Empowering Change: 40+ Influential Black Figures Making Global Impact

By Romy M January 8, 2024

This article was originally published on travelerdoor

Throughout history, Black people have had the odds stacked against them. They have faced many challenges and struggles solely due to the color of their skin. Despite this, many have risen above adversity and made a name for themselves as singers, actors, athletes, models, activists, entrepreneurs, and much more. It is important to recognize how these professionals have changed the world and become an inspiration to all, regardless of race and color. Some of the names and faces on this list need no introduction – from Michael Jordan to Oprah and Malcolm X. Without further ado, here are 45 famous Black people who will motivate you to bring about change in the world, strive for greatness, and never give up.

The Caribbean Queen

If you’re an avid pop or reggae listener, you definitely know Rihanna. You’ve probably heard of her music, even if you’re not a fan of the singer. She is so iconic that she is the recipient of 9 Grammy Awards. 

Image courtesy of badgalriri/Instagram

Rihanna hasn’t only made valuable contributions to the music industry, but she has also made a name for herself in the beauty industry (through Fenty Beauty), the fashion industry, and through philanthropy initiatives. All that’s left to say is that she’s the ultimate superstar. 

A Story of Strength and Courage – Lupita Nyong’o

There aren’t many actors who are as talented as Lupita Nyong’o. She starred alongside Chadwick Boseman (another legendary Black actor) in probably the most treasured Black superhero movie – Black Panther, frightened us with her scary-good acting in Us, and brought us to tears in 12 Years a Slave

Image courtesy of lupitanyongo/Instagram

Needless to say, Lupita is one of the best actors we’ve seen to date. But her acting means so much more when it’s done to inspire Black people. She has, and continues to, bring awareness to African culture in her films. 

Triple Threat Tyra

Tyra Banks has been making incredible strides as a model, television personality, actor, and more since she was just 15 years old. She has achieved a lot and was the first female Black American featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated and GQ. 

Image courtesy of tyrabanks/Instagram

We could speak endlessly of how she’s contributed to society as a Black woman in various industries, but instead, we’ll give you a short list of some of her ventures. She’s a co-author, cosmetics brand founder, and occasionally a guest lecturer. Talk about a triple threat. 

Serena Will… She Ever Lose?

Tennis fan or not, chances are you know Serena Williams. We’re sad to say that, as of recently, she’s no longer a tennis player, but her contributions are enough to last several lifetimes. Plus, she had to give the rest of them a chance after she won 23 Grand Slams. 

Image courtesy of serenawilliams/Instagram

We know you’re already highly impressed, but we must tell you that Williams was the first Black woman in 41 years to win a Grand Slam title (US Open Championship in 1999). She’s doing even more outside her beloved sport and changing the world for the better. 

Flourishing Fashionista

Telfar Clemens might sound familiar to you, but you’re not sure why. You’re probably thinking of the unisex clothing brand called Telfar. What do you know? Aside from being a fashion designer, Telfar Clemens is the founder of this popular unisex label. 

Image courtesy of chevaz clarke/cbs

In addition to Clemens’ indispensable contribution to the fashion industry, he also inspires Black members of the LGBTQ community. He’s the man to follow if you’re looking for a guiding light in the fashion industry. He’s won many awards, including the CFDA American Accessories in 2019.

Sir Lewis Hamilton

Did somebody ask for a 7-time World Formula One champion? He might look like a fashion model in this picture, but this is none other than Lewis Hamilton. This impressive man is the first and, currently, only black driver in F1. 

Image courtesy of lewishamilton/Instagram

Hamilton has broken several records in his Formula 1 career with 103 victories, 183 appearances on the podium, and 103 pole positions. He is also part of a handful of Black people to be knighted by Queen Elizabeth the Second. 

Chris Rock-s the World

You may be asking yourself, “Is that the guy who got slapped by Will Smith?” The answer is yes, but that’s not the point of this article. Alongside that embarrassing Oscars moment, Chris Rock is known for acting and stand-up comedy. 

Image courtesy of chrisrock/Instagram

As a funny guy, you would think Rock (not to be confused with The Rock) wouldn’t take things seriously. He actually addresses topics like race relations and human sexuality. But mostly, he’s adored for his loveable characters in various movies and TV shows. 

Basketball Icon

Michael Jordan is viewed as The GOAT of basketball. We’re not talking about the animal, but GOAt stands for greatest of all time. His career spanned over 15 seasons, and he was partly responsible for the popularization of basketball. Jordan is also a four-time gold medalist and a two-time Olympic champion (just saying). 

