The Entertainers Who Have and Are Shaping The 20th and 21st Centuries

by Richard Lallite

The Entertainers Who Have and Are Shaping The 20th and 21st Centuries

Keep in mind this list is in no particular order and your Top 20 may differ from ours, but the big lesson is that as a people, we have left an indelible imprint on not just American Culture but on the culture of the world as a whole.

Keep in mind this list is in no particular order and your Top 20 may differ from ours, but the big lesson is that as a people, we have left an indelible imprint on not just American Culture but on the culture of the world as a whole.

African American talent in the entertainment industry flourished throughout the 20th century and now in the 21st Century. In a variety of fields, including cinema, television, athletics, and music, African American celebrities were trailblazers who made history. In addition to entertaining people all around the globe, their work shook up established conventions and was instrumental in advancing civil rights. This article will honor the great accomplishments of the finest African American performers of the twentieth and twnty-first century. Keep in mind this list is in no particular order and your Top 20 my differ from ours, but the big lesson is that as a people, we have left an indelible imprint on not just American Culture but on the culture of the world as a whole.

1. Marian Anderson (1897-1993)

When Marian Anderson broke down racial boundaries in classical music, she became a world-renowned contralto opera singer. After being turned down for a performance at Constitution Hall because of her race, she made history in 1939 by performing a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Many young artists looked up to her because of her strong voice and unflinching resolve.

2. Paul Robeson (1898-1976)

Paul Robeson was accomplished in several fields; he was a singer, actor, and civil rights leader. His powerful singing voice and his performance as Othello brought him great recognition. The entertainment industry and the civil rights movement were profoundly affected by Robeson’s advocacy, especially his resistance to racism and Nazism.

3. Louis Armstrong (1901–1971)

Louis Armstrong, known as “Satchmo” or “Pops,” was a trailblazing jazz musician who transformed the genre. A legendary figure in jazz, he was known for his inventive trumpet playing and gravelly voice. Beyond his musical talents, Armstrong was instrumental in dismantling racial barriers in show business and speaking out against racial injustice.

4. Duke Ellington (1899-1974)

A major force in the development of jazz, Duke Ellington was also an accomplished pianist, composer, and bandleader. His groundbreaking arrangements and compositions propelled the Duke Ellington Orchestra to legendary status. Even now, Ellington’s works are cherished for the profound impact he had on jazz.

5. Billy Holiday (1915–1959)

Billie Holiday, well known by her stage name “Lady Day,” was a 20th-century jazz and blues legend. Iconic tunes like “Strange Fruit” and her expressive performances never fail to mesmerize. Holiday overcame bigotry and personal hardships to have an indelible mark on civil rights music and culture.

6. Josephine Baker (1906-1975)

Dancer, singer, and actress Josephine Baker became famous all over the world for her mesmerizing performances. Impressive in both the US and Europe, she became an icon of the Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties. Along with his career as a performer, Baker was an outspoken opponent of racism and segregation in the civil rights movement.

7. Nat King Cole (1919–1965)

The silky voice and enduring classics of jazz pianist and singer Nat King Cole include “Unforgettable” and “Mona Lisa.” In a groundbreaking move, he became one of the first African American performers to host a variety program that aired nationally on television.

8. Sammy Davis Jr. (1925–1990)

The multi-talented Sammy Davis Jr. was a master of many forms, including music, dance, acting, and humor. On the legendary “Rat Pack” with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, he performed. A pioneer for African American musicians in Hollywood, Davis became a respected figure in the entertainment world thanks to his talents and charm.

9. Lena Horne (1917–2010)

Lena Horne was an icon in several fields, including music, acting, and advocacy for civil rights. She broke barriers by signing a long-term deal with a major Hollywood studio, making history as one of the first African American women in Hollywood to do so. Both in the entertainment industry and the civil rights movement, Horne was a pioneer thanks to her seductive voice and classic good looks.

