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10 Black Musicians Who Made Their Voices Heard and Changed the Beat

Join us in celebrating these ten Black musicians who continue to compose the soundtracks to our lives.

Matt Harvey


Join us in celebrating these ten game-changers in the world of music who coupled hard work with natural talent to overcome extraordinary challenges and bring their songs' beauty to the world stage.

1. Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald made her stage debut at an amateur night on the famous Apollo Theater stage on November 21, 1934, at seventeen years old! The Lady Ella had initially been signed up to enter that night’s competition as a dancer but had a change of heart when she saw the other hoofers rubbing the Harlem Tree of Hope that night! The decision to switch from dancing to singing proved to be a winning decision, and her career began that night and continued for decades.

Here are some of Ella Fitzgerald's most notable achievements:

  • The First Lady of Song became the first Black woman to win a Grammy Award in 1958!

  • She took home two golden gramophones — one for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook, and the other was for Best Jazz Performance, Soloist for Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook!

  • The Queen of Jazz was known for the clarity of her vocals and her unique ability to scat sing!

Kids can celebrate Lady Ella by learning how to sing in her signature scat style!

2. Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong is one of the most influential jazz musicians of all time! Young Satchmo (short for Satchel Mouth), a natural talent, learned sight-reading as part of Fate Marable’s riverboat band in New Orleans and rose to popularity playing cornet for the King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in Chicago. Louis got the call to play in the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra in New York City, then joined the famous band shortly after, and the rest is history!

Louis Armstrong accomplished a lot in his lifetime. Here are the highlights:

  • Louis learned to sight-read music while playing with riverboat bands, which influenced how he played and arranged his music!

  • As part of the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, Louis was a featured performer, telling stories from his time in New Orleans, singing, playing trumpet, and building his reputation as a legendary show stealer!

  • Louis built bands of his own (Hot Five) and performed in all-Black musical revues (Hot Chocolate). He became a game-changing vocalist with his unique interpretations of established standards of the period.

  • Louis became an iconic performer on stage, on albums, and the big screen; his vocals’ gravelly texture is unmistakable, and his influence is incalculable!

Kids can celebrate Louis Armstrong’s iconic hit, “What a Wonderful World,” by creating a wonderful world of their own with this mosaic Earth craft.

3. Miles Davis

Miles Davis got his first trumpet as a gift in 1935 and began taking lessons. He then joined the marching band at East St. Louis Lincoln High School in 1945, where he experienced discrimination due to his race, motivating him to become an even better musician. After High School, Miles attended what’s now known as the Juilliard School but dropped out in favor of performing. Following this transition, Miles experienced many ups and downs, birthed new music styles, fought various addictions, and built a lasting legacy.

Miles Davis had a huge impact on the music world. Here's what he accomplished:

  • In addition to playing trumpet, Miles also played flugelhorn, electric organ, and piano.

  • Miles has been nominated an astounding 32 times at the Grammy Awards and has won eight times across four decades of composing and performing.

  • The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted Miles Davis in 2006.

  • Miles Davis’ album, Kind of Blue, is the best-selling jazz record of all time and still sells around 5,000 copies a week.

Kids can celebrate the life of Miles Davis this week by practicing the mouth trumpet!

4. Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday or “Lady Day” overcame a difficult childhood to become an iconic singer! Billie got her start performing in clubs and made her first record with the legendary Benny Goodman when she was 18 years old. In 1939, Billie released a song called “Strange Fruit,” which stayed in her repertoire for decades, despite her resistance to sing the song due to its controversial subject matter. Following the popularity of Strange Fruit, Billie saw her star rise, and she toured with Count Basie, wrote hit songs of her own, and starred in the film New Orleans alongside Louis Armstrong! The First Lady of Blues was a mainstay on record charts and in the hearts of her fans throughout her award-winning career.

Here are some of Billie's other notable accomplishments:

  • Frank Sinatra credits Billie Holiday as a significant influence on him.

  • Billie was posthumously inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2021.

  • Holiday was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.

