The influence of black female songwriters runs deep through the veins of today’s music landscape.
“This is one small step for woman, one giant leap for womankind,” RuPaul’s Drag Race star Shangela declares on the intro to Ariana Grande’s Thank U, Next cut “NASA.” The track is one of twelve on the album that appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 following the album’s release.
The release of the song and its accompanying video was met with controversies stemming from a number of factors. There were talks about whether or not the flow of the song was stolen from Soulja Boy’s “Pretty Boy Swag.” Were the aesthetics of the video borrowed from 2 Chainz’s Pink Trap House, featured on the cover of his Pretty Girls Like Trap Music album? Was the song’s lyrical theme stolen from New York rapper Princess Nokia?
Grande hadn’t written “7 Rings” herself, taking to Twitter amid the controversy to say: “shift your attention here. these women are impeccable and they are who you should be talking about,” tagging co-writers Tayla Parx, Victoria Monét, Njomza, and Kaydence.
shift your attention here. these women are impeccable and they are who you should be talking about. 🖤 love.
— Ariana Grande (@ArianaGrande) January 19, 2019
Parx and Monét, two highly prominent contemporary black female songwriters, also appear on the credits of “Needy,” “NASA,” “Make Up,” “Ghostin’,” and the title-track. Other black women credited on Thank U, Next include Kandi Burruss on “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored,” Priscilla Renea on “Imagine” and “Fake Smile,” and writing duo Denisia “Blu June” Andrews and Brittany “Chi” Coney on “In My Head.”
The influence of black female songwriters runs deep through the veins of today’s music landscape. It’s important to remember that there are non-performing black woman behind some of your favorite Whitney Houston songs, most of your favorite Rihanna songs, and a number of Nicki Minaj’s best songs.
Here are ten black female songwriters who play crucial roles in the past, present, and future of music.
Industry titan Berry Gordy Jr. founded Motown Records in Detroit, Michigan in 1959. The label would go on to foster a number of musical legends, including Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, and The Jackson 5. Motown Records would also come to be the longtime home of Stevie Wonder, an artist that would have been dropped from the label had it not been for singer-songwriter Sylvia Moy.
Moy was the first woman at Motown to write and produce records for the label’s artists. When there were talks of dropping Stevie from the label due to changes in his voice, she requested that she be given a chance to change the label’s mind. “I don’t believe it’s over for him,” she said she told Motown’s head of artists and repertoire Mickey Stevenson, “Let me have Stevie.” Having promised to write a hit for the young talent to perform, Moy teamed up with songwriter Henry Crosby and came up with “Uptight (Everything’s Alright).”
The single spent 14 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #3 in February of 1966 just three months after its release. The Detroit native would continue to work closely with Wonder throughout her time at Motown, garnering six Grammy nominations and an induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in the process.
Notable songs: “This Old Heart of Mine (Is Weak for You)” by The Isley Brothers, “Honey Chile” by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, “My Cherie Amour” by Stevie Wonder
Brooklyn born singer, songwriter, and producer Andrea Martin got her start in publishing at BMI. Prior to being signed, Martin was in need of a job and a friend of hers who worked in publishing was in need of a writer. “He gave me four tracks and said if you do one, you’re hired. So I did all four,” she said on a Women Behind the Music Panel in 2011. That was her first ever attempt at songwriting.
Martin achieved her first R&B chart-topping hit in 1995 with Monica’s “Before You Walk Out of My Life,” following up with hits by SWV and En Vogue. Martin released a solo album of her own in 1998 with the help of Clive Davis, who worked closely with the writer as a mentor. Martin’s other songwriting endeavors faired well on the charts, with Melanie Fiona’s “It Kills Me” topping the adult R&B songs chart in February of 2010. In recent years Martin has written on soundtracks for The Great Gatsby and Netflix’s The Get Down.
Notable songs: “Don’t Let Go (Love)” by En Vogue, “You’re the One” by SWV, “I Love Me Some Him” by Toni Braxton
On June 13, 2019, Missy Elliot will become the first female rapper to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Before Elliot launched her solo career — and began crafting hits like “Work It” and “Lose Control” — she had already been impacting the industry from behind the scenes as both a songwriter and producer. Her earliest writing credits came from her contributions as a featured artist, on remixes of Gina Thompson’s “The Things You Do” and 702’s “Steelo.”
