Arts District

Black Musicians Write the Soundtrack of the City

Consider these Baltimore artists essential listening.

By Lydia Woolever | June 2, 2020, 2:50 pm

Arts District

Black Musicians Write the Soundtrack of the City

Consider these Baltimore artists essential listening.

By Lydia Woolever | June 2, 2020, 2:50 pm

As is true in many American cities, black artists are the heartbeat of Baltimore, and perhaps nowhere is that pulse louder than in our world-renowned music scene. Across myriad genres, musicians of color turn out the type of songs, albums, and live events that could only be born in this city. They’re bold, they’re ground-breaking, they’re rich in experimentation, exploration, and vivid storytelling about the black experience. Five years after the death of Freddie Gray, as the nation breaks out in protest and unrest over the death of George Floyd, there’s never been a better time to listen to and learn from what these vital creatives have to say. Here are 25 of the many talented local acts to get you started.


Abdu Ali
From their all-inclusive Kahlon dance parties at The Crown to their latest album, FIYA!!!, Abdu Ali is without a doubt a leading voice of the music community, as well as for queer artists and creatives of color in Baltimore and beyond. With a backbone of their hometown genre, Baltimore Club, with brushstrokes of fervent jazz, their music is an idiosyncratic amalgam of futuristic punk-rap poetry that packs a powerful message about oppression and identity. Kudos are also due for their As They Lay arts initiative, whose recent fundraiser helped raised mini grants for artists of color impacted by COVID-19.
Listen Now: “I’m Here Now (Fiyah!!!),” “Did Dat,” “Chastity”


Al Rogers Jr.
When it comes to spreading positivity, Al Rogers. Jr makes it his mission, even creating his own expression—“swooz”—for the good stuff: joy, happiness, and love. The trendsetting hip-hop artist imbues that optimism into every song—be it a heart-on-his-sleeve ballad or a funky, feel-good experimental rap track—using smart wordplay, infectious beats, and messages of inspiration. That said, he doesn’t shy away from hardships and hurdles either. Combining jazz, hip-hop, and R&B, the beloved rapper is a go-to for exploring emotions, digging deep, and finding a silver lining.
Listen Now: “Crystal Geyser,” “Bright Hard,” “Sayno”


Brandon Woody
The past of Pennsylvania Avenue’s rich and revered jazz history is being shepherded into the future thanks to local musicians like Brandon Woody, a rising twenty-something trumpeter in the city’s resurgent jazz scene. He’s performed brass with local legends of the genre like Eric Kennedy and Jeff Reed, as well as DIY rappers like Abdu Ali and Al Rogers Jr., led open-mic nights at the Motor House, and performed regularly with his ensembles at An Die Musik. An alum of Peabody Preparatory's Tuned-In program and the Brubeck Institute in California, he’s a highly talented, expressive instrumentalist who brings a fiery flare to every set.
Listen Now: “Woodallou,” “Miking Trumpet to Whammy Pedal,” “Real Love Snippet”


Brooks Long & the Mad Dog No Good
When you first hear the songs of Brooks Long, you will simultaneously think you’ve known them forever and that you’ve been waiting for them all your life. The local singer-songwriter pays homage to the old-school sounds of eras past—particularly mid-20th century soul, funk, blues, and R&B—while adding his own flair, humor, and heart to every mellifluous lyric and smooth melody. Long is also a strong advocate for documenting Baltimore music history, from the present and past, with his Creative Alliance “Songster Series” highlighting both beloved and underdog artists.
Listen Now: “Got Soul,” “Heavy Petting,” “Have You Been Getting Too High?”


Butch Dawson
It’s no secret that Butch Dawson is a name to know now in Baltimore. Over the past few years, the local rapper has emerged from underground rap staple to a front-of-the-pack headliner, carving out his own lane through a formidable fusion of hip-hop, chill wave, and punk with the potent spirit of DIY. Many of his tracks are about surviving the “swamps,” as he calls the West Baltimore streets where he grew up, and the fortitude that comes with it.
Listen Now: “Feel Nobody,” “Trigger,” “Division Street Blues”


Dapper Dan Midas
There might be no greater Baltimore cheerleader than Dapper Dan Midas, aka DDm. From his days on the local rap battle circuit to his role as frontman of beloved hip-hip duo Bond St. District to his star-power solo career, the charismatic, dynamic rapper has carried Baltimore on his shoulders and imbued the city, in all of its beauty and struggle, into all of his buoyant and hard-hitting verses. Most notably in his latest The Ballad of Omar, DDm critically examines the black experience of growing up in Baltimore and along the way bares his own soul. It’s a must listen for everyone who calls this city their home.

