The process appropriately acknowledging the contributions Black Americans on the fabric our society is a continuous effort. During Black History Month, we take the opportunity to celebrate the specific accomplishments many the exceptional contributors, without whom, our cultural tapestry would be inconceivable.

In honor Black History Month 2018, we celebrate #HistoryByUs—highlighting some today’s most inspiring Black heroes—entertainers, athletes, and artists who use their platforms to uplift communities, inspire future generations, and carve out opportunities for the less fortunate. Whether fostering joy and hope by sharing the gift their talents, speaking out against social injustices, or championing the causes Black communities across the globe, this list is comprised artists who are forces positivity, and working to create a more livable world for Black people (and people in general) to enjoy.

The #HistoryByUs portrait series was created by several emerging Black artists: Aaron Williams, Angela Hines, DéVonté Rhea, Jerome T. White, Kevin Gentry, Patience Lekien, Andy Akangah and Gordon Rowe. #HistoryByUs is brought to you by AT&T.


Questlove

Art by Aaron Williams

Arguably best known as the drummer the legendary Roots crew, Questlove is the very definition a modern Renaissance man. Between cracking jokes with celebrities as the bandleader on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, producing records for renowned artists like D’Angelo and Erykah Badu, and authoring acclaimed books, Questlove is routinely referred to as “the hardest-working man in show business.” His immeasurable contributions to the cultural milieu aside, he’s also somehow found time to use his encyclopedic knowledge to teach courses at NYU and support philanthropic causes, such as the Harlem Village Academies network charter schools.

Misty Copeland

Art by Aaron Williams

Misty Copeland’s generational talent vaulted her to a status previously unreached by any other African-American woman in history as the first ever be promoted to Principal Dancer in the 75-year history the American Ballet Theatre. Prior to receiving this promotion in 2015, she’d already showcased her talents all over television, dancing on popular shows like So You Think You Can Dance, and in music videos alongside the legendary artist Prince. Misty has championed diversity in the extremely conservative world ballet and worked tirelessly to inspire young women color to embrace their bodies and have the confidence to pursue their dreams.

Zendaya

Art by Aaron Williams

Zendaya’s transition from queen the Disney Channel to Academy Award-nominated films like The Greatest Showman seemed inevitable if you’ve been watching this young starlet on the rise.  Zendaya displays her fearlessness on a regular basis through her daring fashion sense, self-assured personality, and confident demeanor. At just 21-years-old, Zendaya has only begun to make her mark on the culture, as an actress, musician, fashion icon, and inspiring role model for young women color.

Rihanna

Art by Aaron Williams

Since bursting onto the scene at the youthful age 17, Rihanna has been an unstoppable force, building on her career as an international music superstar by branching out into other ventures like film, fashion, and business. As she continues to accumulate accolades for her music, her Fenty Beauty product line has racked up astronomical sales, catering to the underserved market women color looking for inclusive beauty products tailored to their specific needs. The recipient Harvard University’s Humanitarian the Year Award in 2017, it is not a huge stretch to say that the people on social media who routinely refer to her as a “goddess” are beginning to sound progressively less hyperbolic.

Alicia Keys

Art by Aaron Williams

A GRAMMY Award-winning songstress whose power is equally evident in her soaring ballads as it is in her impact on the community, Alicia Keys has been a constant fixture in the public eye since the release her 2001 debut album, Songs in A Minor. A champion the women’s empowerment movement, Keys has led by example, refusing to conform to the traditional beauty expectations unfairly thrust upon women in the entertainment industry. She is also a former judge on the hit TV show The Voice, one Time’s “100 most influential people,” and an active philanthropist, co-founding the Keep a Child Alive Foundation, which works to provide medicine to families affected by HIV/AIDS in Africa.

Common

Art by Angela Hines

Fans lyrically-driven hip-hop would be hard-pressed to identify one their favorite rappers who wouldn’t name Common as an influence. The Chicago native has carved out a name for himself outside rap as an actor, television/film producer, and community activist. His most recent album, 2016’s Black America Again, garnered praise from critics and audiences alike for its messages protest, just one year after he won an Academy Award for his similarly politically-charged song “Glory.” More recently, he’s kept busy by serving as the executive producer on the new television series The Chi, and through his work in the nonprit sector, uplifting underprivileged youth as the founder the Common Ground Foundation.

