Black Music Month: Funk: The Rhythm That Changed America

From Sly and the Family Stone to Rick James, we're taking a look at who pioneered and continues to preserve the genre.

Emerging in the mid-1960s in the United States, Funk music is deeply embedded in Black culture and is heavily influenced by R&B, soul, jazz, and gospel. More than just a genre, Funk became a powerful voice during the civil rights era, resonating with themes of empowerment, resistance, and unity that mirrored the social and political upheavals of the time. Its distinctive rhythms and vocal styles defined the genre and laid the groundwork for the evolution of disco, hip-hop, and modern R&B. The pioneering Black artists of Funk played a pivotal role in bringing this vibrant music to the mainstream, ensuring its lasting legacy and influence.

Sly and the Family Stone

Sly and the Family Stone integrated sounds from all walks of life, creating a psychedelic soul that was a staple of 1960s and '70s funk. Blending soul, rock, R&B, psychedelia, and funk, the band broke musical and social boundaries. Led by Sly Stone, the band featured men and women of different races, becoming the first fully integrated group in rock history. Their music and message promoted unity and social commentary, influencing future soul, funk, and hip-hop artists. Hits like "Everyday People" and "Dance to the Music" showcased their innovative sound, while albums like Stand! and There's a Riot Goin' On reflected the era's social changes.

George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic

Known for their flamboyant performances, Parliament and Funkadelic were pivotal in developing funk music. George Clinton, the visionary behind these groups, blended gospel, doo-wop, and soul to revolutionize funk and R&B. Starting with the Parliaments in 1955, Clinton found success with "(I Wanna) Testify" in 1967. Legal challenges led to the creation of Funkadelic and Parliament, which incorporated psychedelic rock and a polished funk sound. By the late '70s, they achieved numerous R&B hits and gold/platinum albums. Clinton's solo career launched with Computer Games in 1982, featuring the hit "Atomic Dog." His work has heavily influenced artists and is widely sampled in hip-hop.

Black Music Month: The Deep Roots Of Soul & Its Modern Voices

Bootsy Collins

Famous for his bass playing, sunglasses, and star-shaped bass, Bootsy Collins’ style defined the funk era. Collins is a great funk and R&B musician known for his popping basslines and charismatic vocals. He rose to fame under James Brown and later joined Parliament-Funkadelic, contributing to numerous hits. His band, Bootsy's Rubber Band, achieved success with albums like Ahh...The Name Is Bootsy, Baby! and hits like "Bootzilla." Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Collins remains an influential collaborator, with notable works extending to his 2020 album The Power of the One.

Rick James

Rick James’ punk-funk style was a major force in popularizing the funk sound on mainstream music charts. In the late 1970s, when Motown Records struggled, James revitalized the label with his funky hits, propelling it into the mid-'80s. Growing up in Buffalo, he joined the Naval Reserves but left for Toronto, where he played in a band with future Buffalo Springfield members. His debut album, Come Get It! (1978), featured hits like "You and I" and "Mary Jane." James' career highlights include "Give It to Me Baby" and "Super Freak" from Street Songs (1981). 


Providing a fusion of funk, soul, and electronic music, along with his virtuosic bass playing, Stephen Bruner, a.k.a. Thundercat, redefines modern funk. He emerged in the 2000s as a sought-after bassist for innovative artists across electric jazz, punk, R&B, and hip hop. His intricate basslines and sweet vocals enhance tracks by Sa-Ra, Erykah Badu and Flying Lotus. Thundercat's solo work, including albums like Drunk and It Is What It Is, blends various genres and explores science fiction, mortality, and pop culture themes. His contributions to Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly and recent collaborations with Silk Sonic and Gorillaz highlight his expansive influence on the funk genre.

Childish Gambino

Multi-hyphenated creative mastermind Donald Glover incorporated elements of funk into his music as recording artist alter-ego Childish Gambino. Notably, in his album Awaken, My Love!, he won a Grammy for the single "Redbone" in 2017. His 2018 hit "This Is America" topped the Billboard Hot 100, addressing gun violence and racial injustice. This creative surge continued with the 2020 album 3.15.20, reissued as Atavista in 2024. Of course, Glover is also known for his television and film career in front and behind the scenes from series ranging from Atlanta to, more recently, Mr. & Ms. Smith.

Bruno Mars

Part of Silk Sonic, Bruno Mars' latest work revives the classic sounds of 70s funk with a contemporary twist. A born entertainer, Bruno Mars is a charismatic performer, songwriter, producer, and multi-instrumentalist. His partnership with Anderson .Paak as Silk Sonic produced the album An Evening with Silk Sonic" featuring the hit "Leave the Door Open," which won four Grammys. Mars' funk journey began with "Uptown Funk" and continued with his album 24K Magic, blending funk, soul, and R&B. Their 2022 cover of Con Funk Shun's "Love's Train" highlights Mars' dedication to reviving and modernizing funk music.

Jon Batiste

Jon Batiste, a Grammy- and Oscar-winning artist, blends jazz, funk, soul, and R&B, celebrating New Orleans' musical heritage. As bandleader for CBS' The Late Show with Stephen Colbert from 2015 to 2022, he gained widespread acclaim. He leads the ensemble Stay Human, known for lively outdoor performances. His chart-topping releases include Social Music and the Grammy-winning We Are. Batiste scored the Oscar-winning Pixar film Soul and collaborated with artists like Stevie Wonder and Trombone Shorty. His 2023 album, World Music Radio, emphasizes community through music and earned four Grammy nominations, including Album of the Year.

Tank and the Bangas

Tank and the Bangas’ dynamic fusion of funk, soul, and spoken word offers a fresh take on the New Orleans music scene. A Grammy-nominated R&B band, the band is known for shifting from soul and funk to hip-hop, reggae, and rock. Fronted by versatile singer and poet Tarriona Ball (aka Tank), they gained recognition with their energetic live shows and independent releases, starting with Think Tank (2013). Winning NPR's Tiny Desk Contest in 2017 led to a contract with Verve, resulting in Green Balloon (2019), Red Balloon (2022), and the Friend Goals EP. Their unique sound earned a Best New Artist nomination at the 2020 Grammy Awards, among other accolades.

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