When it comes to diversity and inclusion in our everyday lives, we’re reminded both of how far we have come and how far we still have to go. While there have been immeasurable societal strides, particularly within the last few years, the work won’t end until all races, ethnicities, and genders feel seen, accepted, and included.
This fact is especially pertinent in the arts, as this portion of the culture largely serves as a microcosm for the world at large. Many of the artists we know and love had their share of struggles when it came to inclusion, yet their hard work and dedication to their craft paid off in historic spades.
As Black History Month commences, take a look at some of the iconic “firsts” in music history throughout genres. Black musicians helped to pave the way for artists all over to create magic of their own, and continue to do so decades — even centuries — later.
1890: George W. Johnson is the first Black person to record a best-selling phonograph record. His novelty vaudeville hit “The Whistling Coon” showcased his vocal abilities in more ways than one.
1955: Marian Anderson is the first Black singer to perform with the New York Metropolitan Opera.
1920: Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” is heralded as the first significant blues song ever recorded by a Black musician. It was entered into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1994 and was entered into the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2005.
1969: Blues trumpeter WC Handy becomes the first Black musician to be featured on a U.S. postage stamp.
1925: Louis Armstrong records his Hot Five and Hot Seven combos, considered by many as the pieces of music that kicked off the jazz revolution.
1958: Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie become the first Black musicians to win a Grammy Award. Both artists took home two trophies.
1992: Thanks to her album Unforgettable… With Love, Natalie Cole becomes the first Black woman to win the Grammy Award for Album Of The Year. So far, there have only been two other Black women to take this award home: Whitney Houston and Lauryn Hill.
2018: Due to her work on the SpongeBob SquarePants musical, Yolanda Adams is the first gospel artist to be nominated for a Tony Award. (Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre.)
1971: Charley Pride is the first (and so far last) Black artist to win the Country Music Association’s most prestigious award, Entertainer Of The Year. In 2000, he became the first Black inductee at the Country Music Hall Of Fame. Harmonica player DeFord Bailey is the second (and only other) Black artist to be inducted into this prestigious academy.
2020: Mickey Guyton becomes the first Black female musician to be nominated for a country music Grammy Award in a solo performance category: Best Country Solo Performance for her song “Black Like Me.” (The Pointer Sisters won the award in 1974 for their writing work, not their music.)
1977: Black Death — widely acknowledged as the first Black heavy metal band — is formed.
1986: The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inaugural class is announced, and the first Black musicians inducted are Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, and Little Richard.
1987: Aretha Franklin is the first Black woman (and first woman) inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
1990: Thanks to their song “Cult of Personality,” Living Colour becomes the first Black band (and first musicians) to win the Grammy for Best Hard Rock Performance. They would go on to win it again in 1991.
1984: “On & On,” Jesse Saunders’ single with Vince Lawrence, becomes the first record featuring a house DJ to ever be pressed and sold to the public.
1987: Steve Silk Hurley’s single “Jack Your Body” becomes the first house track to top the UK charts.
1950: Nat King Cole becomes the first Black solo artist to have a No. 1 hit on the Billboard charts. His song “Mona Lisa” hit the top of the now-defunct “Best Sellers In Stores” chart.
1958: Tommy Edwards becomes the first Black artist to have a No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for his song “It’s All In The Game.” A year later, The Platters became the first Black group to have a No. 1 on the Hot 100 with their song, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.”
1983: Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” is the first music video by a Black artist to play on MTV, which was heavily focused on rock in their earliest years. In 1991, MJ was also the first Black artist (and first artist) to have a song debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, thanks to his song “You Are Not Alone.”
1987: Whitney Houston becomes the first Black woman (and first woman) to have an album debut at No. 1, thanks to her eponymous album. In 1992, she also became the first Black artist (and first artist) to have an album sell a million copies in a single week with The Bodyguard soundtrack.
1972: Isaac Hayes becomes the first Black artist to win an Academy Award in a non-acting category. The “Theme From Shaft” won the Oscar for Best Original Song. He is also the first musician to have written and performed their own Oscar-winning song.
1974: Stevie Wonder is the first Black artist to win the Grammy Award for Album Of The Year for Innervisions.
1989: DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince win the first Grammy in the hip-hop genre. “Parents Just Don’t Understand” won for Best Rap Performance, but the duo famously boycotted the ceremony to protest the historic honor not being televised.
1990: Tone Loc becomes the first rapper to be nominated in the Best New Artist category.
1999- Lauryn Hill becomes the first hip-hop artist to win a Grammy for Album of the Year for her sole solo LP, The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill. She is still the only woman hip-hop artist to do so.
2006: Three 6 Mafia becomes the first hip hop group to win an Oscar for Best Original Song. (“It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp” from Hustle & Flow.) Per an interview with Variety, Juicy J recalled the win seeming “unreal.” (“We didn’t prepare no speech because we didn’t think we was gonna win,” he said.)
2018: Kendrick Lamar becomes the first rapper to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music, thanks to his album DAMN.