The saying that “necessity is the mother of invention” applies directly to our community. In America, where hollow versions of Black culture are mass produced for profit while Black bodies are simultaneously violated and maligned, it takes a special type of person to not only survive, but thrive. The necessity is to stay alive and the invention is the countless ways that Black people have found to protect and support the only ones who can save us: ourselves.
TheGrio’s Blk Genius list is full of the people who embody the brightest, the boldest and the best of our rich culture. They are the high achievers, culture shifters, narrative disruptors and, yes, inventors who provide hope when times are bleak and produce reality checks when a fleeting good moment has been mistaken for a permanent solution.
Every day in February, we’ll unveil a new Blk Genius. We’re also launching an interview series where we sit down with folks who inspire us to talk about life, love, career and community. Let us know who you’d like to hear from!
28. Ben Crump and Lee Merritt
As social media continues to churn out a seemingly endless number of names and hashtags associated with police fatalities, attorneys Benjamin Crump and Lee Merritt have been on the frontlines fighting for justice and change. Many people first became aware of Ben Crump in 2012 when he was asked to represent the family of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teenage boy who was shot to death by an over-zealous, self- appointed “neighborhood watch.” Martin’s death eventually sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. In the years since Martin was killed, Crump and Merritt have represented several other families scarred by police violence. Merritt is the attorney for the family of Botham Jean, the unarmed Black man who was shot and killed in his own apartment by an off-duty police officer. Crump and Merritt have taken on the heavy responsibility of continuing to march towards justice for their clients even in the face of almost unimaginable horrors and heartbreak. Many of their clients are parents who have been thrown into a world of activism after losing a child because of seemingly racist, homophobic, and sexist attitudes. Crump and Merritt are champions who are aiming to keep the sanctity of civil rights preserved ensuring that more parents won’t have to endure that bottomless grief.
27. Yara Shahidi
Actress, model, and philanthropist Yara Shahidi is growing up right in front of our eyes on television every week. The 19-year-old captured fans with her character Zoey on ABC’s Black-ish and its spin-off Grown-ish. Shahidi is an avid social media user like most of Generation Z, but she posts much more than just perfect selfies. The Harvard undergrad uses her platform to condemn injustice and fight for equality. Last year, she founded the organization Eighteen x 18 ahead of the midterm elections to help get young people registered to vote and to the polls. Shahidi also lended a hand to Forever First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn initiative. This talented teen is a superstar with a purpose.
26. Janet Mock
As a Black transgender woman, Janet Mock understands what it means to be a member of marginalized communities and she uses her considerable platform to highlight untold stories, triumphs, and injustices. The Hawaiian-born activist penned eye-opening Marie Claire articles about being a transgender woman of color and how the LGBTQ+ community is portrayed in media. Mock has two bestselling memoirs in bookstores and she is the executive producer of the groundbreaking FX series Pose, which drops viewers off on the dancefloor of 1980s New York ball competitions. Authoritative voices such as Oprah Winfrey and bell hooks have heaped deserved praise on Mock for her diligent activism and creativity. Mock’s important work makes the world a safer and better place.
25. Luvvie Ajayi
Luvvie Ajayi, a Nigerian native and longtime Chicago resident, is a New York Times Best Selling author whose public writing began back in 2003 on her Awesomely Luvvie site. Always right on the pulse of pop culture, Luvvie amassed an impressive online following full of fans who eagerly anticipated her commentary and unique recaps of popular television shows like Scandal. In 2016, Luvvie took her talents from the digital screen to the book page with her debut book I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual. With a certified hit on her hands, Luvvie’s star rose even higher. She held a sold-out event at the prestigious National Museum of African American History and Culture and she launched two podcasts (“Jesus and Joloff” with co-host actress/comedian Yvonne Oriji and “Rants and Randomness”). Luvvie’s success is proof that Black creatives can thrive while still remaining authentic to themselves and their culture.
24. Simone Biles
Simone Biles carries the distinction of being the first American ever to win a medal in every event at the World Gymnastics Championship. The 21-year-old pulled off the feat last year in Qatar where she snagged six medals. Even more stunning about her achievement is that Biles was hospitalized just one day before the competition with a kidney stone. Biles vaulted into the world’s heart during the 2016 Olympics where she earned three gold medals and a bronze as a teenager. ESPN named her the Most Dominant Athlete of 2018 and the tite is well deserved. Through her undeniable gymnastic abilities and her unwavering advocacy for sexual assault victims, Biles is part of the new generation of activist athletes. At not even 5’ tall, this tiny Texas powerhouse is showing little Black girls everywhere that anything is possible.
