In less than 2 weeks, we’ll say goodbye to the 2010s and step into a brand new decade. Looking back on the past 10 years, it’s a bit mind-boggling to recall the numerous social, political, and pop culture events that have come to epitomize this era: Occupy Wall Street, President Barack Obama’s second term, and the introduction of the iPad all happened between 2010-2019. The now-ubiquitous photo-sharing app, Instagram, launched in 2010; Spotify, arguably the platform that single-handedly re-defined how we discover, collect, and listen to music, finally became available in the U.S. in 2011; and a string of natural disasters–hurricanes, earthquakes, and a tsunami–literally rocked the planet. And of course, there was the 2016 election.
African Americans and POC played a critical role in some of the most memorable and significant moments of the decade as well. From wildly viral Vine videos that made personalities like Jay Versace and Liza Khoshy household names, to the emergence of Black Twitter, Black Lives Matter, and the surge of new, young, independent Black writers, artists, filmmakers, and content creators carving space for themselves across traditional and digital media, there is no denying that Black and non-Black POC continued to influence culture on a global scale.
With so many critical happenings in the last decade, identifying the most important was no small task. But NMAAM never backs down from a challenge, and as the only museum to chronicle and celebrate the complete history of African American music, we set out to narrow down the 10 most important moments in Black music from 2010-2019. Here’s our year-by-year list:
Introducing…Janelle Monáe’s ArchAndroid
The decade began with a stunning full-length, major-label debut from Janelle Monáe, ArchAndroid. Although she was no stranger to the music scene–the Atlanta-based singer, songwriter, and producer had already made waves with her 2003 demo release, The Audition, and her 2007 EP, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), 2010 solidified Monáe as a multi-talented tour de force who had no plans of taking her foot off our necks. With her signature black and white costumes, pompadour-esque coif, and throwback moves evocative of James Brown, Janelle Monáe’s kinetic live performances earned her critical and popular acclaim. She closed out this banner year as a featured performer during Prince’s Welcome 2 America Tour run at Madison Square Garden.
Esperanza Spalding Stuns with Best New Artist Win at the GRAMMYs
The GRAMMYs are never short on surprises, snubs, and upsets, and the 53rd annual celebration of Music’s Biggest Night in 2011 is no exception. Multi-faceted musical prodigy Esperanza Spalding, who had already begun to build buzz throughout the jazz community with her albums Junjo (2006) and Esperanza (2008), and whose 2010 release Chamber Music Society topped the U.S. jazz charts, stunned the industry and fans when she beat out Justin Bieber and Drake for Best New Artist. With a style that veers towards experimentation and blends various strains of jazz, funk, pop, classical, and soul, Spalding’s unexpected win catapulted her into even greater notoriety among music lovers.
Robert Glasper’s Afrofuturism
With a name that’s become synonymous with collaboration and innovation, musician and producer Robert Glasper emerged onto the scene playing with greats such as Terence Blanchard, Christian McBride, and the late Roy Hargrove. He followed his 2004 debut independent release, Mood, with a string of successful recordings on Blue Note Records. But it was his 2012 Blue Note release, Black Radio, that established Glasper as one of this generation’s most exciting and refreshingly unpredictable artists. The album, with featured appearances by Erykah Badu, Yasiin Bey, Common, Bilal, Stokley Williams (Mint Condition), and Lalah Hathaway, and seamlessly connected the dots between jazz, R&B, hip-hop, and Afrofuturism, won the GRAMMY for Best R&B Album in 2013.
Beyoncé Drops Her Surprise Self-Titled Visual Album
Under cover of darkness on December 13, 2013, Beyoncé delivered Beyoncé, her self-titled visual album, and shook the world to its core. The Bey Hive clamored to iTunes to download the Queen’s fifth studio album, a collection of songs featuring the likes of Jay-Z, Frank Ocean, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and young mogul in the making, Blue Ivy Carter. The short films accompanying the album became instant classics, and the album itself shot immediately to #1 on the Billboard Hot 200.
Artists Turn Activists in Ferguson
In August 2014, a white police officer gunned down Michael Brown, an unarmed, 18-year-old African American man, in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, MO. The officer, who would later be identified as Darren Wilson, left Brown’s lifeless body in the middle of the street for four hours, prompting an outpouring of outrage, sorrow, and public mourning from residents in Ferguson and surrounding areas. In the days that followed, calls for police accountability sparked protests as this senseless killing drew national attention. Artists such as Talib Kweli, Killer Mike, and Common traveled to Ferguson to take part in demonstrations against police brutality; others, such as Solange, Beyoncé, Nas, and Alicia Keys, spoke out publicly against Brown’s death and the escalating tensions on the ground in Ferguson and across the country.
