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  • Kaitlyn Nicole

Black History Month - 10 Black Pop Stars That Changed the Game

Bob Marley, Prince, Aretha Franklin and Jimi Hendrix were all iconic artists. Picture: 1. Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns/Getty 2. The LIFE Picture Collectio/Getty 3. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty 4. Ed Caraeff/Getty Images

February is Black History Month. A time to celebrate and honor Black Americans who have made significant changes to the United States as well as all around the world, past and present. But we cannot talk about Black History without talking about Black music. Music that has played a huge role in the cultural and social movements of the past century.

For the past 400 years, Black music has continuously evolved into many different genres such as slave spirituals, gospel, jazz, soul, R&B, disco, country, hip-hop and rock and roll. Over the years, these genres have been blended together and worked off each other to create the foundations for modern pop music. So much so, in fact, that it's not an exaggeration to say that without the contributions of black artists, pop music as we know it today would not exist.

So today we highlight ten black artists who rose to prominence and who fundamentally molded pop music into something completely new.

10. Sam Cooke

Sam Cooke was an American gospel, R&B, soul, pop singer and songwriter who had 30 U.S. top 40 hits between 1957 and 1964, plus three more posthumously. He was the pioneer cross-over artist from gospel to rhythm and blues and his unique vocal style reverberated through the pop music of his time as well as into the modern era.

He was signed and joined the soul stirrers at age 19 and by 1956, he made the jump to record secular music, which was a huge risk at the time as he knew it would alienate his core gospel-loving religious audience base at the time. But the risk paid off because by 1960, after joining RCA Victor, he perfected the art of songwriting and created some of the greatest soul and pop classics ever.

Elements of Sam Cooke's style can be heard in mega pop stars such as Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. From his powerful voice to the beautiful way his voice could shift from smooth to gruff in an instant, his vocal style has also been replicated and modified over the second half of the 20th century by, for example, someone like Michael Jackson.

Memorable songs: "You Send Me," "A Change Is Gonna Come," "Cupid," "Chain Gang," and "Wonderful World."

9. Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder was a child prodigy who signed with Motown's Tamala label at the age of 11. Through the guidance and mentorship of many legendary figures such as Smokey Robinson, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and especially Marvin Gaye, Wonder became a prolific songwriter and wrote many of the iconic songs of the time. He wrote songs for The Supremes, Michael Jackson, The Temptations, Roberta Flack, Minnie Riperton and many more. Wonder is one of the best selling solo artists of all time, with sales of over 100 million records worldwide. He has won 25 Grammy Awards and one Academy Award. Wonder has been inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1983.

1971 - 1976 is Stevie Wonder's widely recognized “classic period”. In that 5 year span he released five albums: "Music of My Mind”, “Talking Book”, “Innervisions”, “Fulfillingess’ First Finale”, and “Songs in the Key of Life”. These albums alone shaped the pop music for the next decade and they are still being sampled today in everything from hip-hop to R&B.

Interestingly, one of Stevie Wonder's main contributions to music was his eager incorporation of technology into making his songs during the '70s. Originally, the use of the synthesizer was frowned upon and not understood by critics but that didn't stop Wonder from using it anyway. Wonder was an early supporter of the use of drum machines, and one of the first artists — if not the first artist — to use a sampler in his music. His nature documentary soundtrack “Steve Wonder’s Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants” was one of the earliest digital recordings ever released.

Through collaboration, mentoring, or inspiration, Stevie Wonder has influenced musicians from the 70s onward. This includes artist like Michael Jackson, Prince, Beyoncé, Drake, Frank Ocean, Janelle Monaé, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Tupac, Lady Gaga, John Legend, Snoop Dogg and many, many more.

Memorable songs: "Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I'm Yours)", "Superstition - Single Version", "Sir Duke", "Isn't She Lovely", "I Just Called to Say I Love You", and "I Wish."

8. Dionne Warwick

Dionne Warwick is an American singer who has been a prominent figure in the music industry for over five decades. Known as, "The Queen of Smooth Pop," Warwick began her music career in the 1960s as a background singer for popular artists such as The Drifters, and broke into the mainstream as a successful solo artist in 1963 when she released her first solo single, "Don't Make Me Over," which became a hit. Her first out of many to come because in 1968, Warwick became the first African American solo female artist to receive a Grammy and by 1970, she had recorded thirty hit singles, close to twenty best-selling albums and received a second Grammy for the album I'll Never Fall In Love Again.