Image courtesy of RVR Photos/USA TODAY Sports

Jordan proved a valuable player on and off the court. To illustrate this, he has pledged $100 million to assist with issues that plague Black communities. And that’s just besides his revolutionizing the sneaker industry with the creation of Air Jordans. 

Arsenio Hall of Fame

Most folks fondly remember him as Semmi, Prince Akeem’s (Eddie Murphy) sidekick in the movie Coming to America, but Arsenio Hall has acted in several movies and TV shows, including Harlem Nights, Blankman, Brothers, Living Single, The Mayor, and Black Dynamite.

Image courtesy of s_bukley/Shutterstock

Besides helping writers get paid sufficiently, Hall has been a part of significant milestones for people of color. He was the first Black man to host a late-night talk show and has received many awards for his work as a talk show host and actor. 

Kobe!

This basketball player needs no introduction, but we’ll give him one anyway. Ladies and gentlemen, Kobe Bryant. Among many other things, he’s the guy whose name you say when shooting a paper ball into the trash can at school or work. 

Image courtesy of Keith Allison from Kinston, USA – RO9A3336 Kobe_Bryant_Drives.jpg / wikicommons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Many of you may know that Kobe and his daughter tragically died in a helicopter crash in 2020. His loss is not only felt in the basketball community but also in the lives that he touched through his many charitable works. 

“And in the Morning, I’m Making Waffles!”

This isn’t just Eddie Murphy. This is Prince Akeem, Rasputia, Donkey, Doctor Dolittle, and countless other characters that made us laugh uncontrollably. He is in the top ten of the greatest stand-ups of all time. And he is an actor who will live in our hearts forever. 

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Murphy’s achievements in the film industry have a special place in Black history. He is among the most successful African-American actors in motion picture business history. Aside from acting, he is an avid donator to several charities that support various causes.

Float Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee

If you’re looking for an inspiration, you’ve found him. Almost everyone knows Mohammed Ali as one of (if not) the greatest boxers of all time. But not many have heard of his positive impact on Black people and their causes.

Image courtesy of Scott Woodham Photography/Shutterstock

Ali was an advocate for black pride and resisted white supremacy. Yes, he was a three-time heavyweight champion in boxing and a legend paving the way for Black athletes and the Black community – especially during such a dark time. 

An Advocating Actress

Actress, author, mental health advocate, entrepreneur, and single mother – Taraji P. Henson. These are all the things Henson lists herself as on her Instagram profile. You may think it’s a lot, but she’s modest, considering her impact on the world. 

Image courtesy of tarajiphenson/Instagram

Remember when we said Henson is a mental health advocate? She’s the founder of an organization that aims to provide mental health support to schools in Black communities. Additionally, she is endeavoring to increase the number of Black therapists. 

The Fastest Man Alive

It’s difficult to know where to start when talking about someone as phenomenal as Usain Bolt. Perhaps we can begin with the many Olympic races he has won or the fact that he’s widely considered the greatest sprinter of all time.

Image courtesy of usainbolt/Instagram

Both aspects are true, but they don’t show all sides of the gold medalist. How he spent his 2016 Olympics earnings is noteworthy. Bolt donated all his $20 million to his high school in his native country. He’s not just an Olympic runner; he’s an inspiration. 

King of Cool

When we say Samuel L. Jackson, what’s the first thing you think of? Perhaps as an American actor who has appeared in at least 168 movies. Or do you know him as that guy who loves to say that specific swear word in most of his films?

Image courtesy of samuelljackson/Instagram

Those are all great reasons to know Jackson, but you should also be aware of some of his other contributions. For example, we bet you didn’t know he attended Martin Luther King’s funeral, which inspired him to take part in the civil rights movement. 

Tina’s Turning Heads

In 1939, a singer-songwriter megastar was born: Tina Turner. She accomplished so much during her lifetime, like winning a staggering 12 Grammys, selling over 100 million records, and being inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. 

Image courtesy of tinaturner/Instagram

Sadly, Turner passed away in 2023, leaving millions of people with broken hearts. She’s no longer with us, but she will always be remembered as an overcomer of adversity, the queen of rock ‘n’ roll, and much more. 

Moore Like an Inspiration

Many of the famous Black people we’ve been talking about have been making strides in their respective industries for decades. But this next African-American actor has only recently started their career and is already one of the most influential people in the world. 

Image courtesy of indyamoore/Instagram

As a trans person of color, Indya Moore has donated to causes for queer, trans-POC (and even sex workers and people with disabilities). Moore’s contributions aren’t just limited to donations; they are a role model for Black LGBTQ members around the world. 

