Love is all around us.
It’s an integral part of art, our lives and our understanding of one another. This Valentine’s Day (14 February), cards, flowers, love letters and poems are set to land on doorsteps worldwide, via letterboxes, inboxes or simply outstretched palms. But today is also an opportunity to celebrate love in all of its forms; as the late author, activist and cultural critic bell hooks wrote in her essential 2000 book, All About Love, “to love well is the task in all meaningful relationships, not just romantic bonds”.
Working our way back to music, though the words of our favourite love songs may not belong directly to us, their themes are infinitely relatable. They often say the things we are too afraid to vocalise, or even reveal feelings long subdued. They remind us of our loved ones and their impact on us, seamlessly soundtracking our most intimate experiences with others.
In celebration of Black History Month and, of course, Valentine’s Day, we spoke to ten artists about their favourite love songs by Black musicians. Sharing music from Prince, The Emotions and so many more, each artist discussed their relationship with their chosen tune, reflecting on how these songs have changed their own understandings of love or inspired them in their own musical practice.
Liv.eThe Emotions – Don't Ask My Neighbours (1977)
I love this song because it reminds me of that comforting feeling you can give a person you love when they feel a sense of shyness or insecurity. Not insecurity in a bad way, but that sweet stuff like ‘does she like/love me?‘. The sonics of the song also remind me of sitting with a lover in front of a warm fire in the winter on some romantic stuff – a real warm embrace. I also love the patience that was being suggested in the song, the words of reassurance. It’s just beautiful.
JovialeSyreeta – Happiness (1972)
As someone who relies heavily on the chemistry between myself and my collaborators, I’m always drawn to the composers and performers with a strong bond, because you can subconsciously hear and feel the passion between them. Syreeta and Stevie Wonder’s collaboration on her record is testament to what true chemistry can bring to life. A legendary love/heartbreak story that was commiserated by this beautiful body of songs.
Syreeta’s Happiness is testament to the power of her performance and pen, and became a songwriting staple for inspiration for me as soon as I heard it. It’s honest, tasteful and charismatic. You can’t help but want to embody the very love she sings about.
ContourMeshell Ndegeocello – Tie One On (2009)
Choosing a favourite love song is difficult! I consider myself something of a connoisseur of love songs. I’m in a writing process right now though and am – once again – gravitating to Meshell Ndegeocello’s work. I’m currently really fixated on Tie One On, from 2009’s Devil’s Halo. The entirety of the lyrics of the song read as follows:
“Are you here/ Are you here/ Are you here/ Alone/ Are you here/ Alone/ What’s your name/ What’s your name/ Play/ Don’t play/ Come see closer/ This time/ This time for another ride.”
One dimension of love I’m deeply familiar with is the erotic dimension of the uncertain. The great(est) pleasure of anticipation. The question that plays in your mind on repeat as you imagine what could become, what could take place. “Are you here alone?” is the stage properly set for one dynamic to become another. The composition – slow and decisively serene, but with a hint of brooding – provides the perfect backdrop for this rumination. The writing is the embodiment of the emotional affect of having less to say. Each element, from music to lyric, dances sweetly with the other.
Ayra StarrMortimer – Lightning (2019)
I love this song because I believe it describes Black love in a way that’s rarely portrayed by the media. Someone around me was playing it about two years ago, and I’ve been hooked since then. I’ve heard a lot of love songs but there’s [something about] Lightning that’s so descriptive you can almost grasp what’s being described and hold in your hands.
There’s nothing sentimental to me about the song – I just love how it makes me feel good. The lyrics are well thought-out. Nothing corny, just perfect. As a songwriter, I don’t particularly enjoy writing love songs. But as a consumer, I’m a huge fan [of] them. I enjoy romance books, listening to love stories, watching K-dramas… but as a creative, I find it corny to immerse myself into writing love songs, even though I sometimes have to get on the wave.
Marshall VincentDebarge – A Dream (1983)
A Dream by Debarge is quite a significant tune for me – and just one classic [love song] for me among many. A slow jam with melancholy and lush instrumentation, tracking very much as an inspiration present in my own compositions.
