Some of the greatest African American musicians redefined genres, spoke against injustice, and graced their respective stages from soul-rocking blues to upbeat hip-hop classics.
These musicians defied the odds stacked against them in times of racial discrimination and tension.
But rather than fueling the fire, they used their musical gifts to bring peace to listeners and call attention to a better way of living.
Here is a list of the most influential and famous black singers of all time, ranging from classic pioneers like Aretha Franklin to R&B kings like The Weeknd.
1. Aretha Franklin
After a ground-shaking career of musical achievements, Aretha Franklin became known as the “Queen of Soul.”
She started performing in front of her church at an early age. Her undeniable vocal range helped her to release her first gospel album, The Gospel Sound of Aretha Franklin.
She sold over 75 million records worldwide, with generous amounts of chart-topping singles like “Respect” and “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You).”
Her voice captivated listeners and ushered in the combination of soul-stopping music and defiance against injustice.
America’s most dazzling R&B icon arguably belongs to Prince Rogers Nelson, better known as Prince.
His father was a jazz pianist, and his mother a vocalist, which introduced him to the music lifestyle at an early age.
He taught himself to play numerous instruments, eventually signing to Warner Records. His success afterward was greatly attributed to his album 1999 and intensely popular soundtrack to the film Purple Rain.
From there, his erotic performances, suggestive lyrics, and chart-topping songs earned him a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the hearts of R&B and jazz lovers.
Related: Read our list of the most famous black male singers here.
3. Whitney Houston
Whitney Houston’s career included record-breaking accomplishments, including several chart-topping singles, multi-platinum albums, and Grammy awards.
Gospel music served as a primary influence in her music until she caught the eyes of Clive Davis, who immediately signed her to Artista records.
Her second album, Whitney, debuted at number one with four hit singles, including the iconic 80s anthem “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me).”
Her world tours, grammy-winning singles, and stellar acting career secured her a spot as music’s most prolific and successful female artist.
4. Michael Jackson
Like many other singers on this list, Michael Jackson’s deliverance of top hits and signature performances landed him a title of royalty: the “King of Pop.”
His early career began with his family’s music group, the Jackson 5, as the lead vocalist, then embarked on a solo career that pushed out Thriller, pop music’s top-selling album ever.
That album alone produced top hits, including the song “Thriller,” “Beat It,” and “Billie Jean.” His second album, Bad (1987), became even more successful with “Man in the Mirror” and “Bad.”
Despite legal disputes, financial ruin, and his death in 2009, he remains a legendary pop icon today.
Rihanna, born Robyn Rihanna Fenty, was born in the Barbados parish of Saint Michael under the influence of her Caribbean roots.
It would not be long until her vocals, and upbeat tempos would break out into the pop scene. She eventually released her debut album, Music of the Sun, in 2006, leading with the hit dance single “Pon de Replay.”
Her next few albums Good Girl Gone Bad (2007) and ANTI (2016), skyrocketed her image to icon status.
Her widespread influence made her the perfect candidate for entrepreneurial and philanthropic efforts on top of an acting career that is just scraping the surface.
6. Marvin Gaye
American singer and songwriter Marvin Gaye brought authenticity, softness, and silkiness to the pop-R&B scene.
But as his career progressed, he combined his spiritual influence with his taste for secular themes.
He resisted the blues path and ventured down into R&B and Motown with hits like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” that gave him the push he needed.
Then he released a string of melodic hits that combined the issues of society and the urges of sacred love in “What’s Going On” and the sensational hit “Let’s Get It On,” showing his range and passion for the world.
As another dominant female force in pop music, Beyoncé, born Beyoncé Knowles, began her career with an all-female pop group, Destiny’s Child, and then successfully embarked on a solo career.
By the time she was seven, she was already a performer and local child prodigy, winning singing and dance competitions.
Through the 90s, Destiny’s Child released hit singles “Bills, Bills, Bills” and “Survivor,” becoming the best-selling all-female group of all time.
Her solo career proved just as record-breaking, with number one albums, chart-toppers like “Crazy in Love” and “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It), and Grammy awards.
8. Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix is an American electric guitarist, performer, and one of the most influential musicians in the rock genre.
Soon after receiving his first acoustic guitar from his father, he started a music group called The Velvetones. He would later switch to more duos and trios, finding success with each one.
Through the 1960s and the 1970s, he released popular hits like “All Along the Watchtower,” “Purple Haze,” and “Foxy Lady,” giving fans a taste of his bluesy riffs.
After he died in 1970, his music still brought together a satisfying sound of silky riffs and jazzy vocals to the global music scene.
9. Mariah Carey
Mariah Carey’s mile-long list of achievements has made her one of the best-selling female artists to ever grace the music industry.
She grew up with a musical influence since her mother was an opera singer herself. Her big break came when a record producer listened to her demo tape where he signed her to Sony Records.
Her distinct five-octave vocal range and impressive songwriting helped her produce chart-topping albums throughout the 90s.
She produced nineteen total number one hits singles, including “Fantasy” and “Always Be My Baby,” and sold over 200 million copies of her records.