23. Donald Glover
Donald Glover has excelled at pretty much everything he’s tried his hand at and he’s tried a lot. As a rapper with the name Childish Gambino, Glover has earned five Grammy Awards. The powerful video for “This is America” sparked nationwide conversations about race, class, violence, and systemic oppression. As the creator, lead actor, writer, and occasional director of the hit FX series Atlanta, Glover has two Emmys and two Golden Globes. He’s even good at dancing. Though Glover hasn’t won any awards for that, he does have an avatar in Google’s Playground on Pixel that players can dance with using augmented reality (AR). There’s seems to be nothing Glover can’t achieve, so we’ll just wait for his next burst of brilliance.
22. Angela Rye
Angela Rye is a political commentator, podcaster, and everyone’s favorite “cousin in their head.” On her Twitter bio, Rye calls herself the “#TruthBringer in Chief” and it’s hard to deny her that title. The law school grad and Seattle native has provided a slew of viral videos and memes with her smart and culturally relevant political commentary on a variety of platforms from CNN to The Breakfast Club to her own podcast, “On One.” But Rye is more than a talking head, she is also the co-founder of a non-profit organization called IMPACT that seeks to empower young professionals to bloom into productive, successful, global citizens. Rye is also the CEO of IMPACT Strategies, a political advocacy firm in Washington, D.C. #BossMoves
21. Ibtihaj Muhammad
Ibtihaj Muhammad breaks all stereotypes. She is a Black, Muslim woman fencer who has not only competed at the Olympic level, but took home a bronze medal as part of Team USA in the 2016 Olympics. That grand achievement marked the first time a female Muslim athlete ever earned an Olympic medal. The New Jersey native was also the first Muslim Team USA member to wear a hijab during competition. As an accomplished female athlete of color who proudly shows her faith, Muhammad has become a visible symbol of strength and diversity. In 2017, Mattel released a hijab-wearing Barbie in Muhammad’s image. Muhammad shares her inspiring story in her memoir for adults and a children’s version. Stepping outside of the sports world, Muhammad launched a clothing line full of modest, stylish clothing called Louella.
20. Angie Thomas
Angie Thomas rocketed straight to the top of the New York Times’ Best Sellers List with her debut young adult novel The Hate U Give in 2017. Readers were captivated by a timely storyline about police brutality in the Black community with a Black female teenager as the main character. Just a year later, the book was adapted into a critically acclaimed film starring Amandla Stenberg. Thomas’ second novel, On the Come Up, tells the story of a 16-year old rapper who is the daughter of a hip hop legend who died before he was able to capitalize on his skills. The day the second novel was published, it was also announced that Fox 2000 secured the rights to turn the book into a movie. Through literature and film, Thomas is providing an important platform for the voices and concerns of today’s youth.
19. Desus and Mero
New York-based comedy duo Desus Nice and The Kid Mero kept their fans in stitches on their self-titled show on Viceland. Their late night show, sometimes featuring celebrity guests, produced countless viral clips of the pair’s biting and hilarious takes on the latest in pop culture. No person or topic was ever off limits. Now, Desus & Mero just debuted on cable giant Showtime and fans are expecting them to keep that same energy. Proving that their knowledge and interests go beyond just hip hop and entertainment, their first guest on their new show was fellow New Yorker, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The Bodega Boys are disrupting the system one joke at a time.
18. #MuteRKelly Co-Founders
Decades after sexual misconduct allegations first started rolling in and two years before the explosive 6-hour Surviving R. Kelly Lifetime documentary aired, Oronike Odeleye and Kenyette Barnes created the #MuteRKelly campaign to scrub the singer’s music from airwaves, streaming platforms and concert stages for good. Tired of seeing R. Kelly rack up awards, hefty checks and sold-out tours even after his alleged abuse of underaged girls was public knowledge, the two women took action. Going up against die-hard fans who urge people to “separate the man from the music” as well as radio and record label honchos who make a considerable amount of money off of R. Kelly’s music, Odeleye and Barnes have organized petitions and protests nationwide. Their work has resulted in cancelled concerts, weak ticket sales, a label drop, bannings, and perhaps most importantly, a clear statement to the world that Black girls’ lives matter. The appearance of two more tapes allegedly showing R. Kelly sexually abusing underaged girls, brings the #MuteRKelly fight one step closer to edging the singer back into criminal court.