My first exposure to this song was through my parents, who had a nightly tradition of gathering around the stereo tower and playing every R&B song they could think of, often determined by whether we felt like singing the song. So many moments, mostly in tune, were shared in this space. My fascination with the song is one of surprise. I was older when my mother played this song, and at that time I had been involved in my school orchestra for many years. The composition, chord progressions, and lyrics touched me so deep. Also I am prone to the idea of love and ‘the fantastic’ intertwining.
My work is entirely from love. I aim for my experiences to be shared so we can share together. It is of significance that as an artist who is unapologetically Black and queer, my love is given the importance it deserves, and we deserve for our dreams to be reality. This is why I decided to shine a light on this classic.
Sudan ArchivesMinnie Riperton – Inside My Love (1975)
I was hanging out with my boyfriend and we were just playing old-school jams and classics; I don’t think I’d heard of this specific song at the time. When it came on, I just thought it was so beautiful. I love the strings and I love her voice. It’s just such a gentle, loving, calming song… it’s now very sentimental for me. It sounds like you’re in the Garden of Eden.
I love love songs. I feel like all of my songs are love songs and that’s all I ever really sing about – I’m singing about love or falling out of love with someone, so love is kind of the fuel to my music and my inspiration. I feel like if you’re in love then you’re doing something right, love is legitimately the answer to everything.
Léa SenCurtis Mayfield – The Makings Of You (1970)
My brother shared the song with me when I was younger. Since it came from him, the song has always sounded like the love from a bigger brother, or a father to his daughter.
“Of these words I’ve tried to recite/ They are close, but not quite/ Almost impossible to do/ Reciting the makings of you.” These are my favourite lyrics, because it expresses how no one can quite tell what love truly is. It’s impossible to do.
With the magical strings and harps. it feels like walking through a summer garden with a loved one. Curtis’ voice is just so sweet. He sounds completely enamored with whoever he’s singing about. The softness of his voice always felt so comforting to me. As a young Black girl, having such a peaceful song praising Black love felt so safe and joyful. I hope to create more joy like Curtis.
Maurice IIJon Bap – Don't Kill It! (2017)
Don’t Kill It! by Jon Bap is one of the best love songs ever. It’s really short – like, less than a minute long – and it’s the best kind of love song because it is not a romantic love song (I do love those though). It’s more like a ‘self-love and love for what God has planned for you’ type of love song.
I first heard it while astral projecting over Jon Bap’s head as he was in the process of creating it. The lyrics are: “Don’t kill it if you love it/ No you don’t have to turn this into something/ It already is what you need/ You know you might as well let it be.“It reminds me that I love my life story and trajectory; that the source is laying out with me [and] I don’t need to thirst after anything anyone else has.
Swami SoundChanté Moore – WEY U (1995)
I think I found this song about a year and a half ago through my Apple Music algorithm. I was probably listening to Sade’s greatest hits. I quickly realised I heard this sample on track eight of Pro Era’s 2013 The SECC$ Tap.e 10 years ago. I was a NYC teen – if you know, you know. There’s a jungle record by some local DJs that sample this, so I started hearing it more often in the club.
I love hearing 90s soul samples. The DX7 sound translates really well in modern contexts. The signature sound reminds me of old photos of my family and antiques I’d find around my aunt’s house. The keys and songwriting always put me in a mood, and reminds me that a love out there exists. Another notable mention is Mick James’ remix of Sade’s Never Thought I’d See The Day.
Jean DawsonPrince – Purple Rain (1984)
Like most kids my age, this song revealed itself to me by way of my mother’s stereo. My mother used to clean the house on Saturday mornings with her music on max. I remember my first thought being, “Fuck, this song is long!” As I grew older, it became one of – if not the most – important song in my life.
Both the artist and the song have a deep sentiment to my life. In times of sadness and happiness, this song has benchmarked some of the most important periods of my young life. It has also informed not only why I make music, but how I understand music.
Love songs have always been a staple in Black lead music because love never cost anything in a general sense. The experience of love drives us to do the illogical and emotive. My relationship with love songs spans from the love of my mother to the love of the person I’ll eventually have kids with. All of those experiences will forever be scored with ballads of love.