J. Cole

Art by Angela Hines

Somewhat lost in all the jokes about J. Cole going “double-Platinum with no features” is how impressive a feat this actually is. Despite no longer making music tailored for mainstream airwaves, Cole continues to find commercial success as a byproduct a loyal fan base who have gravitated to him for his confessional style, crafty lyrics, and approachable demeanor. Never shy to use his platform to try and affect positive change, Cole’s status as a community leader is on full display in the 2016 film J. Cole Forest Hills Drive Homecoming, and in songs like “Be Free,” inspired by the events which took place between 2014 and 2015 in Ferguson, Missouri.

Maya Angelou

Art by Angela Hines

When Maya Angelou first rose to prominence in the early 1960s, it is not an exaggeration to say that her mere existence was revolutionary. When she first published I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in 1969, it wasn’t just a timeless memoir, but also a pioneering text that showed African-American women that it was a ble option for them to be the protagonists in their own stories. Almost four years after her unfortunate passing, her mastery the written word continues to resonate across generations, as does her work as a civil rights leader, historian, and cultural guardian. Attempting to neatly summarize her impact is a nearly impossible task, but it’s telling that many the people she mentored, like Oprah Winfrey, have gone on to become cultural juggernauts themselves.

Erykah Badu

Art by DéVonté Rhea

A foundational pioneer the neo-soul subgenre, Erykah Badu is known for pushing the needle forward with every release, allowing us to chart her evolution as an artist through her unorthodox grooves. With an incomparable singing voice that could make even the most traditional skeptics want to light incense, she has sustained a lasting career in a fickle industry despite never altering her perspective or compromising her artistry. In and itself, this unflinching spirit is a powerful example for young creatives who wish to follow in her mold, but she also supplements this leadership with charitable endeavors and community-driven activism.

Michael Jackson

Art by DéVonté Rhea

Michael Jackson’s is universally considered to be the greatest entertainer all-time. Prior to his tragic passing in 2009, he reinvented pop music numerous times throughout his career, seamlessly integrated uplifting messages hope and equality into his lyrics along the way. Little else needs to be said about why Thriller and Off the Wall are two the greatest albums all time, but a lesser-discussed part Jackson’s legacy is his prodigious philanthropy. Throughout his life, he donated approximately $500 million, earning him the Guinness world record for “Most Charities Supported By a Pop Star.”

Martin Lawrence

Art by DéVonté Rhea

Recognized more for his film and television achievements now then he is for his work as a standup, it’s easy to forget that Martin Lawrence once possessed such an immense talent that Chris Rock himself has shared stories about being unable to follow him on stage. Lawrence’s triumphs in this arena led to the opportunity to create the endlessly referenced television series Martin, and to star in blockbuster films like the Bad Boys franchise. The most enduring part his legacy, however, is his turn as the host Def Comedy Jam, a seminal program that singlehandedly acted as the launchpad for virtually every prominent Black comedian who achieved success in the ‘90s.

Roy Ayers

Art by Jerome T. White

With a discography spanning over four decades, it would seem fairly reasonable to suggest that Roy Ayers has dedicated his life to his craft. His compositions stand the test time, both on their own merits and as the soundbeds many the classic hip-hop songs we know and love. His records have been sampled by Jill Scott, Nas, Talib Kweli, Mary J. Blige, and countless other musicians. As a remarkable multi-instrumentalist, pioneer the jazz-funk genre, and activist, Ayers’ impact on the musical landscape will continue to be felt for many decades to come.

Muhammad Ali

Art by Jerome T. White

As a three-time world heavyweight champion, Olympic gold medalist, and athletic unicorn, Ali’s status as one the best boxers to ever step foot in a ring is unimpeachable. A leading figure in the civil rights movement, a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War, and someone who spoke unapologetically about his beliefs, Ali was a shining example an athlete who used his platform to affect meaningful change, in spite the many well-documented consequences he faced for doing so. Even after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s syndrome in 1984, he never slowed down his efforts to make a difference, working to fund research for this debilitating condition, and publicly expressing support for the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014.

