Top 10 Most Influential Black Female Artists (2000-2020)
Pop culture is Black culture. And despite how controversial that statement may sound, the world of music, film, fashion, sports, etc. would scarcely exist if it were not for Black influence. In the presence of Black History Month – and every month, if I can be so frank – it is important to acknowledge the many accomplishments and contributions Black creatives have made to the entertainment industry and beyond. I could likely write a thesis on the many achievements of Black creatives, but to spare you the ongoing history lesson, I’ll stick to what I know best: the influence of Black women in music.
Up until recently, this was a widely glossed-over topic. Black women have always maintained a consistent presence in the once male-dominated music industry – only with half the recognition. Today, I decided to change that. I present to you a list of the top ten most influential Black female artists (2000-2020 edition).
Disclaimer: I am well aware that there is an abundance of Black women that came before these ten listed below. Musicians like Whitney Houston, Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill (Certified Diamond, baby!), etc. all played an immensely influential role on the artists below, much like how Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Gladys Knight, etc. had shaped the ones after them, and so on...This algorithm will only continue for years to follow. Predictably, frontrunners of the next generation include Megan Thee Stallion, SZA, Mulatto, Saweetie, etc. But, to keep things concise, I am only focusing on the first 20 years of the 21st century.
Coming in at number ten is none other than TIME’s Entertainer of the Year (2019), Lizzo. This long-time entertainer finally caught her big break in 2019 with her studio album, Cuz I Love You. Captivated by her disturbingly-catchy tracks, Jennifer Hudson-like vocals, and overall positive demeanor, Lizzo was infectious. Listeners almost instantaneously latched on to her messages about body positivity, self-love, and “treating every day like it’s your birthday.” Songs like “Truth Hurts,” “Juice,” and “Good As Hell” helped her dominate the pop music charts across 2019 and win three Grammys along the way. Her lyrical optimism effortlessly instilled confidence in an entire generation of women and continues to do so currently through her social media platforms and virtual performances.
Photographed by Hype Williams / Vogue / October 2020
9. Mary J. Blige
If you grew up at the turn of the century in a predominantly Black household, you knew who Mary J. Blige was. The Bronx-native R&B singer fell into the spotlight in the early 90s with her debut album What’s The 411? presenting the commercial track “Real Love.” She embodied a blend of genres – hip-hop, soul, and R&B – backed by a beautiful, impassioned, powerhouse voice. As she climbed her way up the charts across centuries, she soon became known as a figure of inspiration and empowerment. Her songs reimagined the concept of love and the many challenges that follow, ultimately re-shaping the tone of R&B music. “Family Affair” and “Be Without You” are among some of her most popular 2000s hits that helped propel her into worldwide stardom. Her influence is evident – building an uplifting brand centered around honesty and integrity which she inspired in her fanbase. Today Blige can be found juggling her nine Grammy awards alongside acting gigs and active philanthropy roles.
Photographed by REVOLT / Mary J. Blige Instagram
8. Cardi B
Crowned one of the most polarizing artists of the past decade, Bronx-born rapper Cardi B came into the industry swinging. The Dominican-Trinidadian pop star is well-known for her gaudy behavior on- and off-camera as well as her record-breaking singles. She’s a prime example of Drake’s famous “Started from the Bottom” line – initially earning money as a stripper, then starring in the VH1 hit series Love & Hip Hop: New York, and eventually landing a deal with Atlantic Records. Her record-breaking debut studio album Invasion of Privacy represented an entirely new sound for women in rap – a raw and hyper-sexual ode to female pleasure. Cardi B has long been known for normalizing and vocalizing female sexual desires and ultimately changing listener perspectives on the subject. Her outspoken nature and relentless confidence made singles like “WAP,” “Bodak Yellow,” and “I Like It” nearly break the Billboard charts, all the while representing a smaller demographic of Black women and Hispanic cultures.
Photographed by Telemundo / Getty Images / Vanity Fair
If you never had the privilege of going through a Ciara phase from the years 2004-2014, I am sorry and invite you to revisit the pinnacle of her discography. Influenced by Destiny’s Child, Salt-N-Pepa and Aaliyah, Ciara grew up wanting to be a recording artist. Her debut album Goodies featured breakthrough singles “One, Two Step,” and “Goodies,” which essentially changed the course of her life forever. Unlike the women before her, Ciara’s style was hyper-masculine and challenged the expectations of what women in music should sound and act like. She went so far as to release “Like a Boy” – a performative gender swap questioning the stereotypes pinned against both men and women. Beyond her effortless vocals, Ciara is also a trained dancer, which she did not shy away from showcasing in her music videos. From club albums to bar-raising visuals, Ciara has long been a role model for driven, independent women worldwide.
Photographed by Getty Images / Hello! Magazine
6. Alicia Keys
Multi-Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Alicia Keys is most notoriously known for being the industry’s sweetheart. Keys was always musically adept – learning to play piano by age seven, attending Manhattan's prestigious Professional Performing Art School (and graduating at 16!), and eventually being signed by Clive Davis at Artista Records. With a vocal ability beyond her years, it should come as no surprise that her career has been on an upward trajectory ever since. Each album presented its own defining moment – Songs in a Minor: “Fallin’;” The Diary of Alicia Keys: “If I Ain’t Got You;” As I Am: “No One;” and so on. This is just the surface of a long list of tracks that reformulated the mid-2000s. Her stellar reputation backed by her astonishingly mature disposition has made her an icon. Outside of her musical endeavors, Keys has also remained at the forefront of social, political, and economic activism. She is a balancing act of all things good in this world – an ideal role model for young women everywhere.