Sun is Shining on Marley

We’re sure most of you could guess this one pretty quickly. Bob Marley’s unique and iconic look makes him very recognizable. But what would you say if we told you this wasn’t actually a picture of Bob Marley and, instead, a wax figure at Madame Tussauds?

Image courtesy of Denis Bourez from France – Madame Tussauds, London Uploaded bySunOfErat / wikicommons / CC BY 2.0

Even after his death, Marley impacted Jamaica’s healthcare, education, and community development through his foundation (Bob Marley Foundation). But besides that, he was seen as an ambassador for Jamaica and one of the pioneers of reggae. 

The First Idris

You might’ve been able to tell who this inspirational man is since his name is in block letters right before him. Now you know the name but might not know who he is. He’s one of the biggest English actors of today. 

Image courtesy of DFID – UK Department for International Development – Secretary of StateJustine and actor Idris Elba / wikicommons / CC BY 2.0

Elba doesn’t identify as a Black actor. You might think that’s bad, but hear us out first. His reasoning makes sense. He doesn’t want to be put in a box or be categorized in Hollywood. When he achieves something, he’s not just the first Black person to do it – he’s the first Idris. 

Brother Ray

This one is for the older generation. If you grew up in the 60s and 70s, you might have heard your parents listening to Ray Charles. He was one of history’s most influential singers, songwriters, and pianists, and his music lives on.

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You know the song, Hit the Road Jack? We bet you started singing it as you read the words. And the thing is, you’ll probably know the song even if you were born 40 years after its release. That’s how much of an icon Ray Charles was. 

Kamala has our Hearts

History is constantly being made. Several years ago, we witnessed the first Black man become president of the United States. And although there hasn’t been a Black woman as president, Kamala Harris became the first Black woman to be vice president of the same country. 

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Harris has been representing the Black community since her undergraduate days at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (more commonly known as MIT). She has continued this into her vice presidency by advancing equity in several communities and creating opportunities for Black people. 

We’ll Always Love Whitney

Without Whitney Houston, we would have nothing (get it?). All jokes aside, karaoke wouldn’t be the same if we didn’t have I Will Always Love You to sing terribly to. She is a fundamental part of pop and R&B culture. 

Image courtesy of Asterio Tecson – Flickr: 111 / wikicommons / CC BY-SA 2.0

We already know that Whitney Houston was one of the greatest singers of all time, but only a few know she was also a charity supporter and humanitarian. She believed she should use her success to help less fortunate people.

X-actly Who We Needed

You may be wondering why we’ve added another picture of MLK. However, this time, we’re talking about the man on the right, Malcolm X. He might not have been the face of the civil rights movement, but he was an incredibly prominent figure.

Image courtesy of Ed Ford, World Telegram staff photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Aside from Malcolm X’s obvious contributions, like aiding in achieving civil rights, he influenced the Black power movement and emphasized autonomy for Black people. He was a controversial figure, but there’s no doubt he made a vital contribution to society.

Hee Hee

It’s amazing how, before looking at this next image and reading this paragraph, you knew exactly who was being referred to by reading the words “hee hee.” When you can recognize someone by a sound, you know they’re iconic. 

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There’s not much we can say about Michael Jackson that’s not already known. With a career spanning 45 years and several chart-topping songs, almost everyone knows who he was and what he did. To summarize, he is a challenger of racial boundaries and the king of pop. 

Mr. Attorney General

Unless you’re deeply invested in United Nations affairs, you’ll likely be unaware of who Abubacarr Tambadou is. That’s not necessarily bad because now you’ll learn about the former minister of justice of the Gambia for the first time. 

Image courtesy of UN Photo / ICJ-CIJ / Frank van Beek

He has experience in international criminal justice and was listed as one of Time Magazine’s most influential people of 2020. He was even Gambia’s attorney general until 2020. That’s a lot to have accomplished by the age of 50. 

Greek Freak

Giannis Antetokounmpo is a Greek-Nigerian basketball player who is currently playing for the Milwaukee Bucks in the NBA. You would think he’s the only person of this background to play in the league, but you’d be surprised at how many there are (until you find out they’re all brothers). 

Image courtesy of Keith Allison from Hanover, MD, USA – GiannisAntetokounmpo / wikicommons / CC BY-SA 2.0

We don’t know what they’re feeding the Antetokounmpo family, but it must be good. Giannis has earned himself multiple NBA awards, including several Player of the Month awards. As if his basketball career wasn’t impressive enough, he has given back to his Greek and Nigerian communities at various times. 

