Ever since White jazz critics barged into the hootenannies Black musicians threw for one another, the face of genius has been homogeneous. The standards for what was considered creative could only be performed by men, it seemed — an assumption that hasn’t changed very much. Standards in Black creative production are a little wonky in that they largely adopt a patriarchal structure made to separate us from experiencing one another in full. Luckily, there have always been adroit beings from all across the gender-and-sexuality spectrum making waves for the people that they can touch.
These folks aren’t always the most celebrated. They aren’t considered — as much as we believe they should be — gracing the doors of artistic providence. That is largely because those doors have only let in but a few.
We’re kicking some more wood down and celebrating some more underrated men and women that need applause pronto. The musicians who demand gyration via sultry fluidity and a feel for pulsation. Writers and community leaders who remind us that Blackness, transness, and otherness exist as technologies of loving oneself and the world. Curators and artists who reveal past worlds and unlock visions for brand-new ones. Old heads who’ve always had a spotlight but never the shine that their talent demands.
We are but a collection of names, experiences, and memories. But these names and the experience attached to their contributions should never be lost on us. For the indelible mark they’ve made on us, the culture they work to lift up, we have nothing but appreciation. — Tirhakah Love
Should be as famous as: A$AP Rocky
Back in September, A$AP Bari and A$AP Illz alleged that A$AP Ferg had been excommunicated from the Mob. The since-debunked claim highlighted a glaring truth: Ferg is the collective’s most consistent and valuable member. Ever since A$AP Mob’s rise in the early 2010s, the 32-year-old hasn’t just gifted us some undeniably memorable hooks and verses (“Shabba,” “Plain Jane”), the once-aspiring clothing designer and Dapper Dan mentee has also turned heads with his sense of fashion, even inspiring the likes of Valentino designer Pierpaolo Piccioli. While A$AP Rocky’s charisma and swift ascent made him the de facto face of the Mob, Ferg quickly dispelled any notions that he was destined to play the background — he rose to become one of the most innovative contemporary artists out of New York City, and has done and tried it all, from designing clothes, sneakers, and jewelry to painting (and doing it well) without giving off as pretentious of a vibe as some of his crew members. Pay homage to a star who put his crew on his back and continues to put in work. — Atoosa Moinzadeh
Should be as famous as: Megan Thee Stallion
After almost 30 years in the game and 11 years in the spotlight, the Queen of New Orleans bounce has aged gracefully into the cultural firmament. Other artists may thirst for the Drake Bump, but having her voice interspersed on Aubrey’s 2019 smash “Nice for What” didn’t do anything for Freedia that she hadn’t already done for herself. Club blessings like “Excuse” and “Na Who Mad” had us wobblin’ on the floor and strengthening these knees long before Stalli and the rest of the girls. — Tirhakah Love
Should be as famous as: Lupe Fiasco
Blu and Exile’s 2007 album Below The Heavens is one of the best rap projects to drop all damn century, an undeniable classic that showcases Blu’s potential as one of the best in the game. Thirteen years later — as in, this very year — the duo dropped another pretty great project called Miles. Having a seminal work like BTH might overshadow another artist’s work forever, but Blu is as sharp as he ever was. He’s every bit the MC we want in rap and should be listening to as much as possible. — David Dennis, Jr.