Listen Now: “The Ballad of Omar,” “Swivel, “Hooray”


Deetranada
When you finally discover Deetranada, you, too, will ask yourself: “Under what rock have I been living?” This 18-year-old wordsmith and one-time star of Lifetime’s The Rap Game (she placed second) has already garnered a serious fanbase in Baltimore and beyond (think hundreds of thousands of followers and millions of views). And for good reason: as shown on her first two albums, Deetranada has some of the most impressive, bravado-filled flows and sharpest, hardest-hitting rhymes about coming up in Baltimore around.
Listen Now: “Attitude!,” Box,” “Know Me”


Dyyo
In the endless quest to find the next great artist, Baltimore music fans can look no further than the force to be reckoned with that is Dyyo. This alternative rap artist has a singular, shapeshifting sound founded in potent energy, explosive experimentation, and hearty nods to influences like punk rock and improvisational jazz. His latest Live! record bottles that exploratory sound with the clashing drums, driving guitar, and serpentine brass of a full band with Dyyo’s own kinetic vocals at the forefront. As he continues to evolve as an artist, make sure you’re there to follow, and headbang, along.
Listen Now: “Raspberry,” “Checks in the Mail,” “Fight or Flight?”


:3ION
We hope that in the distant future, there will always be love songs, and we imagine that they will probably sound something like the avant-garde R&B of Elon Battle, or :3ION. Come for the dark, romantic melodies and digital dance beats, but stay for the singer-songwriter’s luminously moody falsetto vocals that float like a feather—swinging low, soaring high, and always speaking to the deepest desires of the heart. :3LON has become a stalwart of the local scene, appearing on many a genre-crossing lineup in Station North, and recently touring nationally with acclaimed Baltimore indie duo Lower Dens.
Listen Now: “Haven,” “Aria of Resilience,” “Many Moons”


Eze Jackson
One of the most iconic, indispensable voices in Baltimore music is undoubtedly that of Eze Jackson. Over the last decade, the hip-hop frontman has been a dogged creative force for the local arts scene—putting on powerful performances as an MC through solo projects and his powder-keg alt-hip-hop group Soul Cannon, uplifting up-and-coming artists through the Bmore Beat Club rap series, constantly collaborating, and always speaking honestly about black inequality and empowerment. His recent “Be Great” was played over a loud speaker as marchers knelt in unity on Monday’s youth-led protest.
Listen Now: “Unapologetically Black,” “Be Great,” “You Need Some”


J. Pope
Listen to Jasmine Pope and hear her roar. From her bands the Funk Friday to the HearNow, the alt-soul singer-songwriter’s compellingspoken-word delivery and captivating stage presence has become a stalwart of the local scene over the last decade, capturing the attentions of diverse audiences, beloved by all corners of the city’s scene. Riding on the up-tempo funk and blues-infused, jam-band-style melodies of her bandmates, Pope is a modern-day poet at the core, delivering vigorous verses with rapid-fire flow, honeyed vocals, and powerful messages of truth and positivity.
Listen Now: “Soul Searching,” “Confusion,” “Check Your Soul”


James Nasty
When considering any of the city’s local concert, festival, and event lineups, one thing is for certain: If James Nasty is on the bill, it’s going to be a good time. This veteran DJ and Bmore Club producer has become a household name in Baltimore for his high-energy mixes that master the genre’s rapid pace and patchwork sound but with a nod to the greats who came before him. Even those who think they haven’t heard of him likely have, as his hits have been regularly spun on local radio stations. Over the last nearly two decades, he’s incited instant dance parties at places such as Paradox, Ottobar, Light City, and most recently The Crown, and been a prolific musician performing hundreds if not thousands of sets across the city.
Listen Now: “Them Do It Horns,” “Pop,” “Dynamite”


Josh Stokes
Over the last few years, Josh Stokes has been a quiet pillar of the Baltimore music scene. The drummer-singer dynamo has performed in live bands, recorded backup and feature vocals, and been an opening act for other beloved names across the city—all while working on his own exceptional, experimental tunes, making him undoubtedly one of the most hardworking musicians in the city. But his trippy new-age take on funk is worthy of its own consideration for a textured, throwback sound and Stokes’ own ethereal, gospel-tinged croons.
Listen Now: “Focus,” “Thank You,” “14 Daze”