10. James Brown (1933–2006)

The legendary James Brown, often referred to as the “Godfather of Soul,” was an innovator in the funk genre and a charismatic performer. His infectious energy onstage and groundbreaking rhythm and blues tunes like “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and “I Got You (I Feel Good)” shook up the genre. Brown changed the face of music and inspired a new generation of musicians with his songs and dancing.

11. Aretha Franklin (1942-2018)

Famously known as the “Queen of Soul,” Aretha Franklin’s voice moved countless people. The combination of her gospel-influenced vocal style with her legendary singles like as “Respect” and “Natural Woman” propelled her to rock star status. Soul music pioneer and civil rights activist Aretha Franklin deserves the respect and awe she has received for her work.

12. Sidney Poitier (1927 – 2022)

A legendary actor, Sidney Poitier broke down Hollywood’s racial barriers. He made history when he won the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in “Lilies of the Field.” More diversified representation in cinema could be achieved because of Poitier’s respectful depictions of African American characters, which challenged stereotypes.

13. Ray Charles (1930–2004)

Soul music’s forefather, Ray Charles, combined gospel, rhythm and blues, and country into his signature sound. Successes such as “What’d I Say” and “Georgia on My Mind” demonstrated his exceptional musical versatility. The music business will never be the same because of Charles’s bold genre merging and innovative spirit.

14. Michael Jackson (1958–2009)

Michael Jackson, widely recognized as the “King of Pop,” is among the most legendary performers of all time. He made incomparable strides in the fields of dance, fashion, and music. Recordings made by Jackson, such as “Thriller,” are still in use today. His spectacular concerts and innovative music videos have been an inspiration to musicians all around the globe.

15. Whitney Houston (1963–2012)

Whitney Houston’s voice was quite unique and mesmerized people all around the globe. Popular songs from her first album include “Greatest Love of All” and “Saving All My Love for You.” One of the all-time great vocalists, Houston was cemented by her vocal brilliance and chart-topping success.

16. Oprah Winfrey (1954 – )

Oprah Winfrey is a television personality and media tycoon who has made a huge splash in show business and beyond. “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” her chat program, went viral, touching on a broad variety of subjects and serving as an inspiration to millions. Winfrey has made a significant impact in the worlds of cinema, literature, and philanthropy.

17. Michael Jordan (1963 – )

Most people consider Michael Jordan to be the best basketball player of all time. He became famous all around the world after leading the Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles. The charm of Jordan and the endorsements catapulted him to superstardom on a worldwide scale, well beyond basketball.

18. Halle Berry (1966 – )

Actress Halle Berry created history when she became the first African American woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in “Monster’s Ball.” Her stunning good looks and impressive acting chops have propelled her to Hollywood stardom, where she has helped smash glass ceilings for women of color.

19. Spike Lee (1957 – )

Filmmaker Spike Lee is renowned for making films that are both socially sensitive and confrontational. Literary works by him include “Do the Right Thing” and “Malcolm X,” which address racial justice, identity, and race. The film business will never be the same because to Lee’s impact and dedication to meaningful narrative.

20. Beyoncé (1981 – )

Beyoncé, often known as “Queen Bey,” is an international sensation who has captivated audiences across the world with her incredible vocals, choreography, and compositions. Songs like “Formation” and “Crazy in Love” catapulted her to stardom in today’s music scene. Because she is an outspoken supporter of social justice concerns, Beyoncé’s influence extends well beyond the realm of music.

A lasting impression has been made on the entertainment industry and beyond by these twenty African American performers of the twentieth century. Their brilliance, drive, and pioneering attitude have pushed boundaries and motivated many. They have captivated audiences and made a difference by speaking up for fairness and equality.

The impact of art and entertainment on social transformation and unity is brought home to us when we consider the accomplishments of these extraordinary people. They have left an indelible mark on popular culture and will be influential in the years to come. Paying tribute to their lasting legacy and the world they left behind is of the utmost importance.

Not on this list but more than worthy: Prince, Diana Ross, Janet Jackson, Richard Pryor, Patti Labelle, Dionne Warwick, Gladys Knight, Hattie McDaniel, Dorothy Dandridge

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Jaz Summers February 4, 2024 - 11:46 am



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