From rap to R&B, adult contemporary to jazz, black singers influence nearly every musical genre. The talent of black men and women peaked in the 1990s, when black personalities were gracing the spectrum of radio, music videos, and live shows across the world.
Building on a solid foundation, the future of black musicianship appears strong. Read on to learn more about some of the most famous black singers of the 1990s, their unique careers, and the songs that continue influencing modern music.
1. Whitney Houston
With a powerful sound that sustains across time and categorization, Whitney Houston was undoubtedly one of the great musical personalities of the 90s. It’s no surprise that her nickname is “The Voice.”
Houston is the only artist with Billboard Top 100 singles for seven consecutive songs. Her hits like “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and “How Will I Know” became instant dance-pop classics.
Outside the music industry, her acting debut came opposite Kevin Costner in the blockbuster film The Bodyguardwith the film also featuring her hit song “I Will Always Love You”.
Unfortunately, the latter part of Houston’s life dealt with the controversy surrounding her marriage to abuser Bobby Brown and her untimely death stemming from drug involvement.
However, the life that ended too quickly leaves behind a legendary musical influence that will sustain over time.
Usher is one of history’s best-selling artists in any genre. His sultry-smooth vocals first garnered worldwide attention in the late 90s, though the height of his sustained career for another decade past that.
His self-titled album from 1994 jumpstarted his career, to be followed by My Way in 1997. The earliest songs from these albums that catapulted him to fame include “Nice & Slow,” “You Make Me Wanna…” and “My Way.”
Aside from music, Usher has gained the reputation of being an enduring sex symbol, which partners well with his style of music. He has also branched out into acting, contributed to humanitarian causes, and runs a record label.
3. Janet Jackson
Janet Jackson is probably one of the biggest names among black female performers of the 1990s. Her L Rhythm Nation 1814 was the best-selling album of the year 1990 and helped launch her to the spot of the second most successful recording artist (after Mariah Carey).
Jackson is the youngest child of the Jackson family and had music in her upbringing. She eventually split off as a solo artist and her 90s-era singles “That’s the Way Love Goes” and “Together Again” saw monumental success.
Jackson is known for displaying overt sexuality in her lyrics and live performance, a controversy similar to Madonna’s but with an added racial component.
She has won countless awards from Billboard, the Grammys, and the American Music Awards.
4. Snoop Dog
Calvin Broadus Jr., known better as Snoop Dogg, first found fame in 1992 when he linked up with Dr. Dre on his debut single, “Deep Cover.”
His album Doggystyleproduced by Dre, then went quadruple platinum with hits like “Gin and Juice” and “What’s My Name?”.
One of the most popular rappers of all time, his notoriety stems from his quirky persona and public promotion of marijuana usage as well as his music.
He has been an actor, a WrestleMania announcer, and a TV personality, and released both a reggae and a gospel album in addition to his well-known hip-hop catalog.
Before her global success as a solo artist, the powerhouse known as Beyonce was one of three singers in the girl group Destiny’s Child.
This is where she found success in the latter part of the 90s, with the band’s hits including “Say My Name” and “Bills, Bills, Bills.”
Her full, versatile voice has an impressive range, and she adorns melodies with trills and other ornamentations that add to her unmistakable sound.
Though she currently sells out arenas, her fame in the 90s was more modest, due to her involvement in Destiny’s Child which pre-dated her independent career.
6. Tupac Shakur
As one of the biggest names in gangsta rap, Tupac Shakur reached his peak in the 90s, and also, unfortunately, passed away.
At the height of his career, Shakur (stylized “2pac”) was murdered in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas. His legacy lives on in the enduring popularity of his albums like 2Pacalypse Now and Me Against the World.
More than a musician, 2pac also made his foray into acting with several movies in the 90s.
He is most famous for his West Coast style of rapping, which incorporated socially-conscious lyrics and themes of poverty, fame, and race.
7. Toni Braxton
With hits like “Un-Break My Heart” and “You’re Makin’ Me High/Let It Flow,” Toni Braxton is one of the most enduring singers of the 90s.
The rich, low tones in her voice made for an iconic sound that garnered her three Grammys over the course of her career, which extended well into the 2000s.
Her accolades also include nods from Billboard, the American Music Awards, and the Soul Train Music Awards.
Like many other artists of this era, she branched out from singing to becoming an actress and TV personality.