Building a reputation as an attention-demanding rapper wasn’t always part of Elliot’s plan. “I was comfortable just writing for people. And I mean really comfortable,” she said in a 1997 interview with Spin. By that time, she had already penned nearly half of Aaliyah’s second studio album, One in a Million, alongside Timbaland. She would go on to write for Whitney Houston, Beyoncé, Mariah Carey, and more.
Notable songs: “Borderline” by Ariana Grande, “1,2 Step” by Ciara,” “Need U Bad,” by Jazmine Sullivan
Makeba Riddick moved to New York to begin an internship at Columbia Records after completing a degree in Music Business at Berklee College of Music when she was 19. A year later, in 2002, she wrote “All I Have,” Jennifer Lopez’s number one single featuring LL Cool JJ. The song would catch the attention of P. Diddy who, having previously been unimpressed with the writer’s music, signed Riddick to a publishing deal with Bad Boy/EMI Music Publishing shortly after.
The Baltimore-born writer contributed to a number of tracks on Beyoncé’s 2006 album B’Day, including the bridge of “Upgrade U,” written alongside Solange Knowles. Her presence can also be found throughout Rihanna’s discography, Riddick’s history of working with the singer going back to one of her earliest releases, 2005’s “If It’s Lovin’ That You Want.”
In recent years, Riddick has worked as the music producer for FOX’s Star and Empire.
Notable songs: “Disturbia” Rihanna, “Déjà Vu” by Beyoncé, “Won’t He Do It” by Koryn Hawthorne
“I worked in elderly homes for about seven years before I could pay my rent with songwriting alone, and it took five years after I got a publishing deal before I’d really ‘made it,’” Ester Dean told Cosmopolitan in a 2016 interview. Dean, now at Universal Music Publishing Group, was first signed to producer Christopher “Tricky” Stewart’s publishing company, where she wrote Katy Perry’s 2010 hit “Firework.” The single spent four of its 39 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 at number one.
While “Firework” enjoyed its success on the charts, Dean was still quite busy behind the scenes. Continuing to extend her talents beyond the pop sphere, she acquired credits on projects by Kelly Rowland, Trey Songz, and Jennifer Hudson. “I’m universal,” Dean told Billboard of her songwriting. “As much as I can get out a “Firework” with Katy, I can get a “Lil Freak” out with Usher.”
Dean’s writing isn’t too overtly complex, but the simplicity of her lyrics is what makes them memorable. She captures her audience’s attention with uncomplicated hooks that often foster a sing-along nature, an essential element of crafting a pop radio hit. They become easy to recognize over time, like the “Na na na, come on” of Rihanna’s “S&M.”
Notable songs: “Super Bass” by Nicki Minaj, “Come and Get It” by Selena Gomez, “Hey Mama” by David Guetta
Carla Marie Williams
Growing up in London, England, songwriter Carla Marie Williams found herself drawn to dancehall sounds from a young age. This led to an in-depth interest in R&B and soul music from the likes of Mary J. Blige and Alanis Morissette.
While trying to position herself in the public eye as a performer, Williams spent time mentoring aspiring young songwriters. She eventually decided to fully shift her focus to developing her craft as a pop writer. Williams was signed to English songwriting and production team Xenomania, where she would write six U.K. Top 10 hits, including songs for Alesha Dixon and The Saturdays.
Williams’ most profound career milestone to date is a writing credit on “Freedom,” a cut from Beyoncé’s Lemonade. The song alludes to both race and gender expectations. “I’m very pro-woman, and I’m very pro-black, because I know the struggles for both people,” Williams told the Fader.
Notable songs: “Runnin’ (Lose It All)” By Naughty Boy & Beyoncé, “Not Giving Up” by The Saturdays, “Glory” by Britney Spears
Comprised of Denisia “Blu June” Andrews and Brittany “Chi” Coney, NOVA Wav is a songwriting and production team with credits on Grammy-nominated projects, such as The Carters’ EVERYTHING IS LOVE and Kelly Clarkson’s Meaning of Life. The duo is currently signed to Warner Chappell Music.
Prior to the formation of NOVA Wav, both women were working to make a name for themselves in the industry as individual songwriters. (Andrews found success writing on Rihanna and Future’s “Loveeeeee Song.”)
Andrews and Coney’s recent releases include Ariana Grande’s “In My Head” and Kehlani’s “Feels,” having previously worked with the R&B star on her 2016 SweetSexySavage cut “CRZY.” NOVA Wav don’t like to stick to any one lane for too long, but they are consistent in the sincerity conveyed throughout their writing regardless of whatever genre they’re working within.