17. LeBron James
LeBron James joined the NBA straight out of high school in 2003. Over the past 16 years, he has won three championships, earned four MVP nods (plus three finals MVP crowns) and has become a fixture in G.O.A.T. debates from barbershops to Sports Illustrated covers. But most important of all, James has established himself as a new type of athlete. He and his team have leveled up on what it means to be a responsible role model by presenting his athletic prowess, business savvy, wholesome family life, and social activism in one package. James not only uses his platforms to speak out on issues that directly impact vulnerable communities, he also puts his considerable resources behind tangible causes. Just last year, James opened the I Promise School for under-resourced children in his hometown of Akron, OH. In addition to free tuition and uniforms for students and job placement services for parents, graduates of the school will also receive tuition to the University of Akron. The multi-faceted approach James uses to tackle youth development is similar to how he approaches everything in life, which is evident in his successful endeavors in business and entertainment. The champ’s video production company Uninterrupted has a wide range of products, including a popular HBO barbershop series called The Shop and an eight-episode series on Netflix about Madam CJ Walker starring Octavia Spencer. Bron-Bron, as he is affectionately known, is an all-star on and off the court.
16. Jemele Hill
From the ESPN family to The Atlantic, sports and culture journalist Jemele Hill has held prominent positions for over a decade, both online and on-camera. The Detroit native has often had to hold her own as the only or one of the few women in the room. Hill has proven herself to be more than capable of the job and her one million Twitter followers can attest to her charm, wit, and intellectual prowess. The current President of the United States has even called for Hill’s job when she simply spoke truth to power and she came out at the end of that ordeal with a new job and much additional respect. Named the 2018 Journalist of the Year by the National Association of Black Journalists, Hill often gives back to her hometown and her philanthropic work does not go unnoticed. Administrators at her alma mater, Mumford High School, have renamed their auditorium in her honor. Hill is a shining example of what integrity, talent, and fortitude can achieve.
15. Bozoma Saint John
Bozoma Saint John is #BlackGirlMagic personified in the corporate world. She has blessed numerous global brands with her marketing genius including Apple, Uber, PepsiCo, and now William Morris Endeavor. In addition to being a consummate professional and crushing every career objective in her path, Saint John has done it all with unmatched cool and style. Raised in both Accra, Ghana and Colorado Springs, CO, she is part of the “West African Voltron” that includes other super successful women like actress Yvonne Orji and New York Times best-selling author Luvvie Ajayi. Their colorful adventures (often captured on Instagram) are beautiful examples of the power of true sisterhood. The glow-up is real.
14. Quentin James and Stefanie Brown James
Quentin James and Stefanie Brown James are the ultimate power duo. They are true #relationshipgoals with their love for each other and their commitment to moving the country into the hands of progressive Black politicians. James and Brown James, a married couple, are the co-founders of the Collective Pac, an organization dedicated to putting Black people in elected positions all over this nation. They achieve this through a combination of grassroots organizing, savvy social media marketing, and passionate fundraising. They have already played a part in numerous successful wins, including Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (MA-07), Lt Gov. Garland Gilchrist (MI), and Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (MN-05). As the 2020 election quickly approaches and more candidates vie to become the next POTUS, James and Brown James will be an integral part of the effort and we are paying close attention.
13. Jordan Peele
It was all fun and games when Jordan Peele was on Comedy Central as half the title of the comedy show Key and Peele, featuring his good friend Keegan-Michael Key. They kept us in stitches with hilarious sketches like “Obama’s Anger Translator” that added some levity to the extreme harassment our Forever President Barack Obama endured while in office. But then in 2017, Peele switched it up and lobbed a horror movie at the world called Get Out, starring the likes of Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, and our main man Lil Rel. It explored the extreme side of white liberal racism in a very scary and relatable way. Peele ended up winning an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for the film, the first Black person to win that award. These days Peele is teasing audiences with cryptic trailers for his new horror movie Us starring Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke. And with his Monkeypaw Productions, he is seeking out ways additional to support ground-breaking work from storytellers. We can’t wait to see how this master of comedy, horror, and pop culture continues to change the game.
12. Virgil Abloh
Virgil Abloh has added his blend of American and West African influences to the tapestry of luxury design. In 2018, Abloh became the first African-American to helm a Louis Vuitton line. The Illinois native whose parents both hail from Ghana, has made has collaborated with several notable names including Nike, Jimmy Choo and even Ikea. Abloh met Kanye West in 2009 when he had an internship at Fendi and the two have been supporters of each other’s work ever since. Abloh designed [WHAT FOR THE?] the 2011 Jay-Z/Kanye West collaboration Watch the Throne, which earned a Grammy nomination for Best Recording Package. In addition to his numerous collaborations, Abloh has his own fashion House called Off-White and he flexes his philanthropic muscle for charitable causes such as clean energy in Africa.