Spike Lee

Art by Kevin Gentry

Watching Spike Lee’s masterpiece Do the Right Thing in 2018, it’s jarring to notice how his commentary on police brutality still feel as salient today as it did in 1989. This is a defining characteristic much Lee’s filmography, which ten examines issues like race relations and classism, and depicts the experiences urban communities through a nuanced lens. Having won two Peabody Awards in recognition his work, Lee has most recently turned his attention to his television reboot She’s Gotta Have It on Netflix, and as always, being the world’s most notorious New York Knicks fan.

Basquiat

Art by Kevin Gentry

I got Basquiats in the lobby my spot,” JAY-Z once rapped, referencing the celebrated painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. Despite tragically passing away at the tender age 27, Basquiat’s star burned so brightly while he was here that one his paintings recently sold at auction for $110 million dollars. Of course, not many artists justifiably command this sort price tag, but Basquiat’s paintings, which explore subjects like race, inequity, politics, and class—all with an unmistakable visual style—are simply that powerful. As time has passed, his work has only taken on additional cultural significance, meaning that he will continue to inspire future generations artists for years to come.

Stevie Wonder

Art by Kevin Gentry

There is no shortage reasons to show our immense gratitude to Stevie Wonder—the timelessness his album Songs in the Key Life, the fact that Martin Luther King Day is a nationally recognized holiday, the dozens songs he’s written that couples get married to, and countless others. Wonder has never been one to shy away from the responsibility his platform, donating extensively to myriad charitable causes and serving as a United Nations Messenger Peace since 2009. Wonder’s impact on our community is so immense that it is important to periodically remind ourselves to never take it for granted.

Dr. Dre

Art by Kevin Gentry

The notion that anyone could have ever “Forgot About Dre,” as he alluded to in his hit 1999 song seems almost ridiculous in the modern landscape. Without Dr. Dre, hip-hop music would be a much less colorful genre, missing the contributions N.W.A, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, 50 Cent, and many more. Though he has transitioned into the role business mogul, he still finds time to pursue philanthropic endeavors, like the $70 million Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business Innovation at the University Southern California.

SZA

Art by Patience Lekien

With her incredible debut album Ctrl resonating more widely than anyone could have expected, SZA went from playing the background to being a bona fide star in less than a year. Much this can be attributed to her remarkably self-assured artistry, which consolidates a gorgeous singing voice, undeniable songwriting talents, and a general penchant for relatability. Just one full-length studio album into a bright career, her impact on the community is already tangible, on proud display in the countless number online think pieces she’s inspired, discussing her music’s unique capacity for empowerment and catharsis. 

Chance The Rapper

Art By Gordon Rowe

Chance’s journey from irreverent teenager to community leader has been a remarkable one to watch. With a penchant for melody, wordplay, and rhythm, Chance’s music immediately caught on with millions fans—a legion whom he’s brought along with him as he’s experimented with different musical approaches and pivoted towards a more gospel-oriented sound. Noticeable in his artistry is a commendable emphasis on inclusivity, displayed frequently in his lyrics, but also in the thoughtful gestures he takes, like ensuring that there are ASL interpreters at his concerts to cater to any hearing-impaired fans who may be in attendance. On his 2015 song “Somewhere in Paradise,” Chance raps, “They screamin’, ‘Chano for Mayor,’ I’m thinking maybe I should.” The notion is beginning to sound progressively more realistic.

Kendrick Lamar

Art by Andy Akangah

Even accounting for differences in taste among rap fans, it is no longer controversial to say that Kendrick Lamar is the most important rapper his generation. A tremendously gifted wordsmith who can make radio-friendly hits as easily as he can pivot to avant-garde jazz, Kendrick’s talents appear to be boundless. Acknowledging his hometown Compton on every platform he earns—from the GRAMMY stage to The Ellen DeGeneres Show—it’s clear that Kendrick understands how invaluable it is for kids currently growing up in the same environment that he did to see the success he’s achieved. His work as a community leader within Compton has been well-documented, as have his other inspiring endeavors, like the fact that his 2015 song “Alright” became the unficial protest song the vital Black Lives Matter marches held at the time.  

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