory processing needs.)
26. FATHER GOOSE
Father Goose was once a part of Dan Zanes’ Grammy Award winning band, but has since struck out on his own as a Black children’s music artist with his own band The Goose Trotters. His work is “based on a journey of his musical life, with music, games, and stories from his childhood, combined with homemade and some familiar Caribbean music that creates the perfect blend for a dance party.”
27. KYMBERLY STEWART
I have never enjoyed singing my ABCs as much as I have while listening to Black children’s music artist Kymberly Stewart. “I Like To Sing My ABCs” is just one of the sweet and interactive songs you and your kids will love shimmying to from her album Giggles and Curls. (My other favorite? “I Am A Robot” that’s like an autotuned-version of Simon Says your kids will have on repeat.)
28. THE MAGIC JONES
Sisters and singers Arin and Alexis Jones’ duo The Magic Jones is part of a whole suite of content—YouTube videos, e-books, products, to support fun-loving families sheltering at home during the pandemic.
However their album Adventures of the Music Box is perfect for parents looking for Black kids music. The six-track album is an alternative R&B meets autotuned lullaby take on classics like “Twinkle Twinkle” and “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” (Also parents born in the ’80s are in for a treat: Arin was part of Brownstone, the ’90s R&B group that gave us hits like “If You Love Me” and “5 Miles to Empty.”)
Mayanicol (also known as Maya Nicole Johnson Jordan) is a multi-disciplinary artist and mom of two. Mayanicol and her daughter Monroe Snow created a sing-a-long album and book called Triple E Philosophy (that’s empathy, empowerment, and education), which teaches kids ages 0-7 about social emotional learning and diversity, among other important values and life skills.
The album’s soothing instrumentation and Mayanicol and Monroe Snow’s calming voices helps listeners young and old celebrate the diversity in the human race, and practice self-love.