Photographed by Milan Zrnic / Billboard
Despite widespread infuriation for the 1,849-day drought since Rihanna released music, we should all be able to acknowledge that the Barbadian-singer long held the industry on her back – and rightfully deserved a break. As much as ANTI changed my life, Rihanna has always been the blueprint for 2000s pop music. In 2005, her debut album Music of the Sun shared the breakthrough single “Pon De Replay.” The dancehall anthem launched the then-17-year-old into stardom, and she has yet to look back. Rihanna’s beauty, grace, and multifaceted musical talent enlisted her to be one of the most respected and highly adored artists in music. Her albums are multidimensional and showcase the complexity of her mind and work. A Girl Like Me (2006) displays her innocence and her innate vulnerability peeks through in songs like “SOS,” while Rated R (2009) stripped her of her innocence and exposed her rebellious and twisted persona in songs like “Hard.” Following her lapse from music, Rihanna went on to build an equally successful makeup (Fenty Beauty) and fashion empire (Savage X Fenty). Her ability to stay relevant is unmatched. She has inspired multiple generations of women and men to be better leaders, entrepreneurs, mentors, and more in under two decades.
Photographed by Dimitrios Kambouris / Getty Images / Hypebeast
4. Mariah Carey
To say my entire personality in the early 2000s was loosely based on The Emancipation of Mimi album is a gross understatement. That is one of the few “zero skip” albums to exist in my life and was constantly consumed at the ripe age of seven. Mariah Carey is one of those public figures that are so notorious that she will likely go down as a hero before she goes down as an icon. She was born with a masterful range and started taking singing lessons at only four years of age. At 18, Carey was picked up by Columbia Records and recorded her debut self-titled album (Mariah Carey, 1990). Carey soared across the charts in the 90s, building her brand around her inexplicable voice. Her rapid success continued into the 2000s when she released some of her biggest hits like “We Belong Together,” “Touch My Body,” “Obsessed,” and various renditions of her record-shattering Merry Christmas album. Whether you listen to Carey during her annual “All I Want for Christmas” stint or weekly like myself, you’re likely well aware of her influence on the industry. Her voice made the market competitive – initiating a range war among the biggest names in music. And, with five Grammy wins, 34 Grammy nominations, over 15 albums, and 19 number-one singles, it’s safe to say she won that race.
Photographed by Getty Images / Page Six
In case someone has neglected to remind you, Nicki Minaj is one of the greatest rappers of all-time. By the end of the Lil Kim-era, there were few formidable female rappers left in the game. The lag in the industry brought in a surge of pop artists, which soon grew tedious. Minaj’s big break couldn’t have come at a better time. Signed to Young Money, Lil Wayne and crew spent years creating a monster (no pun intended). Then in 2010, Pink Friday dropped and entirely reset the industry. After being victimized on “Roman’s Revenge,” to having my heart ripped out of my chest on “Moment for Life,” it was apparent that anything Minaj touched turned to gold and she was just getting started. The years that followed for the rap prodigy will go down in history. She single-handedly represented women in rap up until a few years ago, when Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion, and others entered the playing field. Her effortless flow and menacing bars backed by her ostentatious style broke any preconceived notions that women had no place in the male-dominated genre. Minaj went on to make three more studio albums that included some of her most notorious tracks, “Starships” and “Anaconda,” – yet, her reign is far from over. Let me reiterate again – there would be no space for the flourishing subculture that is women in rap today if it were not for Nicki Minaj.
Photographed by Getty Images / USA Today
2. Missy Elliott
From a singer-songwriter, production, and visionary standpoint, few artists will ever reach the level of success that Missy Elliott has. Elliot spent the greater parts of her troubled childhood perfecting her craft alongside emerging producer Timbaland. The chemistry between the two creators would go on to reinvent the value of music production across all genres. Near the end of the century, Elliott launched her solo career – an experiment of sounds, genres, and concepts never-before-heard within the industry. Elliott was also one of the first artists to produce and rap on almost all of her records, elevating her industry credibility immensely. Her standout hits “Get Ur Freak On,” “Lose Control,” and “Work It” amassed her four Grammy awards, and eventually a Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. Much like Ciara, Elliott was also a founding influential figure that deterred from feminine norms in music. She pushed against the confines of mainstream rap and helped cement a place in the industry for women to be acknowledged and respected. Today, Elliott focuses on the production aspect of music – helping up-and-coming artists make a name for themselves, in a way she once had herself.
Photographed by Hamish Brown / Getty Images / Vulture
It should come as no surprise that Beyonce is the most influential artist at this point in the 21st century. Starting an 8x Platinum recording group at age nine? Beyonce did that. 24 Grammy wins and 79 nominations? Beyonce did that. Performed twice at the Super Bowl? Beyonce did that. The first Black woman to headline Coachella with a 105-minute set that was dubbed YouTube’s most live-streamed performance and later made into a Netflix documentary? Beyonce did that. And the list goes on.
Since the release of her first solo album Dangerously in Love, Beyonce has gone on to release five more studio albums – all of which generated a fanatic frenzy and a slew of record-breaking tracks. Growing up between the end of the Destiny’s Child-era and the pinnacle of Beyonce’s solo career has been one of the greatest honors and influences of my life – and I think many other pop fans can echo this sentiment. We evolved with her music without even noticing. From pop hits like “Halo,” to “Love on Top,” to “Formation,” Beyonce represents the past 20 years with ease and admiration. These are the songs we play at our weddings, baby showers, and other monumental life moments. Not only is she the most powerful female pop star to date, but she also represents what many women aspire to be.
Photographed by Larry Busacca / WireImage / Rolling Stone