Field: Acting, music
Should be as famous as: Jamie Foxx
Back in 2013, Bill Maher, of all people, suggested that Wayne Brady is “not Black enough.” It’s a weird, albeit familiar critique that has followed this multihyphenate throughout his career. But many of those same critics saw his gifts in a new light when he flipped the perception on its head in a Training Day spoof for an iconic episode of Chappelle’s Show, which depicted Brady as a ruthless gangster/pimp. The whole premise is a problematic reinforcement of stereotypes around Blackness, sure, but it was a hilarious wake-up call for haters, many of whom still don’t show props. Take note: Brady is one of our generation’s greatest talents, mastering improv (Whose Line Is It Anyway), starring on Broadway (Kinky Boots), and even landing a Grammy nomination for his cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” He may be mainstream-friendly, but don’t sleep on the grind — or the shine. — John Kennedy
Should be as famous as: Tyler, the Creator
For the past decade, Detroit rapper Danny Brown has inarguably cemented his legacy as one of the genre’s greats: He’s a phenomenal lyricist, a high-stakes storyteller, and is funny as hell. While he was often lazily branded as another underground weirdo after catching his big break at 30 with XXX, the now 39-year-old went on to have one of the most solid runs of the past decade with Old, Atrocity Exhibition, and uknowwhatimsayin?. Few can compare to Brown’s idiosyncratic style — which includes his signature, high-pitched, nasally voice — but outside of his drug-laced, horny, provocative raps, his musings on mental health reveal him to be a real and reliable narrator. Brown’s next chapter — the rite of passage into his forties, and the commemorative release of his sixth album, XXXX — is worthy of your attention. — Atoosa Moinzadeh
Should be as famous as: Spike Lee
Part of the Black independent movement that also included Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust), Burnett and his L.A. filmmaking peers were often overlooked — caught in the decade between the “New Hollywood” (White) boys’ club that included George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, and the early-’80s NYU era that produced both Spike and Ang Lee (not related). As a result, his films like To Sleep With Anger and The Glass Shield never got the shine they deserved. So catch up on his work, but also keep an eye on Amazon; after pivoting to TV, Burnett’s first feature in 19 years will be slave-escape drama Steal Away for the streaming platform. Guess quality work is never past its prime. — Peter Rubin
Cedric the Entertainer
Field: Comedy, acting
Should be as famous as: Steve Harvey
The problem isn’t that there’s inadequate respect put on Cedric Antonio Kyles’ name. The man is a damn legend, from hosting ComicView to helping Nelly (Country Grammar, Nellyville) and Jay-Z (“Threat”) make classics. Our main issue here is that unlike his Original Kings of Comedy co-stars, Cedric the Entertainer never got his own namesake TV show — which highlights a consistent theme of playing second fiddle throughout his career. Sure, Cedric shined in a major role on The Steve Harvey Show, and he finally landed a lead television role in The Soul Man in 2012, a mere two decades after his start in showbiz. This ensemble cast standout (Barbershop, Be Cool) deserves to grace the center stage in starring roles of his own, with his pick of small-screen hosting gigs (Who Wants to Be a Millionaire aside) at his disposal. Are you not entertained? — John Kennedy
Field: Comics, animation
Should be as famous as: Stan Lee
Let’s be real: Denys Cowan is one of the most influential figures in comics and television production, period. His paint game was crazy from the jump, with iconic covers of DC’s Detective Comics and The Question, as well as Marvel’s Black Panther, throughout the late ’80s. But the shift to icon status came a few years later. Seeing the apparent void of Blackness in comics, Cowan and the late (and legendary) Dwayne McDuffie created Black alternative publisher Milestone Comics — with their brilliant teen hero Static Shock leading the charge. Not only is Milestone relaunching through DC Comics in February 2021, but Cowan has since gone on to become one an animation mastermind: as BET’s senior vice president of animation, he produced the satirical classic The Boondocks. Supercharged, sardonic, and so damn underappreciated. — Tirhakah Love
Should be as famous as: The Allstate Man
One of the most iconic voices we have in the game; honestly, he should be the movie preview guy. Imagine how many more movies you’d go to if Keith David were the one telling you to go see it. His booming baritone has defined some of the best-animated characters of our time, from the bad guy in Princess And The Frog to goddamn Goliath from Gargoyles. And he’s somehow even better in front of the camera, as Greenleaf fans know. — David Dennis, Jr.
Should be as famous as: Snoop Dogg
Once upon a time, a Southern California rapper kicked down the door by counting to four. Snoop Dogg on “Nuthin But a ‘G’ Thang”? Sure, but The D.O.C. had already done it three years earlier. After moving to L.A. from Dallas and writing for N.W.A, he dropped the seminal West Coast album No One Can Do It Better — only for a car crash five months later to take his trademark voice and his career arc. The man born Tracy Curry stayed in the industry, writing and recording (that’s him on The Chronic’s iconic game-show skit “$20 Sack Pyramid”), but subsequent albums could never match the luster of what he promised. Does that change his stature as a West Coast rap pioneer? Not even a little bit. All hail the D.O.C. father. — Peter Rubin
Field: Sports management
Should be as famous as: Rich Paul
After a brief stint in the NBA, Bill Duffy leveraged his people skills and business acumen to become one of the most successful sports agents of all time. He’s represented the likes of Steve Nash and Yao Ming, but rather than let that define him, he stayed low and kept building, with a client list that now includes Zach Lavine and Goran Dragic. Half a billi in sports contracts — and not a single rap punchline mentioning him? Shape up, people. — David Dennis, Jr.
