When we think about the iconic voices of popular music, Black women singers certainly come to mind. From Gertrude “Ma” Rainey to Ella Fitzgerald to Aretha Franklin; Chaka Khan, Whitney Houston, and H.E.R.; Nina Simone, Missy Elliot (the first woman in hip-hop inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame), Alicia Keys, Beyoncé, and countless others, Black women’s vocal performances have dominated radio airwaves, filled sold-out arenas, and topped the charts for decades. As important and influential as they are as recording and touring artists, Black women have also made crucial contributions behind the scenes as songwriters. In fact, many of the most successful and well-known singers boast an impeccable pen game; not to mention the numerous Black women songwriters whose names and faces may not be as familiar, but who are responsible for crafting the lyrics and composing and arranging the melodies to the songs that make up the soundtracks of our lives.
Here are just a few of the Black women behind some of our favorite songs of yesterday and today.
Sylvia Moy holds the distinction of being the first woman at Motown to write and produce for its stable of artists, and is credited for having rescued a young Stevie Wonder’s career with the hit “Uptight (Everything’s Alright), co-written with Henry Crosby. The Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee also penned Wonder’s “My Cherie Amour,” as well as songs recorded and performed by Marth Reeves and the Vandellas and The Isley Brothers.
Perhaps one of the most prolific songwriters in modern history, Valerie Simpson, alongside her husband and creative partner, the late Nick Ashford, has produced a catalogue of hits like no other. Simpson began her career as a staff writer with Sceptor Records, where she and Ashford wrote the song “Let’s Go Get Stoned” for Ray Charles. Not long after, the duo landed at Motown and delivered two of their most successful singles, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Reach Out and Touch.” The hits kept coming, as the couple served as the lyrical and melodic masterminds behind Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” as well as their own chart-topper, “Solid As a Rock,” and hundreds of others. Valerie Simpson received the ASCAP Founder’s Award in 1996, and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2002.
If you’ve heard Katy Perry’s inescapable 2010 single, “Fire Work,” then you’ve been blessed by Ester Dean’s songwriting prowess. As one of the industry’s most respected and in-demand creators, Dean has written songs for Usher (“Lil’ Freak”), Rihanna (“S&M”), and Nicki Minaj (“Super Bass”). The GRAMMY-nominated Oklahoma native first emerged on the scene with the Top 40 single “Drop It Low” featuring Chris Brown. As a producer for NBC’s Songland, Dean nurtures and mentors aspiring up and coming songwriters, and imparts her wisdom and insights on building a long, lucrative career.
According to her official bio, Priscilla Renea wrote her first original song at the tender age of 8. That early, country-inspired tune set the stage for the singer/songwriter, who would go on to write Miranda Lambert’s and Carrie Underwood’s #1 duet, “Somethin’ Bad.” Renea is also the pen behind hits for Rihanna, Pitbull, Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, and dozens of other AAA-list artists. She released her debut album, Jukebox, in 2009, and its follow-up, Coloured, in 2018.
Singer/songwriter Tayla Parx is credited as the co-writer on three of 2018’s biggest singles: “Love Lies” by Normani and Khalid, Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next,” and “High Hopes” by Panic! At the Disco. Born and raised in Dallas, TX, Parx has collaborated with a who’s who of pop artists, including JLo, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Mariah Carey, and Jason Derulo. Following a string of singles in 2015, she released her mixtape, Tayla Made, in 2017, and followed with 2019’s full-length album, We Need to Talk.