Some songs transcend time and every other social construct you can imagine, achieving cult-classic status. And then there are songs that go even deeper than that, crossing generational lines and embedding themselves into the fabric of our very existence. These are the songs that everyone from your family’s matriarch to the youngest child knows the words to or moves to the accompanying dance, or even just enough of the melody to hum along.
While we can’t say every single Black person in the country jams these tunes, we feel pretty confident that these songs are known far and wide by a plethora of melanated music lovers. To kick off Black Music Month, here are 20 songs that almost every Black person knows.
1. "Before I Let Go" by Maze featuring Frankie Beverly
When Frankie Beverly and Maze came together, their objective was to make music. They likely had no idea they would become an everlasting staple of the entire Black community. This song, a single off the band’s fifth album, is more than 40 years old. But thanks to family cookouts, Black folks are ever ready to tilt back their heads and belt out a harmonious “Gooooooooo” like the song was gifted as a birthright.
2. "Can We Talk" by Tevin Campbell
If there’s one thing Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds can do, it’s write a culture-grabbing song and lay it on the perfect musician to bring it to life. This 1993 Tevin Campbell hit is no different. DJs at clubs and other events across the country can guarantee that when this tune is played, they can drop the record altogether and a sea of Black folks will keep on singing in unison.
3. "Rock With You" by Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson could very well land dozens of songs on this list from his days singing alongside his brothers right on through his extensive catalog. This song released in 1979, however, has not only transcended decades; it’s also been sampled in at least 99 songs since its release extending its shelf life far beyond anyone’s expectations.
4. "Let's Get it On" by Marvin Gaye
No barbecue is complete without an elder blaring something by Marvin Gaye. And, no, it matters not the age ranges at the event, this song will be played. Released in 1973, this cultural fave features an opening note that gets everybody ready to holler out the words, however inappropriate they may be for the occasion.
5. "Weak" by SWV
When these three sisters with flawless vocal abilities joined together as a group, the fruits were a variety of chart-topping hits, but none bigger than this now 30-year-old song. It’s the ultimate sing-a-long anthem and even spent quite some years as a talent show favorite.
6. "Stomp" by God's Property
Let’s keep it all the way real; Kirk Franklin is likely responsible for the saving of many souls through his electrifying way of reaching the people with gospel and inspirational music. This song became an instant hit in 1997 and remains a staple of Black music today.
7. "September" by Earth, Wind & Fire
Earth, Wind & Fire could be a genre of their own the way they make soul-stirring jams that live in the culture. This catchy 1978 classic has indefinitely imprinted the date Sept. 21 on the hearts of music fans.
8. "Back Dat Azz Up" by Juvenile
Want to see someone’s backside moving without intention? This 1998 New Orleans song took over the country when it dropped as a single to take over for the ’99 and the 2000.
9. "This Is How We Do It" by Montell Jordan
There’s no way Montell Jordan could think that singing about his Friday evening activities would become the cultural phenomenon that it has become, but since 1995, folks can’t wait to tell you how they do it. And, shout out to him for endorsing the use of designated drivers.
10. "Happy Birthday" by Stevie Wonder
Stevie Wonder himself is a national treasure belonging to the Black delegation. Every single one of his songs is an intergenerational favorite. However, we cannot and will not ignore the way this man completely changed the way Black folks sing the birthday song. Written in tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. and released in 1981, the song not only became a hit but also helped to make MLK Day a federal holiday, as Blavity previously reported.
11. "Summertime" by DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince
It is perhaps one of the most well-known facts of Black culture that it is not officially summer until the radio station plays this 1991 song.
12. "Never Too Much" by Luther Vandross
Luther is another one of those artists who has given the culture countless anthems. But if we’re talking time-transcending tunes, this song is hands-down the one that will have every member of the family ready to bust a two-step.
13. "Poison" by Bell Biv DeVoe
When Ronnie, Ricky and Mike decided to form the trio Bell Biv DeVoe, they did so with the idea of creating edgy versions of what New Edition fans knew of them in their younger days. Taking the concept of making music that is “mentally hip-hop, smoothed out on the R&B tip with a pop feel appeal to it,” this song was the perfect starting point. And, to this day, no one anywhere trusts a big butt and a smile.
14. "Electric Boogie (The Electric Slide)" by Marcia Griffiths
Because you know one thing Black folks are gonna do is line dance, this list item is a combination of four of our favorite line dance-accompanied songs. “Electric Boogie” is the OG version of it all and quite possibly the most well-known tune among the generations. It doesn’t even matter how you slide as long as you slap the ground in the process. In the years following its 1976 release, DJ Casper’s “Cha Cha Slide,” V.I.C.’s “Wobble” and Cupid’s “Cupid Shuffle” have joined the playlist.
15. "Atomic Dog / Flashlight" by Parliament-Funkadelic
16. "Outstanding" by The Gap Band
Well before he introduced himself as Charlie last name Wilson, everybody’s favorite uncle sang alongside his brothers. One tune that brings out all of the synchronous fan singing is this 1982 smash hit.
17. "Da' Butt" by E.U.
Another HBCU classic with a dance to match, this 1988 song from Spike Lee’s School Daze is absolutely ageless and clearly the reason BBLs became so popular.
18. "Real Love" by Mary J. Blige
This song is 30 years old, but that means nothing to anyone who revels in scream-singing this love-searching anthem. It’s the song that truly introduced the world to Mary J. Blige, and let’s be honest, we can’t imagine life without her.
19. "The Way" by Jill Scott
Everybody knows what Jill Scott ate for breakfast that day and will be quick to holler “GRITS!” This 2000 mellow groove endeared Jilly from Philly to Black folks everywhere and quickly landed her on the cookout playlist.
20. "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" by Beyoncé
Name one wedding post-2008 where the bride didn’t toss the bouquet to the tune of this Queen Bey song. This exhilarating pop chart-topper taught family members of all ages how to wave their hands with just the right amount of sass a la Yoncé.
Yes, there are more songs. So many more songs, actually, but this list had to end at some point.