Field: Film, TV
Should be as famous as: Louis Gossett, Jr.
Regardless of any high-profile role, character actors tend to all have the same name: That Guy. Hey, it’s that guy! No matter what films they’ve been essential parts of (Predator), no matter how many iconic lines they’ve spit (“You done fucked up, you know that, don’t you?” from Menace II Society), they’re semi-anonymous. But Bill Duke’s relative anonymity is even less deserved when you consider the Four Bills. See, Hollywood’s two White Bills, Paxton and Pullman, have both enjoyed starring roles in multiple projects. But the two Black Bills — Duke and Nunn (Radio Raheem from Do the Right Thing) — have similarly made careers out of weighty, inhabited performances, just without being at the top of the call sheet. Bill Nunn passed a few years back and was celebrated in a manner befitting his talents. Don’t let Duke do the same before he gets his rightful respect. — Peter Rubin
Should be as famous as: Frank Ocean
Fauntleroy has been a treasure of hits since quietly floating onto the scene in 2006. He’s made a mentee out of Frank Ocean — equipping the enigmatic crooner with an indelibly delicious servitude to the holy trinity of synth, guitar, and drum — a co-conspirator out of Travis Scott and Jay-Z, and graced SZA’s painfully short “Wavy (Interlude)” with such a fire harmony we wish it could go on for seven more minutes. He’s got a couple of Grammys? Great. But let it be known that homie has acted as editor, ghostwriter, and hitmaker for your fave’s fave. Now go run and tell that. — Tirhakah Love
Field: Video games
Should be as famous as: Luigi
When Fils-Aimé came to Nintendo in 2003, the company was staring down the twin barrels of a shotgun held by Microsoft and Sony. Worse, Nintendo’s stoic Japanese approach wasn’t doing much to convince American gamers that its Gamecube could offer anything an Xbox or PlayStation couldn’t — at least until the next year when Fils-Aimé took the stage at the E3 video game show and put the world on notice. “My name is Reggie,” he crowed on stage. “I’m about kickin’ ass, I’m about takin’ names, and we’re about makin’ games.” As president of Nintendo of America, he went on to help launch the massively successful Wii and Switch consoles; yet, the vast majority of the 100-plus million people who bought them likely have no idea who he is. Reggie retired from the company in 2019 (replaced, no lie, by a guy named Doug Bowser), but it’s never too late to give a gaming legend his flowers. — Peter Rubin
Miss Major Griffin-Gracy
Should be as famous as: Janet Mock
Miss Major, as she’s popularly known, is what Martin Luther King Jr. would have called a drum major for justice. Like those civil rights-era statesmen, the Chicago native’s care for our most vulnerable populations — specifically, incarcerated trans folks — is a lifelong journey. Miss Major was on the ground at the Stonewall Rebellion in 1969; after honing her activist ethics in the decades since, in 2003 she got hooked up with the Trans, Gender Variant, and Intersex Justice Project in San Francisco. Assisting in legal work and prison visits at the onset, the TGIJP evolved into a multifront resistance against the prison-industrial complex and a haven for transgendered women facing its oppression most acutely. Major’s seen lifetimes in this game, and her input and output are vital to the prison abolition movement. — Tirhakah Love
Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson
Field: Science, education
Should be as famous as: Katherine Johnson
Jackson’s story is one of the more remarkable and overlooked tales of genius Black women who have shaped this country. She was the first Black woman to earn a doctorate at MIT and is one of the foremost physicists in the country. She worked with former President Bill Clinton as the chair of his Nuclear Regulatory Committee and has dedicated her life since to raising future generations of scientists — including an ongoing tenure as president of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, making her the first Black woman to lead a research university. How about we do this movie without Kevin Costner? — David Dennis, Jr.