Dionne Warwick's musical style bridged the gap between pop music and soul, which opened the doors for future vocalists to do the same. Her smooth and sophisticated approach to melody and phrasing influenced every vocalist that came after her which ranges from Whitney Houston to Alicia Keys.

Dionne Warwick also used her velvety voice to carve out a space for herself in pop music during an era where racial divides were still very sharply defined. She broke boundaries by becoming one of the first African-American artists to establish herself in pop and R&B charts and pushed back on being pressured to only perform in front of segregated audiences.

Memorable songs: "Walk On By," "I Say a Little Prayer," and "Do You Know the Way to San Jose."

7. Diana Ross

Diana Ross’ place in pop history, as well as Black pop history, has long been cemented and cherished throughout the generations. While leading the Supremes, Ross played her part in creating their distinctive sound, which combined Ross’s powerful lead vocals with intricate harmonies and a pop sensibilities. They defined pop music of the ’60s, projecting an image of class, elegance, and aspiration in an age where reductive and racist stereotypes of black people permeated minds during the midcentury. This glamorous style along with their choreographed dance routines also helped make them a popular act on television eventually allowing them to become so popular that they were the first girl group to have a number one album on the Billboard 200 chart. They became Motown's most successful act during the 1960s and one of the world's best selling girl group's of all time and they also remain the best-charting female group in history. By 1970, Ross left the group to pursue a solo career. Diana Ross, her debut solo album, showcased “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” which would go on to become Ross’ first number one hit without the group and with careful guidance, Ross was transformed from pop singer to pop diva by appearing in elaborately staged performances and television specials.

Ross established herself as a versatile singer as she navigated various musical genres, from soul and R&B to pop and disco during rapid changes in the music industry. This versatility allowed her to appeal to a wide spectrum of audiences and also established herself as a trailblazer full of a vast array of elegant style and grace. She contributed to breaking down barriers for black artists and for black women which allowed artists like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey to follow her. Diana Ross’s appeal and iconic status remains unchallenged as her contributions to music, culture, and civil rights have solidified her legacy as legendary.

Since her solo career began in 1970, Ross has released 25 studio albums, numerous singles, and compilations that has sold more than 100 million records worldwide. Ross was also named the "Female Entertainer of the Century" by Billboard in 1976 and inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Supremes. Alongside with these accolades, Diana Ross has sung for the Queen of England and in 2007, she has two stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, and the Kennedy Center Honors Committee honored Ross for her influence on American culture. Ross herself was also awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012, and in 2016, Diana Ross received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.  

Diana Ross is still very active musically, releasing records and touring in the U.S., Canada, and Europe. Ross has also continued to inspire artists ranging from Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Rhinna, Michael Jackson and Christina Aguilera.

Memorable songs: “Upside Down,” "Come See About Me," “I'm Coming Out,” and “Ain't No Mountain High Enough."

6. Janet Jackson

Thirty-eight years ago, Janet Jackson released Control. An album that allowed her to cross over into pop and which also ushered in the New Jack Swing sound of the early 90s into the music industry. For the next decade, Janet Jackson released back to back number 1 albums that allowed the star to prove herself to be more than just, "Michael Jackson's sister." With her work ethic and success, Janet Jackson claimed a place of her own in music history next to her brothers as one of the main blueprints and foundations of modern pop music and established herself as one of the greatest living music legends of the early 21st century.

Even though she is sometimes left out of conversations that involve her peers, Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna, Janet Jackson's influence can still be seen in the way artists of today choreograph their music videos, as they draw clear inspiration from Janet's own signature militant dance moves and style. She also pioneered the art of incorporating spoken word interludes that into albums that has now become a commonplace in pop, hip-hop and R&B.

Jackson has sold over 100 million records making her one of the world's best-selling music artists. She also holds the record for the most consecutive top-ten entries on the US Billboard Hot 100 singles chart by a female artist with 18. She is also the only artist in the history of the chart to have seven commercial singles from one album (Rhythm Nation 1814) peak within the top five positions. In 2008, Billboard placed her number seven on its list of the Hot 100 All-Time Top Artists, and in 2010 ranked her fifth among the "Top 50 R&B/Hip-Hop Artists of the Past 25 Years". In December 2016, the magazine named her the second most successful dance club artist after Madonna. She has earned five Grammy Awards, eleven Billboard Music Awards, eleven American Music Awards, an Academy Award nomination, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and eight Guinness World Records entries and in 2019, she was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Janet Jackson has been named as an inspiration for the likes of Usher, Beyoncé, Aaliyah, and Ciara. Also, her influence has most recently be seen in the Australian artist Troye Sivan's most recent project, Something To Give Each Other and was also seen in Beyonce's Renissance Tour (2023).

