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!
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.