  • Billie Holiday was immortalized on a postage stamp in 1994!

5. John Coltrane

John Coltrane’s mother gave him his first alto saxophone in 1943, and he was playing professionally at a cocktail lounge by 1945. To avoid being drafted by the Army, John enlisted in the Navy in 1945, where he played in an all-white swing band called the Melody Masters, posing as a guest performer to avoid garnering unwanted attention from superior officers. After being discharged, John dove headfirst into the bebop scene and was invited to play with Miles Davis in 1955, and eventually joined Thelonious Monk’s quartet in late 1957 before starting his own band. John continued his experimentation throughout his music career and became influential in hard bop, free jazz, modal jazz, and avant-garde jazz.

Here are some of John Coltrane's biggest accomplishments:

  • John Coltrane was known for his obsession with practicing. There’s a story about him continuing to practice his fingering for an hour after a neighbor's noise complaint prevented him from playing.

  • The title track on Giant Steps includes what is largely considered one of the most challenging chord progressions featured in jazz composition due to the inclusion of altered chord progression cycles that became known as “Coltrane changes.”

  • John Coltrane was awarded a posthumous Grammy for Best Jazz Solo Performance on the album Bye Bye Blackbird.

  • Coltrane was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997.

Kids can channel their inner Coltrane by learning how to practice a musical instrument, or anything, more effectively.

6. Leon Bridges

Todd Michael Bridges, aka Leon Bridges, grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, where he learned simple guitar chords and honed his skills at innumerable open mic performances. Bridges started to build a local following on his performances’ strength and the appeal of his throwback style, reminiscent of soul music of the ‘50s and ‘60s. Towards the end of 2014, Leon released two demo songs on SoundCloud that garnered attention from various record labels. He was signed to Columbia Records in December of that year, and the rest is history!

Leon has only been a professional musician since 2014, but has accomplished so much in that time:

  • Leon Bridges’ debut album, Coming Home, was nominated for Best R&B Album at the 2016 Grammy Awards.

  • Leon performed at the White House for President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama in 2016!

  • Bridges was nominated for two Grammy Awards in 2017 — Best Music Video for his song River and Best R&B Album for his album titled Good Thing.

  • In 2019, Leon won the Best Traditional R&B Performance Grammy for Bet Ain’t Worth the Hand.

Kids can celebrate the life of Leon Bridges this week by learning how to play basic guitar chords and using them to write a song based on a story from their own life!

7. Pharrell Williams

Pharrell Williams got into playing music in school and met his production partner, Chad Hugo, at band camp in seventh grade. Pharrell and Chad formed a musical group called the Neptunes and caught the attention of famed music producer Teddy Riley while performing at a high school talent show. After signing a record deal with Riley, Pharrell racked up a string of chart-topping hit songs with the Neptunes and never looked back. Pharrell has launched record labels, released records with his group N.E.R.D, released solo records, launched clothing lines, appeared in and scored films, put out a coffee table book — he even started a non-profit organization to help introduce technology and provide resources to underserved communities!

Pharrell has so many accolades, it's hard to highlight just a few. We tried anyway:

  • Pharrell has been nominated for so many awards that there’s a separate page on Wikipedia to document them all.

  • Sk8board P finds himself in the Producer of the Year, Non-Classical category at the Grammys a lot. He was nominated as part of the Neptunes twice (winning once with the group in 2004), and he won the award on his own in 2014 and 2019.

  • Williams was nominated for an Academy Award twice! Once in 2014 — for Best Original Song for “Happy” and again in 2017 — for Best Picture for Hidden Figures.

  • Pharrell appeared as himself in an episode of The Simpsons!

Kids can celebrate the life of Pharrell by coming up with a dance to his song Happy and sharing their own joy with the world!