Memorable songs: “Rhythm Nation,” “All for You,” “That's the Way Love Goes,” “Miss You Much,” “Control,” "Made For Now," and "Burn it Up."

5. Beyoncé

Beyoncé Knowles Carter is an American singer that has become one of the largest cultural and pop icons of the early 21st century. Getting her start in the late '90s in the girl group Destiny's child, Beyoncé has since become a boundary pushing artist in her own right. She has since been credited with the invention of the staccato rap-singing style, empowering black and African artists in visual media, the popularization of the surprise album, and emphasizing women in music. She has also used her influence to raise awareness of racism, LGBT rights and feminism. And arguably most importantly, Beyoncé has also breathed life back into live performances, bringing back the larger than life elements that existed in the past.

Beyoncé, in a way, can be described as the culmination of black music history. Her stage precense is reminiscent of the late Tina Turner, and Janet Jackson. Her mastery with music videos brings to mind the artistry pioneered by Micheal Jackson and she mirrors the extravagant styles of Diana Ross along with the vocal prowess of Patti Labelle. Her artistry blends together the vocal techniques and styles of black artists of the 20th century while also keeping her own unique timbre. She is a bridge between the past and the present, perfectly mixing the elements that made black artists of the past so great, with the innovative sounds and styles of today's artists.

Beyoncé has won 32 Grammy Awards, as well as 26 MTV Video Music Awards (including the 2014 Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award), 24 NAACP Image Awards, 35 BET Awards, and 17 Soul Train Music Awards. And even though her career is far from over, Beyoncé has been named as an influence by many of today's rising stars such as, Lizzo, Adele, Tinashe, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye Wesr, Drake, Harry Styles, Bruno Mars and many more.

Memorable songs: “Formation,” “Love on Top,” “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” “Irreplaceable,” “Break My Soul,” "CUFF IT," "Texas Hold 'em," “Crazy in Love,” and “Listen.”

4. Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin was the legendary American singer, pianist and songwriter known for her powerful voice and emotional performances. She made her breakthrough as a solo artist when her first Atlantic single, “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You),” became hit in 1967. Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, Franklin continued to release a string of iconic hits that showcased her powerful voice and her incredible range that not only became anthems for the civil rights movement but also for the feminist movement.

Throughout her life, Aretha Franklin's musical style was a fusion of various genres, including soul, R&B, gospel, jazz, and pop. Her powerful and soulful voice, coupled with her unique phrasing and emotional delivery, made her able to infuse each song with her own musical interpretations that allowed Franklin to connect with her audience in a special way, modeling a way for the singers who came after her to do the same. She was so skilled in this art in fact, that the covers she did of songs often became more popular than the originals.

Referred to as the "Queen of Soul", Rolling Stone twice named her as the greatest singer of all time and with global sales of over 75 million records, Franklin is considered one of the world's best-selling music artists. She won 18 Grammy's (out of 44 nominations), including the first eight awards given for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, a Grammy Awards Living Legend honor and Lifetime Achievement Award. She was also awarded the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1987, she became the first female artist to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Her other inductions include the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005, the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2012, and posthumously the National Women's Hall of Fame in 2020. In 2019, the Pulitzer Prize jury awarded her a posthumous special citation "for her indelible contribution to American music and culture for more than five decades".

Memorable songs: “Respect,” “Chain of Fools,” “Natural Woman,” “Ain't No Way,” and "Think."

3. Prince

There is simply no musical figure in recent pop music history who has commanded the same respect or inspired the same awe quite the same as the late Prince Rogers Nelson.

He is credited with playing all the instruments on many of his records and was regarded as the most innovative, creative and technically skilled musician of his generation. Signed to Warner Brothers at the age of 19 in the late 70s, Prince quickly set himself apart from his contemporaries, that being Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Whitney Houston and Madonna. He did this by adopting a more "dangerous" and "promiscuous" image that refused to bend to society's standards at the time. And while artists like Michael Jackson needed a Quincy Jones to help create his vision, and Janet Jackson needed a Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Prince took his artistry into his own hands and created his own original sound on his own which has been dubbed, "The Minneapolis sound," which is a subgenre of funk rock with elements of new wave and synth pop.

