Harlem has for many years produced many of the world’s most famous and influential black musicians. Before and during the Second World War, stars such as Louis Armstrong and Billie Holliday came straight out of Harlem and onto the world stage; shaping, inspiring and paving the way for many future generations of soul and rhythm and blues music. After the war, Harlem continued to be a scene setter for many more world class musicians to make their mark on black music history, such as Sammie Davis Junior, Nina Simone and Dinah Washington.
Through the decades, Harlem fast became a birthplace of modern RnB, rap and soul, seeing resident artists such as Alicia Keys and Puff Daddy (a.k.a P Diddy) emerge into the spotlight, starting their remarkable careers performing at some of Harlem’s legendary live music venues.
Step forward to the present day, and into the limelight steps another Harlem star. Azealia Banks, who grew up in the district, has shot to fame at a speed more akin to sprinting champion, Usain Bolt. At just 20 years old, the singer, rapper and lyricist has just seen her single – ‘212’ – top charts throughout the world. 2011 was an eventful year for the then teenager from Harlem; she signed a record deal with Interscope / Polydor Records, was voted top of NME’s cool list and was nominated for the BBC’s trend-setting Sound of 2012. She has since made it big across the pond, her hit a huge success in the United Kingdom and in many other European countries.
Unique and fresh
Banks’ rapping style is quirky, sassy and aggressive. Her single, 212, is sexually charged and foul-mouthed – and has bag-loads of attitude. Its unique and fresh style is reflective of Banks’ colourful yet poignant upbringing. Her father died when she was very young and, as such, her actress mother was very protective and the family extremely close. She grew up in Harlem and went on to study at the acclaimed theatre school, La Guardia High School (which of course was the same school attended by A-listers such as Liza Minelli, Nicki Minaj and Al Pacino). This gave Banks a solid training in acting and she went on, at just 16 years old, to star in a New York West End musical, City of Angels.
What sets Banks apart from other emerging artists is not just her multi-talents, but how her honest and down-to-earth personality comes across in her work. Her music is true to her roots, displaying an array of culture and influence – reflective of her upbringing, education and the multicultural area in which she grew up.
Authentic music venues
Azealia Banks is testimony to the high quality musicians to have been bred from the Harlem district. Yet, it is not just the quality of its artists that sets Harlem apart; it is the diversity. Let’s also remember the quality of musicians from Harlem across other genres; artists as diverse as Moby, Frankie Lyman and Harry Belafonte (Calypso musician) also started their careers here. This is reflected in Harlem’s diverse and legendary live music venues that, over the years, have been both influences and birth places of successful musicians under an array of different genres.
Places like The Shrine World Music Venue have for many years been bringing authentic jazz, blues and African music to the general public, with regular nights dedicated to showcasing the best and latest in world music talent. Visitors don’t go to The Shrine expecting fancy cocktails, polished decor and trendy convertible furniture; they go to discover new music and experience true Harlem culture. From Reggae to Ska to African tribal music to classic jazz, The Shrine continues to live up to its reputation as a much loved and reliable place to find new music while enjoying typical Harlem atmosphere.
Harlem no doubt enjoys – and will continue to enjoy – a long list of musical superstars. With such diversity and so many platforms to showcase new talent, Harlem will continue to be a hunting ground and launching pad for fresh new talent. For Azealia Banks, however, the path is now clear for her to make her mark and put her stamp on music the world over. She recently told BBC that she didn’t just want to break sexual taboos through her music, but also those taboos that still surround inter-racial relationships – she wanted her music to tackle issues that others were too scared to address. She’s now working with a British producer to launch her debut album – so watch this space. The path has been paved for Harlem’s next super star.