8. Lizzo

Melissa Vivian Jefferson, better known as Lizzo, acquired her famous nickname when she started her first music group, Cornrow Clique, when she was 14 years old. After high school, Lizzo studied classical music at the University of Houston, where she played the flute. Ever since the release of her debut album, Lizzobangers, in 2013, Lizzo has continued to make people take notice. After years of flying under the mainstream radar — she finally broke through with the release of her album Cuz I Love You, debuting on the Billboard 200 at number six! Truth Hurts, the body-positive singer’s hit song, became a viral sensation and rocketed to the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100.

Here are some of Lizzo's most notable accomplishments:

  • In addition to being a phenomenal musician, Lizzo has also flexed her acting chops as Lydia’s voice in the Ugly Dolls movie and as Liz in the film Hustlers.

  • Queerty magazine named Lizzo as one of the Pride50 — a group of trailblazing individuals actively pushing society towards becoming a more equal, accepting, and dignified space for all people that identify as queer.

  • 2020 was a big year for Lizzo — she was nominated for 75 awards and won 14 of them, including three Grammy awards!

Kids can celebrate the life of Lizzo by looking in the mirror and letting themselves know that they're fantastic, unique, and beautiful! Try some of these incredible affirmations as a family!

9. Quincy Jones

Quincy Jones learned how to play trumpet and arrange music in high school before studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. He left Berklee to tour with Lionel Hampton, playing the trumpet and piano and arranging music. Quincy moved to New York City after some time on the road with Hampton and accepted freelance commissions to arrange songs for many well-known musical acts of the period. In 1960, he started an 18-piece band called The Jones Boys, which proved to be a hit with audiences but failed to earn enough money to support its payroll. After that, Jones founded Qwest Productions in 1980, adding more hit albums to his list of accomplishments and leading to his work creating the soundtrack for the film The Wiz. While working on The Wiz, Quincy met Michael Jackson and produced three albums with the King of Pop: Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad.

Quincy Jones has done more in his life than can possibly fit into a list of highlights, but here are some of his accomplishments:

  • Quincy Jones was named vice president of Mercury Records in 1961, becoming the first Black person to hold the position.

  • Jones was the go-to arranger for Frank Sinatra — the two worked together from 1958 until Sinatra passed away in 1998.

  • Quincy was good friends with Ray Charles — the two met after a 14-year-old Quincy watched a 16-year-old Charles perform.

  • Thriller is the worldwide number one best-selling album of all time.

Celebrate the life of Quincy Jones by watching The Wiz with your family!

10. Beyoncé Knowles

Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter has been dominating the music scene since she was seven when she won the St. Mary’s Montessori School talent show with her rendition of John Lennon’s Imagine. Beyoncé met BFF Kelly Rowland and LaTavia Roberson at an audition for a six-girl group called Girl’s Tyme, which was managed by Beyoncé’s father, who decided to cut the group down from six to four. The girls signed to Columbia Records in 1996 and changed the group’s name to Destiny’s Child. The second album from Destiny’s Child, The Writing’s on the Wall, went multi-platinum and earned them their first Grammy Awards.

Beyoncé released her first solo album, Dangerously in Love, which earned her five Grammy Awards in 2004. Beyoncé has been omnipresent in the entertainment industry since, appearing in movies, performing at the Super Bowl Halftime show, releasing fashion lines, publishing essays, winning awards, releasing documentaries, and becoming a mother. There’s nothing that Queen Bey can’t do.

Here are some of Beyoncé biggest accomplishments:

  • Beyoncé has won 24 Grammy Awards and is the second most nominated artist of all-time with 79 nominations.

  • Beyoncé has reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 in four different decades.

  • Queen Bey became the first Black woman to headline the Coachella music festival in 2018.

  • Beyoncé is the first significant artist to drop a surprise album. Her first self-titled visual album was released without warning on December 13, 2013, and changed how records are released forever.

Kids can celebrate Beyoncé by creating a FIERCE alter-ego for themselves! When Beyoncé faces something that she’s afraid to do — she becomes her fearless alter-ego, Sasha Fierce. Let kids choose a cool name for their bold new persona and conquer their fears the Queen Bey way!

Read About More Black Changemakers Who Made the World a Better Place!

Updated January 2022