Prince also pioneered artists having creative control over their own music and image by negotiating a deal with his record label that gave him creative control to bring his musical vision to life. Also his public fight with Warner Brothers in the '90s laid the groundwork for many artists to go independent and have ownership over their own work.

By the end of his career, Prince had a total of 16 platinum albums, and was considered to be the most successful artist on the Billboard charts from 1980 to 2000. He scored 8 number 1 R&B singles and 7 number 1 Dance singles (tied for second place for male entertainers with Enrique Iglesias and Michael Jackson). He also scored over 50 top 40 hits around the world since 1979 and was a known advocate for music artist being able to own their own names and music.

Prince's influence on pop music cannot be understated. He didn't just rewrite the rules of pop. He burned the entire rule book and made his own. He created his own sound, blended many different genres together, stomped on societal pressures and continuously encouraged younger artist to carve out their own unique musical identity. Taking the time to mentor great acts such as Janelle Monáe, Lizzo, Beyoncé, The Time, and Sheila E.

Memorable songs: “Purple Rain,” “Raspberry Beret,” “Controversy,” “When Doves Cry,” “Kiss,” "Diamonds and Pearls," "I Would Die 4 U."

2. Whitney Houston

Named the ‘most awarded female artist of all time’ by Guinness World Records, Whitney Houston was known for having the ability to convey pure, raw emotion through her vocals whilst singing with flawless technique. Some singers only have the former, some only the latter and it is rare to have both equally. Moreover, the agility of her voice was magnificent, along with the power and superb control she has over her voice set her apart and leagues above her contemporaries. Her Gospel-trained ability earned her the moniker of, "The Voice."

Throughout her career, Whitney sold over 200 million records worldwide, won six Grammys, one Emmy, was the first artist to have seven consecutive Number 1 hits, and became the first woman to enter the Billboard 200 chart at No.1 with her album, Whitney (1987). Her numerous industry accolades also include being the first artist to have seven consecutive number one hits, the first woman to enter the U.S. Billboard 200 at number one with her album, Whitney, and holding the longest reigning number one single on the Hot 100 with “I Will Always Love You.”

Whitney Houston was undoubtedly one of pop music's biggest superstar's, but Whitney’s introduction into the music industry in 1985 was also important because of her mass appeal to both black and white audiences. This allowed her to break down the barriers of MTV alongside Michael Jackson not just for black men but also black women. Her presence on MTV and VH1, allowed artists like Janet Jackson and Anita Baker to have their visual art on the channels as well. It opened major doors for female artists of color to have their music be heard by millions who would have never heard them otherwise.

Memorable songs: “You Give Good Love,” “Saving All My Love For You,” “How Will I Know,” “Greatest Love of All,” “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me),” “So Emotional," “All the Man That I Need,” and "I Will Always Love You."

1. Michael Jackson

Michael Jackson wasn't given the title, "The King of Pop," for no reason. By the age of five, Michael Jackson became the lead singer of the Jackson 5 and landed his first Number 1 record at only 11 years old. By the end of the 80s, he established himself as one of the most recognizable figures of the 20th century and one of the most influential artists of all time.

Known for his signature dance moves, stage presence and memorable music videos, Michael Jackson rewrote the rules of what it meant to be a pop star. Releasing hit after hit, he not only broke the racial barrier but also transcended the RnB box he was often regulated to in order to become one of the one of the best selling artists of this generation and the last.

Some of Micheal Jackson's accolades include, becoming the first person to ever win 8 Grammys in one night (1984), being 1 of the 15 artists to ever win the GRAMMY legend award, being inducted twice into the rock and roll hall of fame, and having his solo debut performance in 1988 being considered one of the greatest Grammy performances of all time.

Memorable songs: "Beat It,” "The Way You Make Me Feel,” “Black or White,” “Remember the Time,” “Blood on the Dance Floor,” “Rock with You,” and "Slave to the Rhythm.”

Black music is the cultural backbone of America's pop music history. These black innovators are a large part of what makes America's music scene so unique.

But keep in mind, that this list hardly scratches the surface of of the hundreds of black artists that put pen to paper and crafted some of history's greatest hits.

Written By Lauren Lumsden

*copyright not intended. Fair use act, section 107.


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