10. Stevie Wonder
Stevland Hardaway Judkins, or Stevie Wonder as you’ll know him, became one of America’s most iconic and prominent musicians in jazz, R&B, soul, funk, and many other genres.
Blind from a very young age, he did not let his blindness stop him from performing in his church choir or mastering multiple instruments as a child.
His undeniable talent caught the attention of Ronnie White, who helped him get an audition with Motown.
From the 60s to the early 2000s, he would defy the limitations of one genre and include societal issues in his most successful albums Talking Book and Innervisions, with grammy-winning creations like Songs in the Key of Life.
11. Alicia Keys
Alicia Keys, born Alicia Augello Cook, grew up in New York, where she took piano lessons at seven and attended a prestigious performing arts school in Manhatten.
After capturing multiple producers’ attention, she finally signed to Arista Records and then to J Records.
Her career would earn her a 5x platinum debut album Songs in a Minor (2001), multiple Grammy awards, and number one singles like “Fallin’” and “My Boo.”
She continues to grace the music and film stage with a blend of soul and pop and appearances in Smokin’ Aces, Empire, and The Secret Life of Bees.
12. Ray Charles
Despite becoming blind by age six, Ray Charles became a musical legend that eventually gave him his nickname “The Genius.”
As a boy, he learned to play multiple instruments and eventually worked in dance bands around Florida before he moved to Seattle after his parents’ death.
He began to mix his soul and bluesy sound with R&B and jazz to create a career that earned him global recognition and numerous Grammy awards.
Some of his best hits, like “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” topped the Billboard charts – which attested to his musical gifts and positioned him as one of the greatest musical influences of all time.
13. Ella Fitzgerald
Like many singers, Ella Fitzgerald’s success earned her an honorary nickname: “The First Lady of Song.”
Her early life led to a rough patch after her mother died. However, an impromptu singing performance led her to decide what she would do for the rest of her life.
Throughout the 1930s, she would tour with the Tiny Bradshaw band, where her experimentation with scat singing ignited her popularity.
Her career landed her gigs at popular jazz clubs, appearances on television shows, world tours, collaborations with Frank Sinatra, and several awards for her wondrous voice.
14. The Weeknd
Abel Makkonen Tesfaye, known professionally as The Weeknd, is one of the most popular R&B music artists in the industry.
He was born to Ethiopian immigrants but was raised by his mother and grandmother, leading to his most used themes of escapism and life challenges in his music.
He uploaded three songs to Youtube in 2010, which would soon become a part of his debut album Trilogy (2012) with the Universal Republic record label.
He would go on to release multiple top ten hits like “Love Me Harder” and “Earned It” and earn multiple Grammy awards for Best Urban Contemporary Album.
15. Bob Marley
Bob Marley was a Jamaican singer and songwriter mainly known as one of the earliest pioneers and influential figures in the reggae music sector.
At 14, he left home to pursue a career in music, eventually forming a group named the Teenagers which would later be dubbed as the Wailers. The group released Catch a Fire which shot them to stardom outside of Jamaica.
His most popular record, Exodus, gifted reggae lovers with classic hits like “Jamming” and “One Love.” The lyrical message and power of his music live on, even after his tragic death in 1981.
Related: Check out our list of other Jamaican singers here.
16. Lionel Richie
Throughout the 70s and 80s, Lionel Richie became a global phenomenon with music that combined soul, R&B, and pop.
He grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama, where he joined the Commodores, a Motown group that produced hits like “Three Times A Lady.”
Towards the end of the 80s, increasing attention on Richie propelled him to embark on a solo career, which would dominate the scene with top hits like “All Night Long (All Night” and “Hello.”
He continued playing his most timeless hits in cities globally and offering his expertise to contestants on the singing show American Idol.
17. Louis Armstrong
As a New Orleans native, Louis Armstrong was no stranger to the lure of jazz music. Over five decades, he influenced generations of jazz musicians.
His music career began as the leader of Waif’s Home Brass Band. He moved on to Mississippi’s riverboats and then Chicago, where he started making music under his name.
He formed several bands—His Five, His Hot Seven, and His Allstars—which allowed him to tour in Europe and all across America.
Hits like “What A Wonderful World” and “Hello, Dolly!” only added to his sensational jazz influence that would place him as one of the greatest of all time.
18. Tina Turner
Tina Turner, born Annie Mae Bullock, became one of the powerhouse voices of soul music throughout the last half of the twentieth century.
She got her big break working as a backup vocalist for Ike Turner’s touring show, where her undeniable sound helped the band top the charts with the hit “A Fool In Love.”
Her solo career rose through the years and plateaued in the late 80s, but not without huge hits like “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and landing a movie role in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.
She was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award, rightfully earned through her contributions to the soul music scene.
19. Nat “King” Cole
The soft baritone voice of Nat “King” Cole allowed him to gain recognition for his talents as a jazz performer and a multiinstrumentalist.
He started out playing religious music as a child but soon moved from classical tones to his most prized passion: jazz.
He formed the King Cole Trio, where they soared to the top of the charts with “The Christmas Song” and “That Ain’t Right.”