Field: Art, film
Should be as famous as: Ernest Dickerson
Given that film and video art grow from the same medium, it’s strange that more people haven’t achieved striking success in both — all the more reason, then, to give thanks for Arthur Jafa. His cinematography work has brought him Sundance awards (1982’s Daughter of the Dust); his 2016 short Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death is in the permanent collections of some of the world’s greatest museums; he’s realized the vision of folks from Spike to Solange. And yet he’s somehow not a household name? Time to change that. — Peter Rubin
Should be as famous as: DJ Khaled
Fuck the Grammys. They never get it right. You know this. We know this. But still, it’s an accolade that matters. Kaytranada — a genre-hopping producer with two flawless albums (99.9% and Bubba) and countless remixes (Teedra Moses’ “Be Your Girl”) under his belt — has none to his name. Even more criminal, the Haitian producer, who hails from Montreal, has no major award nominations, despite shaping an amalgam of funk, R&B, dance, house, and hip-hop in his image. The 28-year-old music innovator is a whole vibe that many of us are already hip to. It’s about time the stuffy folks awarding trophies get up on game. — John Kennedy
Should be as famous as: SZA
Kelela’s 2013 debut mixtape, Cut 4 Me, was damn-near revolutionary: ’90s-flavored R&B vocals rubbing up against the hard, metallic synths of U.K. grime to create fire. The Washington, D.C. singer was soon featured on Solange’s Saint Heron compilation album (and later on A Seat at the Table), but Kelela’s solo career (including her potent 2015 concept EP, Hallucinogen, and debut album, Take Me Apart) has bubbled on an if-you-know-you-know basis. She’s not the most prolific on streaming services, but there’s a reason the New York Times compared the 37-year-old singer to Aaliyah. Kelela makes love, longing, and heartbreak sound brand-new. Consider this her bouquet. — John Kennedy
King Sunny Ade
Should be as famous as: Fela Kuti
As unbelievably broad and diverse as Africa’s musical traditions are, it’s mind-boggling how few African artists have achieved household-name status in the U.S. Once you get past Fela and Miriam Makeba (and maybe Ladysmith Black Mambazo for the Paul Simon-loving, NPR-tote-bag crowd), all you’re gonna get is puzzled faces. Yet, King Sunny — the man who took Nigerian juju music global, and became the first Nigerian artist to receive a Grammy nomination — isn’t counted in that pantheon. Burna Boy may be carrying the torch these days, but there would be no Twice as Tall without Synchro System. Abi? — Peter Rubin
Should be as famous as: Rihanna
On her 2006 single “Bossy,” Kelis talks big shit about her trendsetting and unquestionable impact. And it all checks out. Yes, that was her screaming on the 1999 hit “Caught Out There,” which sounded irresistibly alien on FM playlists next to songs like Destiny’s Child’s “Bills, Bills, Bills.” Yes, she brought all the boys (and girls) to the yard with “Milkshake,” a career high. Yet even “Bossy” doesn’t fully convey the extent of Kelis’ trailblazing, which follows the lineage of earlier eccentrics like Tina Turner and Grace Jones, and continues with artists like Tierra Whack grabbing the baton. (This influence extends off wax, too — before Rihanna and Cassie were turning heads with their big chops, there were Kelis’ eye-catching ’dos.) Unfortunately, record label fuckery stalled her creative momentum, and cooking and cannabis seem to have replaced her passion for music. But never forget that Kelis was here, and she made every experimental moment count. — John Kennedy
Should be as famous as: Thelma Golden
Off the rip, Chaédria LaBouvier is a one-of-one. Also off the rip, she achieved everything by swimming against the stream. Having curated the Guggenheim’s rapturous exhibit Basquiat’s ‘Defacement’: the Untold Story last year, becoming the first Black person to do so in the museum’s 80-year history, she found herself and her work being erased by the overwhelmingly White institution. Not only did the Guggenheim allegedly discourage press coverage of the exhibit, but it neglected to include her on a panel discussing the very exhibit that she had overseen. Basquiat himself couldn’t have painted the fuckery more clearly. — Tirhakah Love
Field: Comedy, acting
Should be as famous as: Keegan-Michael Key
An original cast member of Mad TV: check. Animated voice-acting accolades as everyone from Justice League’s Green Lantern to Samurai Jack (yup, really). Dead-on impressions and improv chops that make him royalty in the comedy world: check. Your man even achieved film immortality as Marvin in Pulp Fiction. Last we counted, that’s a whole lotta tools for someone to have without being mentioned in the same breath as other comedy legends. — Peter Rubin
Should be as famous as: Forest Whitaker
He’s not going to be on this list for long. Even if he doesn’t win some major award for Da 5 Bloods, he’s going to get nominated for best actor Golden Globes and Oscars, and his stock is going to go all the way up. The thing is, it should have already been sky high. Lindo was tragic brilliance in Malcolm X, captivating in Crooklyn, and transcendent in Clockers. If game recognizes game, he’s gonna need to be in all the movies going forward. — David Dennis, Jr.