The duo told VIBE that they had felt most challenged in the process of writing on Teyana Taylor’s 2018 album K.T.S.E., citing Kanye West as the main obstacle in their creative process. They persisted, anyway, saying, “Nobody understands a woman more than a woman, so that’s why I’m so happy we feel so grateful to be able to be in this position to be able to give that perspective from a true woman’s emotion.”
Notable songs: “No Candle No Light” by ZAYN and Nicki Minaj, “Stick Around” by Lukas Graham, “Black Effect” by The Carters
Soon after moving to New York when she was 18 years old, songwriter Diana Gordon started working at a nightclub. It was there that she was presented with a track and instructed to write a song over it, she told The Fader. That same song would become “Gonna Breakthrough,” the fifth track on Mary J. Blige’s 2005 album The Breakthrough.
By 19, Gordon was signed to Atlantic Records.
In recent years, Gordon is credited on three tracks off of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, including
“Daddy Lessons,” “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” and “Sorry.” The implications of having contributed both as a writer and a producer of a track as thoroughly discussed and admired as “Sorry” has lead Gordon to be more selective and particular with who she writes with.
In an interview with Harper’s Bazaar, Gordon said “I think as a songwriter, a lot of people right after that were like, ‘Can you write me songs? We want a song like this, we want a song like that.’ Which, I didn’t do. I pretty much turned down every session that was asked of me after that because I had really no desire to just be out writing music for people.” She did accept a few sessions here and there, however, leading to the creation of “Electricity” with Mark Ronson and Diplo (as Silk City) and Dua Lipa.
Notable songs: “The Kids are Alright” by Chloe x Halle, “(What is) Love?” by Jennifer Lopez, “Livin’ It Up,” by Ciara Featuring Nicki Minaj
Tayla Parx moved to Los Angeles, California when she was 17-years-old so she could realign her focus in music after having unintentionally fallen into acting when she was 9. Lacking support from big industry figures, she found the industry to be an untrusting one at the time.
Using Logic Pro, Parx taught herself the ins and outs of record and vocal production while also uncovering her voice as a songwriter. Her writing became a more serious endeavor for her in 2014, and by the summer of 2015 Parx would have her first mainstream hit with Fifth Harmony’s “Boss.” As the internal music scene became more familiar with her name, the writer’s talents began opening doors to session invitations that were previously off the table for her.
Since then, Parx signed with Warner/Chappell and has learned the best way to efficiently navigate the spaces of these sessions. Leading with melody, she pushes whatever artist she’s working with to tap into the more genuine and honest side of themselves while finding their sound. This was a tactic the Dallas native utilized when working closely alongside Christina Aguilera on 2018’s Liberation.
Notable songs: “Love Lies” by Khalid and Normani, “7 Rings” by Ariana Grande, “High Hopes” by Panic! At the Disco
An incredibly private person, Brittany Hazzard has found the perfect set-up in being able to craft hits for some of the biggest names in modern pop music. The speculation and curiosity that surrounds the writer, who is best known by her moniker Starrah, have been present for almost the entirety of her career in music. She doesn’t participate in many interviews, and when she does it’s only to provide the bare necessities to understand her background in music.
Growing up Delaware, she had absorbed the music listened to by her eight siblings, sometimes writing raps with her brother for the fun of it. This led to Hazzard taking an interest in writing short stories and poems, which then extended into songwriting. When she moved out to Los Angeles, California after college, there had already been an under-the-surface buzz developing around the writer, who at the time was selling hook demos on Instagram.
Hazzard’s early hooks were selling for anywhere from $100 to $150, the deal of a lifetime when you consider the millions of dollars in sales that have been made off of tracks that list her name.
The hook of Travis Scott and Young Thug’s “Pick Up The Phone” featuring Quavo was written and originally sung by Starrah before Scott imposed himself on the song. The track has over 339 million streams on Spotify to date.
“Hip-hop is the language right now, but Starrah is comfortable applying that to every genre,” Diplo told the New York Times of Hazzard’s songwriting. Halsey’s “Now or Never” and Rihanna’s “Needed Me” both feature Starrah’s knack for blending innovative pop songwriting with the layered production elements commonly associated with hip-hop and R&B.
Notable tracks: “Havana” by Camila Cabello, “Wasted Times” by The Weeknd,” “Girls Like You” by Maroon 5