Lest we take for granted music’s leading ladies of color and their palpable influence on the industry — despite the limitations of racism, sexism, and business as usual — here’s a little homage to all of the ways that some of our favorite rapping, scatting, wailing, serenading performers have shaped American and global culture with their work, forging a path for women through their groundbreaking creativity and historic accomplishments.
It’s hard to imagine what the American music industry today would sound, look, and perform like without the rogue perspective of Missy Elliott.
Her influence is undeniable, and she was finally inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame earlier this year, an honor that is bestowed upon extraordinary songwriters who have been in the game for at least two decades; artists who receive this honor have had a significant and timeless role in shaping the music industry. In Elliott’s case, she’s been writing music for herself and for other female performers for nearly 30 years, including for artists who weren’t even born when she first began to work as a musician.
During her acceptance speech at the award show in June, she expressed disbelief over being recognized for her creative accomplishments. “Every time I come up to a podium… even with all the work that I’ve done, I don’t know, and I’m assuming it’s just God, I don’t know why I am here,” she admitted. “I want to say one thing to the writers, to the upcoming writers, ‘Do not give up.’ We all go through writer’s block. Sometimes you just have to walk away from a record and come back to it. But don’t give up because I’m standing here.”
“And this is big for hip-hop, too,” she added, being only the third hip-hop artist (and the genre’s first female) to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
Beyond her songwriting, Missy’s sex appeal has been — and still is — so incredibly ahead of its time, standing out in an industry where the male gaze dictates so much of how artists present themselves in their performances and videos. Not so for Missy Elliott. Doreen St. Félix described in the New Yorker that Elliott’s sexuality had been a “cyberfeminist” post-gender premonition. “Elliott fashioned a vision of black female sexuality that decentered the body,” she wrote. “She was often cloaked in costumes, in slabs of makeup, frolicking in fantasy worlds. She embodied the ‘ghetto fabulous,’ the impossible reconciliation of opposed fashions. Sometimes she wasn’t even human.”
The breakout pop star Lizzo, who recently collaborated on the track “Tempo” with Missy, cited the industry veteran’s nonconformist approach as inspiration for her own work as an artist. “Seeing Missy exist in her truth was like, ’Oh, I can exist in my truth,’” Lizzo told Essence in an interview. “She didn’t try to hide anything, lie or cover anything up. She was as weird and freaky as she wanted to be. And I thought that was special.”
Having tapped into her own flute-playing, twerking sexuality, Lizzo has given herself permission to treat her body like the temple that it is, sharing every curve, fold, roll, and dimple of it on her social media feed; this self-love, in part, led her to have a role written just for her in Hustlers. A new hero of body positivity, Lizzo hopes that people will learn to stop calling her “brave” and just go straight to “sexy.” “I don’t like it when people think it’s hard for me to see myself as beautiful. I don’t like it when people are shocked that I’m doing it,” she told Glamour. Her aim, though, is bigger than getting the world to accept her manifestation of beauty; she wants to help people find beauty within themselves. “[If] you want to see somebody who’s beautiful who looks like you, go on the internet and just type something in. Type in blue hair. Type in thick thighs. Type in back fat. You’ll find yourself reflected. That’s what I did to help find the beauty in myself.”
Though much of the conversation surrounding Lizzo is about bodies, she’s also been a beacon of light on the topic of mental health, helping to normalize the ups, downs, and struggles that so many of us experience but are too afraid or ashamed to embrace. In June, Lizzo shared on Instagram a vulnerable post about her depression. “I self-love so hard because everything feels like rejection… it feel like the whole world be ghostin me sometimes. Sad AF today. But this too shall pass,” she wrote.
Yes, despite delivering show-stopping performances for several award ceremonies this year — including the BET Awards, the VMAs, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony — Lizzo reminded her followers that even success and projections of self-love and joy can be accompanied by the need to take stock of your mental health. “My triggers are: rejection and inadequacy,” she explained in another Instagram post. “But I love that I’m more emotionally honest lately. I love that I can use my sadness constructively in real time for gratitude.” She added that the outpouring of love that she received from her fans helped to buoy her spirits.