Should be as famous as: Kara Walker
As part of her tireless efforts conveying how Black feminine space is created, destroyed, and revitalized, Leigh works in large installation and sculpture — using only tools and materials that come from the African continent and have a direct affinity with Black life. That’s no gimmick; her choices are a naturalist approach to giving her multidisciplinary pieces a narrative backbone. But perhaps her most encouraging work is in collaboration with other artists: The Waiting Room, a 2016 joint project with Black Women Artists and The New Museum, acted as a pop-up haven of love and care for Black women in the aftermath of Philando Castile’s murder. It’s clear her work stems from that center of care and comfort — an ethic from which many in the realm of “high art” can learn. — Tirhakah Love
Should be as famous as: Janelle Monáe
Laura Mvula sings like a very kind person. The Brit’s voice is controlled, like the hands of the steadiest fiddler, and her tone is reminiscent of the rotund trunk of a forest oak. At the moment, Mvula’s modalities have been relegated to the pristine sonic world of the orchestra hall. While her second album, The Dreaming Room, caresses the sensibilities with smoky streams of consciousness, her debut, Sing to the Moon, was built on sentimentality. The entire disc is an ushering, on carefully threaded silk sheets, into the rich tapestry of one’s own personal history. Taking the journey with her doesn’t articulate any kind of certainty — “I don’t know what the weather will be, whether we’ll see a tomorrow,” she sings — but, if allowed to creep into our heart, Mvula awakens the kind of impulsive, emotional reflection that’s proven to be a rarity in music. — Tirhakah Love
Should be as famous as: Azealia Banks
The tactile nature of Quay Dash’s rap meshes inextricably with the dark dance-synth bricolage of her production. You can tell from her 2017 EP Transphobic that homegirl is studied in this rap shit. Dash knows how to pedestal herself over the others. Nasty trap percussion on songs like “Squared Toe Leather Boot” feel fluid under her guidance; shit sits on them, comfortably, at the head of the table. Dash has no issue getting into the bullshit she has to face from haters in her own community, but the keenest expression of her alignment with queer life is in the guts of her flow: the cadence her voice takes, the zigs she’s willing to zag in her rhythmic decisions. Here’s to her song “Queen of this Shit” showing up on Euphoria being the beginning of a stratospheric rise. — Tirhakah Love
Should be as famous as: Joey Bada$$
Over the years, Zay’s Southern soul and emphatic kinship with the drum lick has captured the hearts of many a hip-hop head. On both his albums, Cilvia Demo and The Sun’s Tirade, the Chattanooga, Tennessee rapper carved out his own slice of bluesy reflective melody that’s distinct from the famous Compton rapper at the head of the Top Dawg crew: an aggressive brand of sadness that’s easily relatable to any younger millennials still finding their way. The scarcity of his output is most likely due to that very journey, but what the delay has made obvious is that both of these albums have legs. They feel like they could’ve been written yesterday or seven years ago. Regardless of what comes next, the timelessness of those bangers alone will carry Rashad’s name forever. — Tirhakah Love
Should be as famous as: Michael Eric Dyson
One of the biggest compliments that can be given to Tricia Rose is that she never felt the need to legitimize hip-hop for scholarship. For her, as a manifestation of Black life, it simply was. That made her 1994 book, Black Noise, all the more impactful. Wasn’t no put-ons, no faking the funk for the caucasoid power structure she was supposed to be praying to. Instead, she built a foundation for how hip-hop would be studied for the rest of time — with particular attention to the technological and teleological play of these once maligned and completely marginalized Black artists. It was her ability to create historical, fantastical, and narrative linkages that made Black Noise — and other works like Hip-Hop Wars — still feel like the most lived-in scholarly works hip-hop has to offer. — Tirhakah Love
Should be as famous as: Tracee Ellis Ross
The anchor of MAD TV during its prime, Wilson somehow was never given a shot to lead her own show with any amount of push behind it. (A story we hear far too often about Black women.) As a result, she’s taken her talents to the world of animated TV and video game voice acting — and kills it every. Single. Time. Instead of getting MAD, she got to work. Recognize. — David Dennis, Jr.