Every June, we observe African-American Music Appreciation Month. It’s a chance to celebrate the many unique contributions of astounding black artists spanning the musical spectrum. In Arizona, there’s no shortage of such talent, and be it jazz, soul, blues, punk, or pop, black artists have proven to be an essential part of our cultural makeup. So in that spirit, here are eight such musicians that deserve a statewide round of applause.
Carvin Jones grew up in south Texas and has a blues career that initially was shaped by heroes like B.B King. However, it wasn't until he moved to Phoenix in the late '80s, still very much a young bluesman, that Jones' career really took off. Since then, he's toured the world several times over, championing a sensuous style of blues that hums equally with swagger and emotional depth. Yet Jones remains a pillar of our desert abode, uplifting a rich local scene that remains under-celebrated and showing the world how the Valley really sings the blues.
Like other names on this list, CeCe Peniston started life elsewhere — specifically, Dayton, Ohio. But it was the cross-country move to attend Trevor G. Browne High School in the mid-'80s when her career took shape. Peniston transitioned from school plays and pageants (she won Miss Black Arizona in 1989) to a career as a full-fledged pop star. In the years since, Peniston’s all but transcended geography, existing as a pillar of global dance music. But none of that would've been possible without the foundation she laid in the Copper State.
There’s a rich vein of great punk and DIY music running through Phoenix. From JFA and Meat Puppets to AJJ and Doll Skin, the Valley breeds unique acts. But few feel as singular as Andy Warpigs. In less than a decade, he’s been wildly prolific, releasing LPs and collaborating with others to foster a new age of punk music in the Valley that’s as inclusive as it is inventive. And as a young black man, Warpigs imbues the scene with much-needed diversity in the name of true social awareness. He’s a star and a hero, and we’re lucky to have him.
Just how important is Lewis Nash to Arizona’s jazz scene? Our best jazz venue, The Nash, carries his last name. Over 40-plus years, the drummer has toured the world and played with a wide array of genre-spanning jazz acts. In turn, he's used that attention and momentum to highlight Phoenix as a genuine locale for great jazz. It's his spirit of creativity, passion, and musicianship that drives The Nash's mission to empower the community with great music and community outreach and education. Nash truly beats the drum for Valley jazz.
There was great hip-hop before rapper Raheem Jarbo (a.k.a. Mega Ran) relocated from Philadelphia in the early 2010s. But his efforts (alongside other MCs like Futuristic) have helped put Phoenix on the map as a unique destination for great hip-hop. So much of Mega Ran’s appeal comes in his approach, crafting nerd-friendly tunes for both wrestling geeks and video game fiends alike. But he’s so much more than flashy references: Mega Ran represents ideas of community and collaboration that are essential to Phoenix’s larger identity.
Chico Chism came to Phoenix an elder statesman. After 40-plus years of playing with Howlin’ Wolf, Freddie King, and Otis Rush, Chism relocated to the Valley in 1987. He became a beloved local star right away, even winning "Best Blues Band" during that year's Best of Phoenix awards. Chism was then honored as the first inductee into the Arizona Blues Hall of Fame, cementing his legacy as a dynamo of our scene. All of that because Chism took a chance on a burgeoning city and helped it grow into a hot spot for blues music.
Jordin Sparks feels like a true and proper hometown hero. She grew up in Glendale before auditioning for American Idol, eventually winning the sixth season (at a point in which such accolades still meant something). Since then, she’s gone on to have top-charting hits worldwide and even snagged a Grammy nomination. Through Sparks' diverse musical efforts, Arizona was imbued with a new kind of cultural credibility. But around these parts, Sparks is just a wholesome talent that a whole state can celebrate.
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Sam Moore was also a big shot when he relocated to Arizona in recent years. Whether working solo, or as part of the duo Sam & Dave, Moore has been a world-traveling soul man for decades, playing sold-out shows and racking up hits like "Hold On, I’m Coming" and "I Thank You." All that’s changed is Arizona now serves as his home base, and Moore still regularly regales audiences with his soulful canon. He’s another act who saw the state’s potential and helped shine a light on just how deeply and richly Arizona empowers its artists.