Joy Postell
Singer-songwriter Joy Postell broke onto the scene with her heart-wrenching recording of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” in the aftermath of the death of Freddie Gray and the subsequent Baltimore Uprising, asserting herself as a mighty voice to be reckoned with. Her follow-ups, “Consciousness” and “Water,” and the entire album Diaspora, would continue her socially minded music, in which she speaks to injustices faced by the African-American community and incorporates influences of jazz and soul into her hip-hop and R&B. On her latest EP, more personal than political, Postell continues to showcase her ability to speak truth to power.
Listen Now: “Consciousness,” “Water, “Back and Forth”


JPEGMAFIA
He might have moved to the West Coast a few years back, but JPEGMAFIA continues to rep Baltimore, writing songs about his local days, collaborating with local artists, and showing up to perform shows at local venues where the crowds came out in droves. The bicoastal artist’s avant-rap, rooted in dystopian soundscapes and provocative rhymes, is an act of artistic defiance. He refuses to stay inside the lines, to appeal to mainstream audiences, to be bound by genre. For that, from sets at Coachella to rave reviews in indie music publications, all eyes are on JPEG to see what comes next.
Listen Now: “Free the Frail,” “1539 N. Calvert,” “Cutie Pie!”


Kotic Couture
It’s hard to straddle both the poignant and the party, but up-and-coming rapper Kotic Couture excels at both, approaching their music with confidence and vulnerability, tipping a hat to their journey from a small-town upbringing to being a new leader on the Baltimore music scene. Whether it’s an outright club banger, bare-bones ballad, magnetic live solo performance, or their much-loved Version queer dance party with DJ Trillnatured at The Crown, Couture showcases a creative, colorful versatility that’s all their own—speaking honestly to dreams, doubts, and staying true to yourself.
Listen Now: “Grammy Speech,” “Growing Pains, “Drippin’”


Lafayette Gilchrist
Over the last 25 years, Gilchrist has earned legend status in the Baltimore arts community. A winner of the prestigious Baker Artist Award, this Washington, D.C. native, longtime Baltimore resident, and piano guru has cemented himself in the city’s artistic history through his jubilant jazz compositions. They’re fueled by propulsive rhythms and seamless improvisations that effortlessly capture the essence of Baltimore—its energy, its joy, its struggle—as well as serve as iconic scores to David Simon’s HBO series The Wire, Treme, and The Deuce. Be sure to catch one of his upcoming livestreams through An Die Musik.
Listen Now: “Assume the Position,” “Bmore Careful,” “Deep Dancing Suite”


Mighty Mark
Baltimore truly has a soundtrack to the city with the homegrown genre Baltimore or Bmore Club, born here in the 1980s by the likes of Miss Tony and Scottie B with a breakbeat sound that fuses hip-hop, house music, and staccato samples to create a pulsating, frenetic dance party. In recent years, Cherry Hill’s Mighty Mark has been the torchbearer, producing bass-fueled beats for his own tracks, collaborating with other club-minded creatives like TT The Artist, and appearing on national TV, all to assure that the genre continues to make its mark on history.
Listen Now: “Be More,” “Payroll,” “Don’t Want None”


QueenEarth
The music of QueenEarth is like a salve for the soul. With faint touches of influences like India Arie and Lauryn Hill, the acoustic vocalist makes melodies all her own, using expressive beats and soulful vocals across tracks that range from textured, meditative instrumentals to jazz-infused R&B melodies. Through both her mindful tunes and her community education efforts, QueenEarth has made it her life’s work to share a message of empowerment for women of color, LGBTQ pride, social justice, and spiritual uplift. Listen Now: “Dear Love,” “Quarantined Sax,” “Game”


RoVo Monty
Modern love is complicated, but putting it into song seems effortless for RoVo Monty. The electronic R&B songwriter celebrates black queer romance in his effervescent music, asserting his desires, unpacking his fears, ultimately creating a lush musical environment for self-expression and self-empowerment. Inspired by fashion, dance, and disco, rife with irresistible hooks, bouncy beats, and velvety vocals, each track is club-ready and impossible not to bop along to. Monty is also a choreographer; be sure to check out his accompanying videos to learn a thing or two from his knock-out dance moves.
Listen Now: “Pretty in Pink,” “Pretn’d,” “Fix It”


Rufus Roundtree and Da B’more Brass Factory
A Baltimore institution and high-energy music collective, Rufus Roundtree & Da B’More Brass Factory is hands down one of the most fun, feel-good shows in town, fusing funk, hip-hop, blues, and jazz into a Baltimore-meets-New Orleans get-down that could spark a second line. As the name implies, it’s a brass-heavy sound performed by some of the city’s most talented instrumentalists and led by the smoky, spirited vocals of bandleader Roundtree in his signature chapeau (said to have been a surprise gift from George Clinton).
Listen Now: “Me Think Me Love You,” “In Dem Streets,” “Get Up Live”