Jay-Z Launches a TIDAL Wave of Epic Proportions
Hip-hop artist and “business, man” Jay-Z made a splash in early 2015 when he acquired the Norwegian company Aspiro and its music streaming platform, TIDAL. With a host of A-listers by his side–including wife Beyoncé and collaborator Kanye West, as well as Nicki Minaj, Madonna, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, and others–to officially launch the subscription-based service, Jay-Z’s vision for the artist-owned TIDAL was to provide superior high-definition sound quality for listeners, and to pay artists considerably more per stream than platforms such as Spotify and iTunes. Also among TIDAL’s key selling points was a slate of exclusive, members-only content offerings that would certainly generate more than a little bit of FOMO amongst those who hadn’t yet signed up.
There must have been something in the water in 2016, because the top of that year ushered in a series of devastating pop culture losses one after the other. British rock icon David Bowie departed the earthly plane in January, followed just weeks later in February by Earth, Wind & Fire co-founder and front man, Maurice White, after a years-long battle with Parkinson’s Disease. Just as we began to catch our collective breaths, Denise Matthews, the former lead singer of Vanity 6 and star of Motown’s The Last Dragon, who had stepped out of the spotlight decades before, passed the following week. Then in March, Malik Taylor, aka Pfife Dawg, hip-hop artist and member of the legendary hip-hop group, A Tribe Called Quest, died due to complications from diabetes. Perhaps the most shocking loss of 2016 was Prince, who died of an accidental opioid overdose on April 21 at his Paisley Park compound outside Minneapolis; soul singer Billy Paul was next, passing just 3 days later at the age of 81. In June, The Greatest, Muhammad Ali, took his final bow. Soul and R&B artist Sharon Jones died in November after her courageous fight against cancer, and on Christmas day, soulful British pop legend George Michael, who dominated urban radio in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, bid adieu.
The Dawn of the Cardi B. Era
Some of the most prolific and influential artists of the decade were women and, more specifically, women in hip-hop. While Nicki Minaj, Rapsody, Noname and other women MCs continued to body most of their male counterparts throughout the 2010s, newcomer Cardi B. was quietly plotting her arrival with a string of mixtapes and guest appearances. In 2017, the former Love & Hip-Hop: New York star smashed the charts with her debut single, “Bodak Yellow,” topping the Billboard Hot 100 as the first female hip-hop artist to snag the coveted spot since Lauryn Hill in 1998.
By this point, most people have come to expect the unexpected from Beyoncé; from her surprise album releases to her surprise pregnancy reveals, the global superstar has mastered the art of keeping her moves as silent as the g in “lasagne.” When word came that she would have to postpone her eagerly anticipated Coachella appearance in 2017 per her doctor’s orders (she was pregnant with twins, Sir and Rumi, at the time), fans waited with baited breath to learn when–or if–she would perform at the annual festival. Never one to disappoint, Beyoncé showed up and showed out at Coachella in 2018, complete with magnificent costumes from Balmain and a massive HBCU marching band accompanying her. Unbeknownst to fans at the time, “Beychella” was also being filmed to be released as the Netflix documentary, HΘMΣCΘMING, which received six 2019 Creative Emmys nominations, and an accompanying live album.
Lizzo Makes Us Feel “Good As Hell”
If it’s true what they say, that it takes years to become an overnight success, then 2019’s breakout star, Lizzo, is proof positive that timing is everything. The Detroit-born singer, songwriter, and rapper studied classical music–flute, to be exact–at the University of Houston before relocating to Minneapolis. There, she performed with the soul group Lizzo & the Larva Inks and the hip-hop trio the Chalice and, in 2013, dropped her debut hip-hop album, Lizzobangers. She and her Chalice cohorts were featured on Prince and 3rd Eye Girl’s 2014 track, “BOYTROUBLE,” and in 2015, Lizzo released her second album, Big GrrrI Small World to critical acclaim. Her 2016 Atlantic EP, Coconut Oil, produced the wildly popular single “Good As Hell” and the hilarious “Phone.” She followed with the catchy single, “Truth Hurts,” in 2017. With her undeniable star power firmly established, Lizzo released her first major-label full-length album, Cuz I Love You, in 2019; however, her album was all but overshadowed as “Truth Hurts” suddenly shot to the top of the charts two years after its release. At the close of one whirlwind of a year, the flute-playing, twerking queen of self-love and infectious tunes was crowned Entertainer of the Year by both Time and Entertainment Weekly.