Ava ‘Duing’ it Right

Have you ever wondered who made the films 13th, When They See Us, and Selma? Her name is Ava DuVernay. She is one of few filmmakers who explore the experiences of African Americans, such as the civil rights movement and racial imbalances of mass imprisonment.

Image courtesy of ava/Instagram

Her films have brought awareness to African Americans’ struggles, all while winning multiple awards (like an Emmy and an Oscar nomination). As though that wasn’t adequately noteworthy, she was the first African-American woman to be awarded best director at the Sundance Film Festival.

Stella Styles

With a timeless outfit like this, you know this is Stella Jean. She’s an Italian fashion designer – duh! What’s even more impressive than a fashion designer who can also style themselves? A self-taught fashion designer. And Stella is all three of those things.

Image courtesy of griotmag.com

Stella is of partial Haitian origin and loves to work with and uplift other African and Haitian artisans by integrating their work into her styles. Not to mention, she helps struggling communities and seeks to conserve their traditions. Go, Stella!

Halley Berrying the Haters

You might not be able to tell from her relaxed appearance, but you’re looking at Catwoman. That may have been merely one of Halle Berry’s more forgettable roles. However, she is a hero and an icon for many people of color. 

Image courtesy of halleberry/Instagram

Halle has achieved so much in her career, including becoming the first African American to win best actress at the Academy Awards (AKA the Oscars). It doesn’t end there. She is also an avid contributor to charities and organizations like the Make-A-Wish Foundation. 

The ‘Ball Method’ Founder

Alice Ball was an American chemist, and many don’t know about her existence or what she did for the world. She developed the most effective treatment for leprosy in 1915. She did this when she was only 23 years old. 

Image courtesy of https://www.lshtm.ac.uk/

The same year, Alice became the first African-American woman to obtain a master’s degree from the University of Hawaii. Unfortunately, she died a year later without receiving credit for her work. But today, she is remembered as an admirable pioneer. 

Michael Be Prospering

Michael B. Jordan (not to be confused with Michael Jordan) is a talented American actor. Many will know him as Creed, Killmonger, or any of his other captivating roles over the years. He is also the recipient of several NAACP Image awards. 

Image courtesy of Backgrid

He’s loved not only by millions of people worldwide but also seemingly by Ryan Coogler – the director of Creed, Black Panther, and Fruitvale Station. Coogler can’t get enough of Michael’s acting, and we don’t blame him. 

Cool as a Cucumber

Once again, we have someone who significantly impacted society, but no one really knows him or what he did. If you’ve ever bought refrigerated items from a store, you should thank Mr. Jones for inventing mobile refrigeration since he helped it get there fresh and cold. 

Image courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

As you can tell by now, Jones was an American inventor and entrepreneur. He was awarded the National Medal of Technology and the first Black man to be a member of the American Society of Refrigeration Engineers. So, think of him the next time you enjoy an ice cream. 

Frances’ Fight for Freedom

If you’re American, odds are the name Frances Harper rings a bell. You’re probably trying to remember who she is. If you take yourself back to high school English class, you might recall reading one or two of her poems. 

Image courtesy of https://www.literaryladiesguide.com/

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (what a name!) was one of the first Black women to have their work published in the United States. Much of her work was about womanhood and urging African Americans to strive for freedom. 

Kiki the Kicker

Whether you are a football fan or not, you’ll know who Kylian Mbappé is. If you don’t, don’t worry about it – we’ll give you more information about the man. Mbappé is a French footballer who is currently playing for Paris Saint-Germain. 

Image courtesy of k.mbappe/Instagram

The talented footballer has won many awards despite his young age (24 years old). An example of one of his impressive achievements is the FIFA World Cup Golden Boot. More impressively, he often speaks out about experiences of racism in the football world. 

An Acting Activist

We know what you’re thinking – we’re supposed to keep Will Smith’s wife’s name out of our mouths. But we’ll be saying some positive things, so hopefully, we don’t get slapped by the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Without further ado, Jada Pinkett Smith. 

Image courtesy of jadapinkettsmith/Instagram

Jada is a gifted American actress and talk show host. You may know her as the beloved Gloria from Madagascar. Besides brightening our childhoods with funny characters, she is an activist for causes such as education, diversity, and justice. 