11. Naomi Osaka
Naomi Osaka is the latest Black woman to make waves in the tennis world, and not just because of her prowess on the court. The 21-year-old, who is of Japanese/Haitian heritage and raised mostly in the U.S., wowed tennis spectators when she beat her idol, Serena Williams, at the 2018 U.S. Open. Her athleticism, grace and good sportsmanship have endeared her to a whole new legion of fans around the world. Osaka, who plays for Japan, is also quick to correct reporters who try to downplay her Blackness. She actively uses her platform to show people another facet of what it means to be a part of the African diaspora. When it comes to philanthropy, it’s a family affair for Osaka. She’s no stranger to the school her parents built in Haiti 20 years ago. As her star rises in tennis, we’re sure to see Osaka take on more challenges and dispel more stereotypes.
Bajan business mogul, Rihanna, is much more than just a pretty pop star. Though the platinum-selling, and Grammy Award-winning singer has earned a massive global following with her catchy tunes, over the past few years, Rihanna has leveraged her celebrity to create products for her fans to celebrate their own beauty. In addition to a bevy of fragrances, Rihanna also has Fenty, her make-up collection with dozens of shades to suit darker hues and Savage X Fenty, a lingerie line that boasts a wide range of sizes and silhouettes to accommodate numerous body-types. But beyond establishing herself as a savvy business woman, Rihanna also lends her time and money to charitable causes. She founded the Clara Lionel Foundation (named after her grandparents) in 2012 as a way to support children in impoverished communities around the world. Her annual Diamond Ball is her way of raising money for her celebrity friends for the cause. She has also been involved with AIDS awareness and was even named the 2017 Humanitarian of the Year by Harvard University.
9. Maverick Carter
Maverick Carter is the mastermind behind LeBron James’ massive empire. He also happens to be James’ best friend. Years ago, when James was first making moves beyond the basketball court, some criticized James for hiring friends to run his businesses and predicted failure for the NBA phenom. The critics could not have been more wrong. Under Carter’s careful eye, James’ wealth and influence has been steadily climbing throughout his 16-season (and counting) NBA journey. By studying business decisions from multi-hyphenate powerhouses like Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Jay-Z, Carter created a custom plan for James and it worked. From television shows to the the creation of sports-marketing agency LRMR, Carter has helped break the ceiling for the kind of wealth and influence Black athletes can generate beyond sneakers and sports drinks.
8. Mari Copeny
Little Miss Flint, real name Mari Copeny, is a powerful social justice and human rights warrior and she’s only 11 years old. The Flint, MI native has been a staunch defender of the most vulnerable populations in her hometown in the wake of the water crisis that has generated public health emergencies since 2014. Copeny is the Chief Change Agent for Pack Your Back, a nonprofit that provides supplies and funding to under-resourced children. She is also the founder of #DearFlintKids, a program that sends letters of encouragement from the public to kids in Flint. Her Twitter feed is filled with her daily efforts to make sure her hometown is protected and healthy. From collecting pallets of drinking water to stuffing backpacks with donated supplies, Copeny is already a notable figure and she’s not even old enough to drive a car. Little Miss Flint is one to watch.
7. Ryan Coogler
Ryan Coogler’s haunting feature film debut Fruitvale Station starring Michael B. Jordan as Oscar Grant, made everyone take notice of his filmmaking talent. His Creed films (also starring Jordan) are fan favorites that are more than worthy heirs of the legendary Rocky franchise. And of course, Coogler is the visionary behind last year’s super blockbuster, Black Panther. Based on the Marvel comic books by the late Stan Lee, Black Panther was an exciting, splashy, shimmering example of Afrofuturism at its finest. Raking in more than $1 billion in global ticket sales, Black Panther was a culture-shifter. It’s still making history today by being the first superhero movie to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. It has five other Oscar nominations as well. Coogler is reportedly getting ready for Black Panther 2 and the world eagerly awaits a return to Wakanda.