Clearly, Lizzo’s beauty and strength emanates from within — and how can we not want to have some of that juice too?
Having unleashed her no-filter persona and sexuality to the public, Cardi B has launched herself to the top of the charts with an endless series of hits, made her way into the headlines for her hilarious rants, held court with Senator Bernie Sanders, and charmed herself to the silver screen playing the role of a scheming stripper… she’s impossible to miss. “It was my personality that got me where I’m at,” she told the New York Post last year. “I will tell you that you can use your personality and be bubbly and be yourself in any field that you’re in. That alone will take you far, for real.”
Upon winning her historic Grammy for Best Rap Album — Cardi is the only solo female artist to have ever done this to date — she brought her new mama realness to the stage, thanking her daughter for her win. “I’m not just saying thank you because she’s my daughter,” she insisted. “When I found out I was pregnant, my album was not complete. I had three songs I was for sure having. And you know how I was. We had to have this album done so I could shoot these videos but I’m still not showing. It was a very long night.” Her acceptance speech hinted at the incredible feats that working mothers are capable of taking on, if given the time and space to do so — and there’s just something so refreshing about hearing that from a rapper whose just made history.
Rihanna locked down her icon status after she posted Coachella pics of herself rolling a joint on her bodyguard’s bald head, carrying herself in the public eye in a manner befitting male hip hop stars, not female pop stars — and guess what? She didn’t give AF.
In any case, Ri-Ri hardly needs us to review all the ways she makes womankind proud. In just the past few years, she’s gone out of her way to embrace body positivity for herself and others, cultivating a sex appeal that appeals to women who want to feel sexy — without the confines of the male gaze. With Savage x Fenty and Fenty Beauty, she has expanded what the lingerie/fashion/cosmetics industry considers normal and beautiful. Most recently, she’s become the first woman, as well as the first woman of color, to ever run her own LVMH fashion house with Fenty. And in the midst of all this, she’s returning to her creative roots and dropping a reggae album before the end of the year.
Taken altogether, her talent and unwavering confidence in her vision has placed her as the country’s “Richest Self-Made Woman” this year, with Forbes estimating her net worth of approximately $600 million. But she’s not just accumulating wealth — she’s giving back, through the Clara Lionel Foundation, the education and emergency response nonprofit she established in 2012. In the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian, CLF was one of the first organizations to pitch in to Chef José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen efforts.
She hasn’t won a Grammy or an Oscar (yet), but J. Lo doesn’t need major awards to prove how major her impact has been on music, film & television, and fashion. As one of the few Latinas to have made it in Hollywood, it’s nonetheless hard to think of any other star who’s had such high-profile longevity across a broad range of entertainment industries, reflecting her ambition and unique versatility.
But her staying power also has to do with her proclivity to lifting up others. Lopez’s Hustlers costar Lizzo gushed to the Hollywood Reporter about her leadership. “She’s such a professional. She’s such a vet in the game,” she said. “This was my first time on camera for a feature film. So I was looking at her like, Wow, you’re the leader right now. And she definitely did her job. She controlled the room and led the sisterhood.”
Lopez’s also has over half a dozen humanitarian accolades under her belt, including a GLAAD Vanguard Award, a UNESCO Award for Charitable Contributions, some for her own personal work and others for the work she has done through the Lopez Family Foundation, a charitable nonprofit she founded alongside her sister Lynda in 2009. The foundation has opened healthcare centers in Puerto Rico, Panama, and the Bronx that aim to expand access to care for underserved mothers and children. J. Lo told Variety that she felt called to helping others after her daughter had a health scare early on. “[I] had all these privileges, which wasn’t lost on me. I went back that night and thought, what if I didn’t have that? What if something was really wrong with her?” Her sister Lynda added, “There are huge issues with obesity, nutrition and childhood health in the Bronx, and we knew that pretty well from our own lives. It was just a matter of sitting down with everyone there and figuring out what we could really do to improve lives.”