Trillnatured
The lack of safe spaces for people of color and the LGBTQ community has long been a point of contention in Baltimore City, but each month, upstairs at The Crown, Jessica Hyman, aka DJ Trillnatured, creates a welcome, feel-good environment in her monthly Version dance party. Since 2017, these events have been a free, feel-good, second-Saturday night ritual full of Hyman’s dynamic mixes, Kotic Couture’s charismatic emcee, and all-out, sweat-drenched dance-offs into the wee hours of the morning. She’s also lent a hand in teaching the next generation of black Baltimore DJs as a former instructor at Baltimore Youth Arts.
Listen Now: “Use a Damn Coaster,” “True Laurels Show Live,” “This Side Up”


TT The Artist
She may have relocated to Los Angeles last year, but it goes without saying that TT The Artist will always be Baltimore. The MICA grad has played a pivotal role in bringing Bmore Club onto the big stage, performing at Coachella, collaborating with Diplo, landing tracks on TV shows like HBO’s Insecure and Comedy Central’s Broad City, starting her own woman-of-color-forward Club Queen Records, and now releasing her debut documentary film on the city’s homegrown genre, Dark City: Beneath the Beat, which should have premiered at SXSW this spring. With vivacious energy, fierce lyrics, and undeniable beats, we hail the club queen that is TT.
Listen Now: “Thug It Out,” “Diamonds,” “Off the Chain”


Warren Wolf
From the Baltimore School for the Arts through Peabody Preparatory to recording and performing with the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Cyrus Chestnut, and Robert Glasper, Warren Wolf has made a name for himself, at home and abroad, as a young great of the modern jazz scene­—all while keeping Baltimore’s rich history with the genre alive and well. The West Baltimore native is an in-demand virtuoso on the vibraphones, performing at local concert halls like An Die Musik and prestigious venues around the globe. It’s the sound of another era, made, with groove and gusto that is positively contemporary.
Listen Now: “Montara,” “Soul Sister,” “For Ma”


Wendel Patrick
Wendel Patrick is a man of many hats: rapper, composer, producer, co-founder of the Baltimore Boom Bap Society improvised concert series, co-creator of WYPR’s esteemed Out of the Blocks radio show, and Peabody Conservatory professor of hip-hop, to name a few. The multi-talented, classically trained artist has a gifted ear and is a master at collaboration, winning the 2015 Baker Artist Award and being referred to as "David Foster Wallace reincarnated as a sound engineer" by the former Urbanite magazine. Simply put, everything he touches turns to sonic gold.
Listen Now: “A Tale of Two Producers,” “Time,” “Producer”





Meet The Author

Lydia Woolever is senior editor at Baltimore, where she covers people, food, music, and the Chesapeake Bay.



You May Also Like


Arts & Culture

Five Local Makers to Support Right Now

We celebrate a sampling of local artists who’ve been cut off from their clientele by COVID-19.

Arts & Culture

Selections from Baltimore School for the Arts’ Senior Photo Class

BSA seniors might be the last students to work in a darkroom setting for months ahead.

Arts & Culture

Author Mary Rizzo Examines The Arts’ Role in Baltimore’s Identity

We talk to Rizzo about her new book, ’Come and Be Shocked.’



MaxSpace

Movie review: You Don't Nomi

Why the fascinatingly bad Showgirls endures as a cult classic

The Chatter

Photo Essay: Baltimore in Black and White

Photographer and Hopkins researcher James Trudeau captures scenes from the pandemic.

Connect With Us

Most Read


Boxer Yahu Blackwell Is An All-Everything Businessman: The 33-year-old Baltimore native is the owner of the new Rita’s Italian Ice in Hampden.

Five Things to Know About Democratic Mayoral Nominee Brandon Scott: The 36-year-old City Council President rallies past Sheila Dixon to win Democratic mayoral primary.

WTMD’s First Thursdays Go Virtual for the Rest of the Summer: The planned overhaul of the annual festival will be postponed until next year.

Baltimore Pride’s Legacy Lives On Despite Canceled Festival: Community comes together virtually to celebrate with discussions and events.

Amid The Economic Chaos, Downtown Partnership’s New President Has a Plan: Shelonda Stokes was just named president after serving in an interim leadership role.