Five With an Impact: How Jason Mays Celebrates Black History Month

Let’s get this out of the way: While some may find my words a bit controversial or discomforting, this article isn’t pushing a “woke” agenda or indoctrinating your minds with (gasp) critical race theory. It’s sad to say that despite the notable elevation of black faces in white places – electing our first black president, a country album from Beyonce, and a biracial Spiderman – we’re still so very far from realizing the dream of the late Martin Luther King Jr.

This Black History Month, let’s turn the spotlight on the guitar community’s continued journey of innovation and defying expectations of what great art can and should be.

While icons like Jimi Hendrix, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Prince are pillars, I want to introduce you to five underground artists (and one organization) of color reshaping the scene.

Punk Black

Growing up as a person of color in a white male-dominated subculture, it was often difficult to find people who looked like me at shows, or even in our community. However, I was not the only one who shared a similar feeling. Enter PUNK BLACK. Atlanta-based collective PUNK BLACK has created an inclusive space for BIPOC creatives. From their annual festivals to global stages, they’ve earned recognition in the black underground scene, challenging the norms and making people of color feel welcomed in a music scene that historically hasn’t been so welcoming to people like myself. https://www.punkblack.com/

Tia Bailey, Working Class Music

Admittedly, I’m cheating a little bit with this one, as Tia is my co-host on Working Class Music. However, she stands out in the YouTube guitar community for not only being one of the few women of color, but also for her chops and ability to effortlessly meld indie, r&b, and punk into a playing style that’s all her own. I’m biased, but Tia is undoubtedly one of the most refreshing guitarists to grace our smartphones and computer screens. https://www.youtube.com/@WorkingClassMusic

Naia Izumi

Like many others, I was first introduced to Naia Izumi by way of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert in 2018. He instantly won cool cred by championing the Fender Jazzmaster, like so many of my guitar heroes. Naia is well known for his distinctive finger-tapping indie meets R&B style. He redefines the six-string, effortlessly blending angelic-like vocal harmonies with mesmerizing virtuosity. Check out his songs “Soft Spoken” or “As It Comes” and you will be hard-pressed to tell me he doesn’t deserve a far bigger spotlight. Quite possibly one of the most underrated guitarists and creative songwriters of the modern era. https://www.instagram.com/naiaizumi/

Diamond Rowe (Tetrach)

Even if you’re not a metalcore fan, Diamond Rowe challenges the preconceptions of modern-day metal in terms of both looks and sound. As the lead guitarist of Tetrach, Diamond is also an amazing songwriter! Diamond defies expectations, using her skills to serve the song rather than playing flashy solos a million miles a second. Most importantly, she can play! https://www.instagram.com/tetrarchdiamond

Michael Kiwanuka 

UK-born singer-songwriter Michael Kiwanuka is another NPR Tiny Desk alum and arguably the most notable artist to be mentioned in this article. You’ve probably heard his heart-wrenching hits like “Love and Hate” and “Cold Little Heart.” While you might not know what he looks like, Kiwanuka’s music has been featured in a copious amount of commercials and TV shows. He uses the guitar as a tapestry to accompany his thought-provoking lyricism on race and love with his soulful baritone voice channeling the likes of Bill Withers and Gil Scott-Heron. https://www.michaelkiwanuka.com