In pictures: Influential Black artists who put the region on the cultural map

A look back in photos during Black History Month 2021 at influential stars from Musical Youth to Benjamin Zephaniah and Lenny Henry who have pioneered in the fields of the arts, music and culture

Birmingham and the wider West Midlands has been made all the richer for influential Black artists whose talents lie from music to ballet. Here are just a few…

Benjamin Zephaniah

Describing himself as “Poet, writer, lyricist, musician and naughty boy”, the 63-year-old from Handsworth this year received the Hay Festival Medal for Poetry.

Writing his first book Pen Rhythm in 1980, Benjamin Zephaniah has progressed conversations about race and society ever since and even been an advisor on what is in the National Curriculum.

He is seen here when receiving an honorary degree from University of Birmingham in 2008.


Ruby Turner

The 63-year-old Gospel, R&B and Soul singer is a favourite of Jools Holland, appearing yearly on his Annual Hootenanny from 2007.

She was nine when her family moved to Handsworth from Jamaica and her voice soon got her recognised, leading to an international solo career along with working alongside acts from Culture Club to Mick Jagger and UB40.

Awarded an MBE in 2016 for services to music, the singer was also one of the performers at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Concert outside Buckingham Palace. Turner is seen here performing with Birmingham Town Hall Gospel Choir.


Lenny Henry

(Image: PA)

Dudley’s Sir Lenny Henry has gone far beyond comedy, where he started out as a 16-year-old on New Faces.

The 63-year-old actor, writer and presenter has helped millions across the world as the co-founder of Comic Relief and ranked fourth in the Powerlist of the 100 most influential Black Britons in 2016.

He has turned his attention of late to campaigning for diversity and fairness, helped by his position as a fellow of the Royal Television Society and the winner of a BAFTA outstanding award.


Beverley Knight

(Image: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)

Heralding from Wolverhampton and Highfields School, this MOBO Award winning singer started out a soul career with hit singles including Made It Back and Shoulda Woulda Coulda.

Knight has matured into becoming one of the most respected musical and stage artists and is part of Leading Ladies and has performed at The Proms. She received an MBE in 2006 and was acknowledged for her music and charity work.


Musical Youth

Reggae band Musical Youth put Birmingham on the international map with an international No 1 hit of ‘Pass the Dutchie’ in 1982, when they are pictured here.

The band, which originally featured Dennis Seaton, Michael Grant, Kelvin Grant, Freddie “Junior” Waite and Patrick Waite, gained a Grammy Award nomination and sang with Donna Summer.

Despite a short-lived career of 15 months, Musical Youth were influential in not only selling millions of records worldwide but also as the first black group to appear on MTV.


Vanley Burke

(Image: Birmingham Mail)

Photographer Vanley Burke lives an unassuming life in his towerblock flat in Nechells, but has been responsible for iconic images that revealed the real-life of British African Caribbeans from the 1960s and helped break down barriers.

Known as The Godfather of Black British Photography, the now 70-year-old went on to snap everyone from Mohammed Ali to Nelson Mandela. A photo of Burke himself is in the National Portrait Gallery and he has been a guest on Desert Island Discs.

Revealing emotive moments from reggae parties to funerals and civil unrest, Burke was able to give prominence to communities that had been under-represented by the mainstream media.


Celine Gittens

(Image: BPM)

Birmingham Royal Ballet(BRB) Dancer Celine Gittens has made Birmingham her home despite being born in Trinidad and later living in Canada.

The Principal Dancer, who is married to BRB dancer Kit Holder, was at the forefront of the live Commonwealth Games handover routine and has led many of the company’s performances.

Noted as one of the young talents in the arts, Gittens met the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 2011 and also performed for Prince Charles at the same building as Swanilda from Coppélia years later.


UB40’s Astro and Earl Falconer

(Image: Sunday Mercury)

Astro – real name Terence Wilson who lived in Barnt Green, and Earl Falconer, from Meriden, were a key part of UB40. They are shown here with Ali Campbell producer Paul Hussey and Brian Travers after recording a song for Birmingham Heavyweight Boxer Pele Reid.

The famous reggae band has had more than 50 singles from Red, Red Wine to One in Ten, a song about unemployment in the 1980s that put them at the cutting edge of youth culture.

A symbol of race harmony, they also performed at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute concert in 1988.


Jaki Graham

(Image: BPM)

Birmingham-born singer Jaki Graham has performed with some of the greatest soul singers of all time and was hailed as “one of the best singers Britain has ever produced” by Doobie Brothers star Michael McDonald.

The 65-year-old has sang alongside Al Green, James Ingram, Percy Sledge, Freda Payne and Lamont Dozier, to name a few, and was honoured with a ‘Birmingham’s ‘Walk of Star’ in 2012.


Soweto Kinch

(Image: John James)

Saxophonist and rapper Soweto Kinch moved to Birmingham as a child with his Barbadian father and playwright Don Kinch and British-Jamaican actress Yvette Harris.

Becoming a leading jazz artist, he has supported Courtney Pine while Amy Winehouse once said she would like to work with Kinch. He also presented BBC Radio 3 programme Jazz Now and more recently played Pastor Toussaint Boothe in the BBC Radio Drama ‘Jesus Piece’.


David Harewood

(Image: David Harewood Facebook)

The Hollywood actor heralds from Small Heath and Washwood Heath Academy but is now rubbing shoulders with Samuel L Jackson or Clare Danes in Homeland.

Harewood, aged 55, whose parents are from Barbados, was awarded an MBE for services to drama but away from the screen is also a role model, donating bone marrow to save a life and as a mental health ambassador.