In honor of Black History Month, we’re celebrating some of the most influential Black LGBTQ+ artists in the entertainment industry. Their work is inspirational and impactful, not to mention the incredible obstacles they have overcome to be seen for the true artists they are. These individuals are also among the first Black LGBTQ+ artists to win Oscars, Grammys and Golden Globes.
Without further ado, here are 10 Black LGBTQ+ entertainers you should know.
Black LGBTQ+ Entertainers in Film and Television
A screenwriter, producer, and actress, Lena Waithe has an incredible talent for comedy. She starred in the Netflix comedy series Master of None (2015-2017) where she really made a name for herself.
Waithe became the first Black woman to win the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series in 2017 with her semi-autobiographical episode of “Thanksgiving.” The episode is poignant and beautiful, while still maintaining the signature comedy of Master of None.
While Master of None was a huge success for Waithe, she went on to create three more Showtime drama series: The Chi (2018-present), Boomerang (2019-present), and Twenties (2020-present). She also appeared in Ready Player One (2018). Waithe made her filmmaking debut as screenwriter and producer for Queen & Slim, which is on our best social justice films of the decade list.
RuPaul really does it all. An actor, model, singer, songwriter, and television personality, RuPaul is also one of the most recognizable American drag queens.
In 1992, RuPaul released his first single Supermodel (You Better Work) which won a nomination for the MTV Music Video Award for Best Dance Video. When he became a spokesperson for MAC Cosmetics in 1994, he was the first drag queen to score a major cosmetics campaign. RuPaul has been everywhere since.
He is probably best known for RuPaul’s Drag Race, a four-time Primetime Emmy award-winning show (2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019) that he hosts and produces. As VOGUE put it, “The world fell head over heels for RuPaul.”
Yance Ford is the first of many Black trans artists to be nominated for an Oscar for directing. His documentary, Strong Island, is a powerful film about racial injustice and a story from Ford’s own personal life—the murder of his brother. The Oscar nomination was accompanied by an Emmy Award that year, and Ford was the first openly transgender filmmaker to win a Creative Arts Emmy.
Ford’s courage in portraying the story of his family won him not only nominations and awards but also the admiration of the Black community. Just like his recognition from Filmmaker as one of the 25 New Faces of Independent Film shows, Yance Ford is definitely a filmmaker to keep an eye on.
You might recognize Syd by her stage name “Syd the Kid.” Syd’s “soothing” and “silky-toned” voice has wowed audiences across the globe. The only woman in the band Odd Future, Syd started out as a DJ in a West London hotel. She has come a long way from those DJ days, and is now part of a band, Internet, while simultaneously performing as an acclaimed solo artist.
Syd navigated the world of music from a small child thanks to her musical family who encouraged her talent. She attended Hamilton Music Academy at the end of her high school days, began making music while still living at home, and even built her own music studio there.
While Syd is open about her sexuality, it’s important to her that it doesn’t define her career. “I don’t consider myself a lesbian. I consider myself a girl, a woman, a businesswoman…. I’m the only person like me that I know.”
Tarell Alvin McCraney
Known for the film Moonlight (Winner of Best Picture, 89th Academy Awards), writer and producer Tarell Alvin McCraney has quite the CV as a playwright before he turned to film. With several plays performed in London’s West End, McCraney’s playwriting status reached an incredible high when he became the RSC/Warwick International Playwright in Residence for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2008.
The film, Moonlight, is based on McCraney’s autobiographical drama school project In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. His incredible story of courage in coming out and reaching for his dreams is inspirational in myriad ways, not only as a Black, gay man but also a depiction of the American Dream.
Black LGBTQ+ Artists in Music and Performance
NPR calls her the “21st Century’s Ambassador of Freedom,” and Big Freedia embraces that role with grace and enthusiasm. Big Freedia’s debut album in 2003, Queen Diva, was not her first success in the music industry. In 1999, her single “An Ha, Oh Yeah” took the New Orlean’s club scene by storm as her “bounce music” became popular in clubs.
When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, she was one of the first artists back to reinvigorate the city. She performed “FEMA Fridays” at the only open club for weeks.
Big Freedia is still in high demand for performances, but her abilities and talents go beyond the stage. She’s an actress, author, activist, dancer, and operates an interior design business.
Though we know Billy Porter as a pop vocalist, his first impact on the music scene was on Broadway. He calls it “extreme singing,” where he put his incredible voice to use to pay the bills. But playing the flamboyant queen wasn’t where Porter wanted his voice to take him. In the late ‘90s, he split that scene and began writing shows and appearing in films before releasing his solo album in 1997.
Billy Porter sent shockwaves through the entertainment world when he wore a fitted tuxedo jacket and a stunning velvet gown by Christian Sirano to the 91st Academy Awards. Since then his status as a fashion icon brings his name to the forefront at any gala.
A singer, performer, and actress, Janelle Monae wears many hats in the entertainment world. She has won MTV and ASCAP awards, as well as Billboard’s Women in Music Rising Star Award in 2015. She has been a Covergirl spokesperson, starred in Hidden Figures (2016) and Moonlight (2016) which won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and has become a fashion icon.
In 2018, Janelle Monae came out as pansexual in an interview with Rolling Stone. Her coming out might have been shocking to some, but many saw it in her music for years. Now, Monae wears her many hats with grace, all while doing her best to be an activist for #MeToo and Time’s Up where she says: “We come in peace, but we mean business.”
Frank Ocean’s experimental approach to music makes it rather difficult to place his music in any one genre. R&B, pop, avant-garde—either way, it’s beautiful and unconventional. British GQ, and others, say he has revitalized jazz and funk-infused R&B, bringing it back into vogue in popular music. In 2013, Ocean was nominated for Album of the Year and then won Best Urban Contemporary Album at the Grammy Awards.
Ocean continues to wow music listeners with his experimental songs and albums. His latest album Blonde (2016) received widespread acclaim from critics and fans alike.
Lil Nas X
American rapper, singer, and songwriter, Lil Nas X, achieved mass popularity with his single “Old Town Road.” The song originally went viral on TikTok, so much in fact, that it began climbing music charts internationally in 2019 to become diamond certified by November. But “Old Town Road” didn’t stop there. It remained at the top of Billboard Hot 100 for 19 weeks, the longest-running number-one song on the chart since 1958.
When “Old Town Road” made him a superstar, at the incredible age of 19, Lil Nas X decided to use his fame to “represent the LGBT Community.” For years he had hidden his sexuality, hoping that blending in would save him from the pain of bullying and homophobia saying he “planned to die with the secret.” Fame has been good to Lil Nas X so far, and he has used his awards, nominations, and newfound limelight to stand up for Black queer artists and all who struggle with their sexuality.