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Breaking Barriers: How Black Artists Transformed Music ✊🏾

Written by: Jadon King

Black History Month is here, and there’s no better way to kick it off than to celebrate black tastemakers in the music industry! Black music has historically been groundbreaking and trendsetting, extending beyond the boundaries of race to persist and succeed in the face of discrimination. From rock ‘n roll and soul to hip-hop and R&B, black music has defined what music is for decades, and the artists who pioneered the sound of their day ultimately became heroes of music history. Read on to discover the inspiring stories of some of music’s most legendary names! 🙌🏾

Born in the Bronx by Jamaican-American DJ Kool Herc in the 70s, hip-hop is a black art form that’s done much more than just survive; it’s exploded. Hip-hop is the most listened-to genre of music in the world, accounting for 38% of Spotify’s total streams. But who was the first ever to make a career in hip-hop? Kurtis Blow, a rapper from Harlem, was the first rapper to ever sign a record deal with a major label. At just twenty years old, Kurtis signed a deal with Mercury Records, which led to the release of his single “The Breaks”, which was the first-ever gold-selling rap record. This was the first

step forward to rappers being the international

superstars they are today. And no star shines brighter than…

Drake. Love him or hate him, he’s prolific and well-loved, which earned him the title of Billboard’s Artist of the Decade for 2010-2020. And deservingly so. In 2021, his album Certified Lover Boy became the most-streamed project in 24 hours on both Apple Music and Spotify, breaking his record from the 2017 release of his mixtape More Life. The same year, he won thirteen Billboard awards, the most ever won in a single show. He also became the first artist ever to have three songs debut in the top three spots simultaneously with his Scary Hours 2. He’s got the most Hot 100 hits with 327 songs; the most consecutive weeks spent on the Hot 100 with 431 weeks; the most Top 10 hits in a calendar year; the most Hot 100 number-one debuts with nine total; and he's the first artist to reach over 500 consecutive weeks on the Artist 100 list. He shares the most songs in the top five simultaneously with The Beatles and Taylor Swift. He’s also the Recording Industry Association of America’s top-certified singles artist, selling 163.5 million units. And these stats are just scratching the surface of Drake’s hit-making power. 🌟

The Weeknd is another black artist who exceeded all expectations. Son of Ethiopian immigrants who moved to Toronto, Abel Makonnen Tesfaye went from homeless to the Forbes list, seamlessly transitioning from his dark, underground R&B origins to the very heights of pop stardom. His 2020 hit “Blinding Lights” is the single most streamed song on Spotify with over four billion streams. The song is also the longest-charting song on the Hot 100. The Weeknd also broke Michael Jackson’s twenty-year record for having the highest-grossing tour by a black artist. 😮

While The Weeknd and Drake might be the hitmakers of our time, they ultimately owe respect to the first modern pop star and another barrier-breaking black artist who paved the way for them. If you’re thinking of Michael Jackson, then you’d be correct! His album Thriller is the highest-selling album of all time and the music video for the titular track is credited as the first modern music video. And while Drake’s Sprite sponsorship gave birth to some great memes, Michael Jackson's ten-year-long, five-million-dollar Pepsi endorsement deal set the bar for integrated marketing campaigns and blew any previous celebrity endorsement deal out of the water. 🤩

But hip-hop is about more than the streaming numbers and trends. Rappers throughout the years, from N.W.A. to Mary J. Blige, have used their music as a form of protest. And nobody embodies the politically charged and socially conscious side of hip-hop better than Compton native Kendrick Lamar. In 2018, Kendrick shattered expectations by being the first-ever rapper to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music for his album DAMN. The win legitimized hip-hop as an art form, the Pulitzer committee calling DAMN. “a virtuosic song collection unified by its vernacular authenticity and rhythmic dynamism that offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African American life.” ❤️

Kendrick isn’t the only record-breaker on Top Dawg Entertainment’s roster. R&B sensation SZA has broken several records with her most recent album S.O.S. Aretha Franklin, another barrier-breaking black female artist and the Queen of Soul, previously held the record for the longest number-one album by a solo female act on the Hot 100 with her album Aretha Now at seventeen weeks. S.O.S. secured the number one spot for eighteen, breaking records previously set by the likes of Beyoncé, Usher, Whitney Houston, and Janet Jackson. 🤩

While SZA may have tied Whitney Houston’s record for the only R&B album to debut for seven weeks at the top of the Hot 100, it doesn’t water down Houston’s platinum-studded legacy in any way. You don’t get the nickname “the Voice” for nothing. Whitney Houston was the best-selling female artist of the 20th century in the R&B genre, with over 200 million record sales, winning eight Grammys, two Emmys, fourteen World Music Awards, and more. Her cover of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” as part of the soundtrack for the movie The Bodyguard (in which she starred), broke records by holding the coveted number one spot on the charts for fourteen consecutive weeks. The soundtrack album also won her three Grammys. 👏🏾

In the wake of Whitney Houston’s success was the woman dubbed the “Songbird Supreme” by the Guinness Book of World Records: Mariah Carey. Her iconic voice sold over 220 million records and earned her nineteen number-one hits, the most of any solo artist and second only to The Beatles’ twenty. Beyond that, she’s earned five Grammys, fifteen Billboard Music Awards, and ten American Music Awards, among others. 🏆

Beyoncé is called “Queen” Bey for a reason. Last year, Beyoncé became the winningest artist in Grammy history, with 32 Grammy wins spanning her career as a solo act and her work as a member of Destiny’s Child. And while Beyoncé’s accomplishments are truly remarkable, she wouldn’t be where she is without the inspiration of another famous black woman in music: pop legend Diana Ross. Formerly a member of the Supremes, the best-charting woman group in history, Diana Ross was at one point the female solo act with the most number-one songs in the United States. 💖

Beyond hip-hop and R&B, black artists have set the standard in country music. Charley Pride was the first black artist to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. The Mississippi native defied the stereotypes of what a country star looked like and blazed a trail for the black country stars who followed. One such star is Kane Brown, who was the first artist ever to top all five of Billboard’s main country charts at the same time. The platinum-selling artist was also the first ever male country artist to perform at the VMAs! 🤠

While trends in music might change, the excellence and creativity needed to create new trends and sounds will always be necessary. And, reflecting on music history, it’s abundantly clear that without the excellence and creativity of black musicians, music wouldn’t be what it is today. Black History Month is a good reminder for us to reflect on that fact and grow in appreciation of those who influenced our favorite genres. With that in mind, who are some of your favorite black artists who’ve broken barriers throughout history? Follow us on X, Instagram, and TikTok to let us know! 🖤

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