A Life-Saving Researcher

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Jean-Jacques Muyembe-Tamfum (give us a second while we breathe). Besides having an impressively long and somewhat complicated name, Muyembe-Tamfum is known for his vital microbiology work in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

Image courtesy of John Bompengo / Radio Okapi

Remember when everyone was freaking out over the Ebola virus, and we all thought it would turn into a pandemic? Well, we all need to say a massive thank you to Muyembe-Tamfum for discovering the virus in 1976 and developing an anti-Ebola serum therapy. 

A Legendary Man

John Legend – the name speaks for itself. It may not be his real name, but he lives up to it. John (born John Roger Stephens) is an American singer-songwriter with the most soulful and powerful voice you’ll ever hear.

Image courtesy of johnlegend/Instagram

The American singer has made quite a name for himself as a twelve-time Grammy Award winner in the music industry. He is also a coach on The Voice (as you can see from this picture) and even won season 16 of the show.

NASA Space Man

There are few astronauts like Victor J. Glover over here. He was the first African-American ISS Expedition Crewmember to reside on the ISS (International Space Station). He spent 168 days in orbit and went on four spacewalks. That’s not too bad for a former US Senate Legislative Fellow.

Image courtesy of cbwaddell5 / twitter

Glover still hasn’t had enough as a NASA astronaut, naval aviator, and legislative fellow. He wants to achieve more, may lead a mission to Mars, and be the first American to do so. We can only imagine having a resume like his.

Outstanding Oprah

This woman needs no introduction. Probably very few people hear the name Oprah and don’t immediately think, “You get a car, you get a car!” Obviously, that’s not the only thing Oprah is known for, but it might be the most iconic. 

Image courtesy of Oprah/Instagram

Apart from giving away motor vehicles and money, Oprah Winfrey has actively participated in philanthropy. She has assisted public and art schools and funded women’s shelters. Plus, she was the first African-American woman to own a production company. 

Wrighting History

Prepare to be amazed by Jason Wright. He is a former NFL football player who studied psychology and is the current president of the Washington Commanders of the NFL. This guy is a triple threat if we’ve ever seen one.

Image courtesy of mckinsey.com

Wright’s achievements don’t end there. He is the first Black president of a team in NFL history. He changed the team’s name from an offensive and racist term to something more appropriate, helping combat systemic racism in the sport. 

The President’s Stamp of Approval

There’s a lot to say about Barack and Michelle Obama, but we’ll save that for another day. This time, we’re talking about Sidney Poitier. He was the first Bahamian and Black actor to win Best Actor at the Academy Awards.

Image courtesy of BarackObama/Twitter

We know you’re wondering about what’s going on in this photograph, so we won’t leave you hanging. In 2009, Barack Obama awarded Poitier with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Obama praised him by saying he “opened doors for a generation of actors.” 

The Marshall Way

Undoubtedly, this woman is impressive – just look at that professional yet fashionable outfit. We would’ve thought Cynt Marshall was a mayor or governor. It turns out she’s the CEO of the Dallas Mavericks (a basketball team in the NBA). 

Image courtesy of cyntgm/Instagram

What’s more impressive than a female CEO? The first African-American female CEO in NBA history. She’s also a wife, mother of four children, and a cancer survivor while managing an NBA team. Her name should be in the dictionary as a definition of the word iconic. 

Distinguished Diana

How do we introduce someone who is one of the most famous singers and actresses of all time? Do we start with her rise to fame as the girl group ‘The Supremes’ lead singer? Or should we tell you about her 13 Grammy nominations? 

Image courtesy of dianaross/Instagram

As you can now probably tell, Diana Ross is a national treasure. People, young and old, adore her. And if you don’t believe us, this picture speaks a thousand words. You’d have to be pretty loved to have people hand you a bouquet and spell your name in flowers. 

Black Lives Matter Pioneer

Last but not least, we present Patrisse Cullors. Some might not know her face, but you’ve definitely heard of her movement. She is the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement. She created the hashtag in 2013 and has spoken and written about it since. 

Image courtesy of frieze.com

She is an American activist and has been recognized numerous times for her efforts. In 2015, the National Congress of Black Women presented her with the Black Woman of the Year award. She continues to advocate for human rights and many other causes.

I Have a Dream – Martin Luther King Jr.

You didn’t think we could create a list of the most famous black people without Martin Luther King Jr., did you? How could we leave out the remarkable man who fought for civil rights and racial justice in America?

Image courtesy of David Erickson, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

MLK made some of the most valuable contributions to society and equality while maintaining a peaceful protest approach. Although he was assassinated before he could see progress, we’re sure he’d be proud of everyone on this list today. Indeed, he had a dream.