6. Pose Cast
Pose just debuted last summer on FX, but it has already made history. No other television show has had more transgender cast members as series regulars and also has a record number of people who identify as LGBTQ+ in recurring roles. Set in 1980s New York, Pose offers a compelling and well-written narrative about life inside and outside the glamour and fantasy of ball competitions. The all-star cast includes MJ Rodriguez, Dominique Jackson, Indya Moore, Billy Porter, Angelica Ross, Ryan Jamaal Swain, and Dyllón Burnside. The Golden Globe nominated show, executive produced by Janet Mock, is a must-see each week that is not only entertaining, but also a prime example of how to respectfully tell the stories of marginalized communities.
5. Issa Rae
“I’m rooting for everybody Black.” That could easily have been the name of this list thanks to the culturally on-point commentary from Issa Rae at the 2017 Emmy Awards red carpet. Rae, who made a name for herself with the Awkward Black Girl online series has blossomed into a Hollywood powerhouse. The embodiment of “for us, by us,” her critically acclaimed show, Insecure, on HBO brings a weekly dose of engaging and nuanced Black millenial life. Chock full of “inside” jokes, Insecure also offers a wider lens on universal human issues. True to the mantra, she employs/collaborates with a stable of other Black creators like Amanda Seales, Natasha Rothwell, and Jay Ellis, just to name a few. Her next project brings together Black women comedians and we’re excited to see her star alongside Regina Hall and Marsai Martin in Little. We’re rooting for Issa Rae.
4. Tristan Walker
At just 34 years old, Tristan Walker is making headlines as the founder and CEO of a start-up that recently made a successful exit to international personal care giant Procter & Gamble. Walker & Company, founded in 2013, was created to address the specific grooming and beauty needs of people of color. The mass market simply did not have adequate solutions for issues like razor bumps and that’s where Walker’s Bevel razor company came into play. Armed with hustle, marketing savvy, and an academic pedigree (MBA from Stanford), Walker, a kid who grew up in Queens,NY housing projects, has now amassed a fortune. He’s also convinced fellow Queens native Nas to join as a brand ambassador and investor. Walker, who retains his role as CEO and freely drops gems about the realities of the entrepreneurial path, is just getting started. We can’t wait to see what’s next.
3. Spike Lee
Spike Lee just received his very first Best Director Oscar nomination, but we have known about the beauty of “Spike Lee joints” for more than 30 years now. When Lee introduced us to Nola Darling in She’s Gotta Have It in 1986, we were universally intrigued by the loving portrayal of an independent, sex-positive, Black woman. In the ensuing decades, Lee showed many other rich textures of Black life in work like Malcolm X, School Daze, Do the Right Thing (Barack and Michelle Obama went on their first date to see that one), Bamboozled, and many more, right up to his most recent Oscar-nominated work, BlacKkKlansman. Lee has shared the complexity of Black life with the world using his expansive creative talents on the big and small screen, all the while cultivating new generations of Black actors, writers, producers, and directors.
2. Eric Reid
Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid is a living example of what it means to be an activist-athlete. When Reid played alongside quarterback Colin Kaepernick for the San Francisco 49ers, they both took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality in the Black community. The consequences of this bold exercise of free speech were swift, staggering and long-lasting. Kaepernick has essentially been blackballed from NFL rosters. While Reid is still in the league, he endures an unusually high number of “random” drug tests and excessive fines. However, he remains steadfast in his pursuit of justice for the Black community, Kap, and himself. He has filed a grievance against the NFL, alleging that “team owners and the league, influenced by President Donald Trump, colluded to prevent his employment because of his protests against social injustice.” Through his seeming hazing by the NFL, Reid still wages his peaceful protest, funds several philanthropic efforts with youth, and puts up solid stats on the field. Salute.
1. Lena Waithe
Kicking off theGrio’s Blk Genius list is the incomparable Lena Waithe. The Chicago native gained national acclaim in 2015 for her work as an actor and writer on the Netflix comedy series Master of None. As an openly gay Black creative, Waithe poured some of her personal story into her Master of None’s role with a powerful and beautifully written episode about her character’s coming out journey. Waithe’s transparency and talent paid off. She became the first Black woman to receive an Emmy for writing a comedy series. Rather than rest on her laurels, the Emmy proved to be only the beginning. Since her win, Waithe has created Showtime’s critically acclaimed The Chi, written and produced a movie coming out this year, she’s executive producing a horror series on Amazon, is developing an HBO comedy series with Kid Fury, and she still finds time to help other people find their own glow-up. Waithe is the founder of the Hillman Grad Network which provides free mentoring and resources to folks trying to make it in the entertainment industry. As she helps open the door for others, Waithe is also showing the world the many facets of #BlackGirlMagic with her Vanity Fair cover and her consistent slayage on the red carpet with her fiancée Alana Mayo at her side.