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Black Herstory Playlist: The Beats Go On

From Bessie to Billie to Beyoncé, our sisters have been voices for change. And this playlist celebrates them.

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Spotify, Black Herstory Month, aarp, sisters
Charlot Kristensen
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It’s Women’s History Month, and your Sisters Squad is thrilled to honor the women who changed the face of our country with a decade-by-decade playlist celebrating almost a century of bonafide #BlackGirlMagic.

From Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday to TLC and Beyoncé, these soulful sisters sing our soundtrack, enriching American music and entertainment with every soul-stirring, spirit-moving or booty-shaking song. But their legacies are more than just lyrics. With their voices, their actions and sometimes simply by their presence, these phenomenal women championed social change.

1920s — In 1920, Mamie Smith became the first Black blues singer to be recorded. Bessie Smith (aka the “Empress of the Blues”) sang the soundtrack to the Depression Era, becoming the highest-paid songbird of her day.

1930s — No one sang the blues like Billie Holiday, and in 1938 “Lady Day” was hired by Artie Shaw, making her one of the first Black women to work with an all-white orchestra. In 1939, Ethel Waters became the first African American to headline her own television program, The Ethel Waters Show on NBC.

1940s — Hailed as the “Godmother of Rock ’n’ Roll,” gritty gospel singer and guitar hero Sister Rosetta Tharpe inspired a generation of musicians, including Little Richard, Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin.

1950s — In 1955, Marian Anderson became the first Black soloist to perform with the New York Metropolitan Opera. Ella Fitzgerald became the first Black female singer to win a Grammy in 1958.

1960s — At the height of the civil rights movement, a pair of leading voices emerged: gospel great Mahalia Jackson and classically trained pianist Nina Simone. Jackson moved the masses with “How I Got Over” during Martin Luther King Jr.’s momentous March on Washington.  Simone penned and performed fiery protest songs such as 1964’s “Mississippi Goddam” and 1967’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.”

1970s — Famous for her disco anthem, “I Will Survive,” Gloria Gaynor became the first and only winner of the Best Disco Recording Grammy Award in 1979. Donna Summer, however, was the dancing queen who really put disco on the map. She won five Grammys and was the first artist to have three consecutive double albums reach No. 1.

1980s — Paving the way for future African American beauty queens, acclaimed actress and singer Vanessa Williams made history in 1983 as the first Black Miss America. Three decades later, the pageant’s CEO issued the Grammy-nominated, Hollywood Walk of Fame honoree an apology for any disrespect she experienced during the events that led to her stepping down. And it’s hard to believe, but it wasn’t until 1987 that Aretha “Queen of Soul” Franklin finally earned the respect she deserved and became the first woman ever to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

1990s — The voice of her generation, Whitney Houston became the first artist ever to have seven consecutive No. 1 singles. By the end of the century, on the strength of her shattering five-octave vocal range, Mariah Carey was crowned the most successful woman in the history of Billboard's Hot 100 chart. In 1999, Lauryn Hill broke ground as the first woman to win five or more Grammys in a single night. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was also the first hip-hop album to win the Album of the Year. For her sassy duet with Brandy, “The Boy is Mine,” then 18-year-old Monica became the youngest Black Grammy winner.

2000s to 2020s — Multi-talented Queen Latifah joined LL Cool J, Missy Elliott, Ice-T, Busta Rhymes, and many more to represent Hip-Hop in a once in a lifetime performance at the 2023 Grammys. She was the first female rapper to be nominated for an Academy Award for her memorable turn in Chicago in 2002. She’s used her music to promote positive images of women and to decry misogyny. Beyoncé, Earlier this year, the superstar made Grammy history as she took home four of the nine trophies she was nominated for. With those newly-added honors, she became the most-awarded musician in the half-century-long history of the Grammys.

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