A Black History Biz Moment: Ten Black Pop Culture Innovators
This Black History Month, we celebrate some of pop culture’s most influential movers and shakers who have changed the landscape of the world of entertainment. From the first African-American billionaire to the one of the hardest working men in radio, African-Americans have pioneered various media outlets, some even simultaneously.
Here are only a few of pop culture’s African-American innovators in the areas of music, television and film. We threw in a bonus, above: Michael Jackson. Besides his singing career both with the Jackson 5 and as a solo artist, and his investments across the music industry (including The Beatles portfolio), he invented the moonwalk, a move that continues to mystify and inspire dancers good and bad around the world. Check out this slideshow for more on the late, great MJ.
As the “hardest working man in radio,” Tom Joyner of “The Tom Joyner Morning Show” has one of the highest rated and most popular syndicated radio shows in the U.S. But Joyner did not get that title easily. Beginning his radio career in the late 1970s, Tom Joyner worked in Chicago before being offered two radio positions: one in Dallas and one in Chicago, in which he decided to take both, commuting between the two metropolitan cities daily for eight years before earning his own show in 1994. Hard work, dedication and taking full advantage of his opportunities makes Tom Joyner an innovator in the world of radio for African Americans today.
Much is expected when referring to Oprah Winfrey’s accolades and accomplishments. As one of the world’s most recognizable television professionals, African American or not, Oprah is a household name across the globe. In her career, Oprah Winfrey has been ranked the richest African American of the 20th century, the greatest African-American philanthropist in history, and due to her popular syndicated television show, The Oprah Winfrey Show, the highest-rated program of its form in history. The television industry, especially for African-American personalities, have flourished because of the contributions of Oprah Winfrey and her commitment to influencing a generation of TV consumers.
As a successful actress for most of the 20th century and into the 21st, Cicely Tyson created a successful trail for other compelling actresses like Angela Bassett and her own granddaughter, actress Kimberly Elise, who only chooses to portray strong, black female roles in her body of work. In her career, Tyson has received numerous awards, including being the first-African American actress to win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Television Movie for her performance in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman in 1974.
After notable African-American actors like Sidney Poitier and James Earl Jones pioneered TV and film, actor Denzel Washington blazed the trail further and made African-American actors a mainstay in the film industry. Washington became the first African-American actor to win two acting awards at the Oscars, as well as achieving the most nominations for a black actor at the Oscars since his nomination in 2012 for Flight. He is also one of the highest-paid black actors in history, only slightly surpassed by other actors like Samuel L. Jackson and Halle Berry.
Actor, philanthropist, and comedian Bill Cosby is a legend in his own right, breaking barriers for television stars, black male comedians, and television producers, inspiring them to create their own fame in various media outlets simultaneously. Landing a starring role in 1965 on the TV show I Spy, Bill Cosby became one of the first African Americans to star in a network television show. Afterwards, Cosby went on to create a household name for himself, creating and starring in The Cosby Show, Fat Albert and The Cosby Kids, Little Bill and more. His showmanship on the TV screen paved the way for other actors and actresses to pioneer the television screen in their own network series.
World-renowned actor Sidney Poitier is regarded as one of the best African-American actors of the 20th century, with works such as Cry, The Beloved Country and Porgy and Bess. Poitier made history twice when he became the first black actor to be nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars for The Defiant Ones in 1958, along with becoming the first black actor to win an Academy Award for his role in Lillies of the Field in 1963.
As the first black billionaire in the television entertainment industry, Robert Johnson, former owner of television network Black Entertainment Television (BET), solidified the highest paid spot for African Americans on the billionaire’s list. In addition to becoming the first African-American billionaire, Johnson also became the first black person to be listed on any of Forbes world’s rich lists, in 2001, paving the way for future black billionaires of the 21st century.
This 20th century artist is known for many things, from his eccentric style to his eclectic music. As a major pioneer for African-American artists like Beyonce, Rihanna, Chris Brown, Usher and more, Little Richard was one of the first African-American musicians to crossover into the rock and pop charts, with colorblind singles like “Tutti-Frutti” and “Good Golly Miss Molly.”
Before there was Oprah Winfrey and other African-American television personalities, there was the late Don Cornelius, known for creating and hosting the hit television music series, Soul Train. Don Cornelius pioneered the television main stage for African-American personalities to create and host their own television shows and became one of the first platforms for black musicians to gain mainstream attention. He opened his stage to notable artists like New Edition, Teena Marie, LL Cool J and many others who went on to garner fans and record-breaking album sales.
Responsible for the launch of the iconic record label, Motown Records, Berry Gordy is a pioneer and innovator for African-American label executives. As one of the first record labels primarily geared towards African-American artists, Motown is still one of the most revered records labels in the music industry, carrying the legacy of some of black music’s most notable artists like The Jackson Five, Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross & The Supremes. As the label head, Berry Gordy used Motown to give these artists recognition, and became a mentor and inspiration to various entertainment professionals, including music and film producer, Suzanne De Passe.
We’re highlighting Pioneers in the Game every day here on Madame Noire. Click here to meet all of our salutes.