8. Darius Rucker
Today, Darius Rucker is a respected country artist, with a Country Music Association’s New Artist Award, the second-ever spot on Billboard’s “Hot Country Songs” list, and other honors. He began this phase of his career with Capitol Records Nashville in 2008.
However, Rucker’s iconic baritone first became recognizable across country and pop radio alike in the 1990s, as the frontman for Hootie and the Blowfish.
This rock band formed at the University of South Carolina in the mid-80s and would go on to top pop/rock charts throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.
It’s perhaps no surprise that his voice transcended genre and color barriers to become a staple in both rock and country. He’s an artist whose rich vocals are sure to remain popular for years to come.
Related: Check out our article on other famous black country singers.
Sade is an unusual inclusion on this list for a few reasons. For one, she is not African-American, but instead was born in Nigeria and spent most of her professional and private life in England.
The artist’s band takes her name, and provides the sound she is known for – an ambient, cool jazz feel more suited to coffeeshops than a club.
Though she never saw global success such as that of Janet Jackson, she is a fixture of her particular genre.
Sade’s career spans the 1980s to the early 2000s, with albums Love Deluxe and Greatest Hits falling into the middle of the 1990s.
10. Tracy Chapman
Tracy Chapman’s career began in the late 1980s, and she had already become a household name by the year 1990.
However, her most famous song, “Give Me One Reason,” comes from her fourth studio album released in 1995, called New Beginning which reached platinum status.
Chapman’s androgynous low-octave range, as well as her blues-rock style, made an impression on the music industry in a more low-key way than her pop superstar contemporaries.
She remains one of the most influential blues and folk musicians of the era.
Related: The greatest black singers of the 1980s.
11. Vanessa Williams
A former beauty queen, Vanessa Williams is the first African-American woman to receive the title of Miss America, which she won in 1984.
Following controversy over Penthouse Magazine photographs, she left modeling and embarked on a successful singing career, which sustained her in the public eye from the late 1980s to the 2000s, when she pivoted to acting.
Her number-one hit, “Save the Best For Last,” earned her a Grammy when it hit the airwaves 1992.
The 90s brought her second and third studio albums, The Comfort Zone and The Sweetest Dayswhich propelled her vocal career through the decade.
Known as the “Princess of R&B” and “Queen of Urban Pop,” Aaliyah is another singer whose career was cut tragically short with her death in a plane crash, at the age of just 22.
A former Star Search Darling, her career was already going full steam ahead by her teens, when she became embroiled in controversy with her marriage to R. Kelly at 15.
She’s perhaps best recognized for her debut hit single “Back and Forth,” from her 1994 album Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number – a fitting title for this precocious artist.
13. Mary J. Blige
Known as the “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul,” Mary J. Blige got signed to her first label in 1991, kicking off the decade as the driving force of music she would turn out to be.
Her music, energy, and style dominated the 1990s and beyond, making her one of the preeminent rappers and female music icons of the era.
Blige has won awards from nearly every music-industry titan, including Billboard, ASCAP, and VH1, whose list of “The 100 Greatest Women in Music” ranked her #9.
Brandy Norwood, who only goes by her first name professionally, was a fresh-faced alternative to the grungy rap and R&B of the 90s.
With a smiling pop persona tinged with mild sex appeal similar to Mandy Moore, she began as a backup singer for a boy band before her independent solo career.
In general, she never saw the industry fame of some bigger names, but her hit “The Boy is Mine” with Monica became the most successful song by a female duo in music history.
She also earned multiple Grammy nominations and awards before departing music in favor of a rewarding TV career.
Singer-songwriter Kenneth Edmonds, better known as Babyface, is one of the smoothest and most recognizable voices of the 90s.
He found success in the music industry not just with his singing, but also by penning popular songs for other artists, including Boyz II Men and Aretha Franklin.
His studio albums For the Cool in You and The Day dropped in 1993 and 1996 respectively, planting his music career firmly in the middle of the before he added an acting and record producer decade to his impressive resume.
Summing Up Our List Of Famous Black 90s Singers
Spanning decades and musical genres, black singers have been integral in revolutionizing music and pushing its theoretical boundaries in the process.
From old-school hip hop and R&B to country and pop, each of these singers is a trailblazer in their craft.
We recommend taking some time to listen to these singers to fully appreciate their contribution to music as we know it today.
You might be amazed by what you uncover within their melodies and lyrics!