Since the end of the 1990s and the dawn of the new millennium, the music industry has welcomed a new wave of groundbreaking Black artists. In honour of the recent Black history month, The Medium has compiled some of the best Black musicians from the past two decades—each having revolutionized their craft, dominated the industry, and helped progress the world outside music.
Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter, better known mononymously as Beyoncé, launched her solo career in 2003 with the album Dangerously in Love. Including her previous work with Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé is the most nominated woman in Grammy history with 79 nominations. Among her nods, she’s also the second-most awarded person ever, winning 24 times.
Apart from music, Beyoncé has been vocal about LGBTQ+ rights and has strongly presented herself as a modern-day feminist. There is no bigger name to kick-off this article than Beyoncé.
Kanye West has never been afraid to speak his mind. While sometimes controversial, his influence on pushing rap to the mainstream is undeniable. Early in his career, West was best known for “sampling music”—the process of manipulating previous songs into something fresh. It’s since become a technique that today is more popular than ever.
West burst onto the scene in the mid-2000s, with his first three studio albums being nominated for the Grammy’s Album of the Year. Outside of music, Kanye has been in the news countless times for certain controversial comments. In 2005, he famously said that “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.” While he’s gotten mixed reviews for his statement, the American government’s treatment of Black America remains an issue today.
In 1994, Alicia Augello Cook, better known as Alicia Keys, had already begun her music career at just 13 years old, signing her first record label soon after as a 15-year-old. In 2001, she released her debut album, Songs in A Minor, which garnered immediate success and won five Grammy awards.
Keys was one of the many R&B powerhouses in the 2000s. For years off-stage, she’s served as the Global Ambassador for the non-profit organization “Keep a Child Alive,” which provides healthcare and support services for people and communities affected by HIV/AIDS.
One of the biggest names across the globe right now, especially in Canada, Aubrey Drake Graham, aka Drake, has dropped the most popular albums in recent times, becoming the leading voice to a new generation of hip hop and R&B. The man who started out his career as an actor in Degrassi has since sold more than 260 million records. On March 8, he set a Billboard first by having songs ranked one and two on the top 100.
Drake’s reach goes beyond music. In the music video for the song “God’s Plan,” the rapper donated money to those less fortunate, helping students, women’s shelters, and impoverished families. While original reports said Drake gave away $175,000 during the filming, it was later confirmed he donated one million dollars. Since 2013, Drake has also been the Global Ambassador for the NBA’s Toronto Raptors.
Meanwhile, the previous co-owner of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, Shawn Corey Carter, also known as Jay-Z, is considered one of the greatest rappers of all time. Over his 34-year (and counting) career, Jay-Z became the first ever rapper honoured into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He’s also won 22 Grammy Awards and sold more than 100 million records.
Over the years, Jay-Z has ventured deeper into the business world, embracing what he calls his “hustler mentality.” The artist has founded the clothing company, Rocawear, and the luxury sports bar chain, 40/40 club, both of which turned into multi-million-dollar corporations. In 2019, he became the first hip-hop artist to become a billionaire. When it comes to philanthropy, Jay-Z has donated to fight against several issues, including student debt, water shortages, and the victims of police brutality.
The newest artist on the scene, Frank Ocean started his career as a member of the rap group Odd Future in 2010 and released his solo mixtape, Nostalgia, Ultra, a year later. Since his solo release, Ocean has written songs for both Beyoncé and Alicia Keys, and has also sung on Jay-Z and Kanye West’s collaboration album, Watch the Throne.
Ocean’s popularity rose to superstardom when he the released albums Channel Orange in 2012 and Blonde four years later. In 2012, Ocean wrote an open letter confessing that his first love was a man and stating that he now feels free. It was a revolutionary moment for a music genre long marred by homophobia, creating greater visibility for LGBTQ+ communities. As famed record executive Russell Simmons said, “Today is a big day for hip-hop… to go public about your sexual orientation gives hope and light to so many young people still living in fear.”