History By Us: A Digital Portrait Series In Celebration of Black History Month - DJBooth

#HistoryByUs: A Virtual Portrait Series in Celebration of Black History Month

In honor of Black History Month, DJBooth has partnered with AT&T to highlight influential figures in Black history.
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AT&T "History By Us" Stories, Black History Month
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The process of appropriately acknowledging the contributions of Black Americans on the fabric of our society is a continuous effort. During Black History Month, we take the opportunity to celebrate the specific accomplishments of many of the exceptional contributors, without whom, our cultural tapestry would be inconceivable.

In honor of Black History Month 2018, we celebrate #HistoryByUs—highlighting some of 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 of their talents, speaking out against social injustices, or championing the causes of Black communities across the globe, this list is comprised of artists who are forces of 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

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Art by Aaron Williams

Arguably best known as the drummer of the legendary Roots crew, Questlove is the very definition of 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 of charter schools.

Misty Copeland

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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 of 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 of ballet and worked tirelessly to inspire young women of color to embrace their bodies and have the confidence to pursue their dreams.

Zendaya

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Art by Aaron Williams

Zendaya’s transition from the queen of 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 of color.

Rihanna

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Art by Aaron Williams

Since bursting onto the scene at the youthful age of 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 of women of color looking for inclusive beauty products tailored to their specific needs. The recipient of Harvard University’s Humanitarian of 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

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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 of her 2001 debut album, Songs in A Minor. A champion of 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 of 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

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Art by Angela Hines

Fans of lyrically-driven hip-hop would be hard-pressed to identify one of their favorite rappers who wouldn’t name Common as an influence. The Chicago native has carved out a name for himself outside of 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 of 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 nonprofit sector, uplifting underprivileged youth as the founder of the Common Ground Foundation.

J. Cole

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Art by Angela Hines

Somewhat lost in all the jokes about J. Cole going “double-Platinum with no features” is how impressive of a feat this actually is. Despite no longer making music tailored for mainstream airwaves, Cole continues to find commercial success as a byproduct of 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

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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 viable option for them to be the protagonists in their own stories. Almost four years after her unfortunate passing, her mastery of 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 of the people she mentored, like Oprah Winfrey, have gone on to become cultural juggernauts themselves.

Erykah Badu

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Art by DéVonté Rhea

A foundational pioneer of 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 of 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 of 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

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Art by DéVonté Rhea

Michael Jackson’s is universally considered to be the greatest entertainer of all-time. Prior to his tragic passing in 2009, he reinvented pop music numerous times throughout his career, seamlessly integrated uplifting messages of hope and equality into his lyrics along the way. Little else needs to be said about why Thriller and Off the Wall are two of the greatest albums of all time, but a lesser-discussed part of 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

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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 of his legacy, however, is his turn as the host of 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

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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 of time, both on their own merits and as the soundbeds of many of 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 of the jazz-funk genre, and activist, Ayers’ impact on the musical landscape will continue to be felt for many decades to come.

Muhammad Ali

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Art by Jerome T. White

As a three-time world heavyweight champion, Olympic gold medalist, and athletic unicorn, Ali’s status as one of 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 of an athlete who used his platform to affect meaningful change, in spite of 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

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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 of much of Lee’s filmography, which often examines issues like race relations and classism, and depicts the experiences of urban communities through a nuanced lens. Having won two Peabody Awards in recognition of his work, Lee has most recently turned his attention to his television reboot of She’s Gotta Have It on Netflix, and as always, being the world’s most notorious New York Knicks fan.

Basquiat

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Art by Kevin Gentry

I got Basquiats in the lobby of my spot,” JAY-Z once rapped, referencing the celebrated painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. Despite tragically passing away at the tender age of 27, Basquiat’s star burned so brightly while he was here that one of his paintings recently sold at auction for $110 million dollars. Of course, not many artists justifiably command this sort of 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 of artists for years to come.

Stevie Wonder

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Art by Kevin Gentry

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

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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 of N.W.A, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, 50 Cent, and many more. Though he has transitioned into the role of 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 of Innovation at the University of Southern California.

SZA

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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 of 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 of online think pieces she’s inspired, discussing her music’s unique capacity for empowerment and catharsis. 

Chance The Rapper

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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 of fans—a legion of 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

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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 of 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 of 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 unofficial protest song of the vital Black Lives Matter marches held at the time.  

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