Becoming the first African American to host a television series allowed King to pave the way for jazz musicians of color to make their mark in the music industry.
20. Diana Ross
Diana Ross is an American singer, actress, and performer best known for her role in the pop trio, the Supremes.
The Supremes signed on to Motown Records and produced multiple number one singles like “Where Did Our Love Go?” In 1969, she left the group to go solo, embarking on an equally successful music career.
Hits like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Love Hangover,” along with prestigious awards, captured her performer’s essence as an R&B soul singer.
21. James Brown
James Brown, rightly known as “The Godfather of Soul”, went from a poverty-stricken life in the South to an unmatched career as America’s blues, funk and soul performer.
He formed a group named the Flames, later called the Famous Flames, that produced the immediate hit “Please, Please, Please.” But after many failed singers, he sought to change up his sound.
Despite legal and criminal issues, he still managed to adjust to new trends, producing popular hits with his group in the 70s and 90s and giving audiences the ecstatic live performances he was known for.
22. B.B. King
The legendary blues musician B.B. King, born Riley B. King, has produced over 50 albums since he started recording in the 1940s.
He started out performing on the streets for pocket change but then journeyed to Tennessee to focus on making it as a musician.
Alongside his beloved guitar named Lucille, he toured nationally playing his number one hit “Three O’Clock Blues” and eventually gained enough stardom to open for the Rolling Stones.
His prominence in the blues circuit opened up the door to a career with Grammy-winning singles, hundreds of performances, and an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
23. John Legend
John Stephens, known as John Legend, came into the spotlight to give listeners a taste of soulful romantic ballads and exquisite piano playing.
He first began singing gospel music in his hometown of Springfield, Ohio. His skill with instruments and voice made him a sought-after session musician for other artists.
Eventually, Kanye West signed him to his label, where he produced the LP Get Lifted, earning him his first three Grammy Awards in the R&B genre.
He gained more popularity with his first number one hit, “All of Me,” from his Top Ten album Love in the Future, the beginning of a string of songs that were featured in musicals and topped the charts.
24. Janet Jackson
Janet Jackson is the youngest member of the Jackson family but became just as successful as a musician as her siblings.
Her early career started with appearances in television shows while her siblings dominated the Motown industry. With the help of her brother, Michael, she released her self-titled debut album in 1982.
Her album Control brought her much-needed success with over eight million copies sold and a number one hit, “When I Think of You.”
She has become one of R&B’s most successful artists with multiple number-one albums, Grammy awards, and sold-out world tours.
The 2010s was an era that saw many breakthrough artists rise to the surface. One of these artists was Khalid Robinson, an American R&B and pop singer-songwriter.
His debut album American Teen (2017) became one of the best debut albums of the decade, giving him a platinum certification and the opportunity to collaborate with major artists in the hits “Love Lies” and “Eastside.”
His slow, ballad-like voice would define his career and help him produce songs for hit television shows and films Love, Simon, and 13 Reasons Why.
His recent release, Scenic Drive (The Tape), is another piece that captures his soul-like reminiscence of youth.
Some view Usher as the successor of Michael Jackson due to his performing, dancing, and singing abilities.
The number of top hits and platinum albums he’s produced over the last two decades comes very close to the King of Pop’s successes.
At 14, he auditioned for L.A. Ried and was offered a recording contract. He gained worldwide recognition for his first album, hurling him to the top of the R&B charts with his next platinum hits, “Nice & Slow” and “My Way.”
His later albums, like Confessions, won him Grammy awards and a rightful place as modern R&B’s most popular artist of the 21st century.
27. Otis Redding
Although he died young, Otis Redding’s emotional tone and live performances placed him as one of soul music’s most influential musicians.
His father was diagnosed with Tuberculosis in the early 1940s, causing him and his mother to work various jobs to provide for the family.
He still learned to play multiple instruments and was signed to Stax Records, where he spent the late 60s recording and releasing chart-toppers like “These Arms of Mine” and “Satisfaction.”
His most popular release “(Sittin’ On the) Dock of the Bay” was recorded weeks before his death and sold over four million copies, securing him a place as the King of Soul.
28. Darius Rucker
Darius Rucker is an American singer and songwriter who rose to Grammy-winning status with his rock band Hootie & the Blowfish, formed in his college days in 1986.
As the lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist, he took the band to new heights with their diamond-certified debut album Rear View.
As his sights set on country music, he accomplished four number one albums and ten number-one singles in the country music scene.
His philanthropic initiatives helped raise millions for children’s cancer research and other charitable causes. In addition, he continues to top the charts with his music, establishing him as one of country music’s all-time greats.
Summing Up Our List Of The Greatest Black Singers
In a time ruled by racial tension, artists like Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye sought to eliminate the barriers and encourage the world to unite.
Even when the 80s and 90s rolled around, Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson exploded onto the music scene to deliver the most famous songs of the centuries.
And when the time came to pass the torch onto the next generation of African American stars, Usher and Rihanna gladly accepted, showing the world why their heritage is just as important as their music.