In Memoriam: Notable Black celebrity deaths of 2021
Shakespeare's sentiment, "Parting is such sweet sorrow,” could be true as we mourn the passing of icons.
In Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare wrote, “Parting is such sweet sorrow.” While the sentiment was initially about two young lovers, it could also be true for those who mourn.
In 2021, Black America collectively grieved the loss of many prominent members of our community — from political titans to accomplished artists — and their deaths touched us all. We at theGrio wanted to pay tribute to some of those fallen in acknowledgment of their contributions to Black life and culture.
(February 5, 1934 – January 22, 2021)
Major League Baseball legend and entrepreneur Hank Aaron died at the age of 86. Aaron won National League MVP in 1957, was featured on 25 All-Star teams and won three Gold Gloves. He retired in 1976, ending his career with an impressive 755 home runs. Muhammad Ali once paid respect to Aaron and his sweet swing, declaring him “The only man I idolize more than myself.”
(December 19, 1924 – January 28, 2021)
Academy Award-nominated actress Cicely Tyson died just days after the release of her memoir, Just As I Am. The one-time model was also a two-time Emmy winner. In 2016, former President Barack Obama awarded Tyson the 2016 Presidential Medal of Freedom, saying, “Cicely’s convictions and grace have helped us to see the dignity of every single beautiful memory of the American family.”
(March 6, 1944 – February 8, 2021)
A founding member of the iconic Motown trio, The Supremes, Wilson died at 76 in her Las Vegas home. Wilson formed the legendary music group with Florence Ballard, her friend and neighbor in the Brewster projects, eventual leader Diana Ross and a fourth girl, Betty McGlown, when they were just teenagers in Detroit. They joined Motown Records in the early 1960s and, with various iterations before and after Ross’ departure in 1970, remained with the company until the girl group was dissolved in 1977.
(December 18, 1970 – April 9, 2021)
Rapper DMX died at 50 after suffering a heart attack. As part of the late ’90s and early 2000s domination of Def Jam Records, “X” also went on to appear in several films and on television. The embattled MC was the father of six children and was known for his gravelly voice and albums that addressed hood life, addiction and spirituality.
(June 8, 1968 – April 17, 2021)
Former Bad Boy rapper Black Rob died after a long illness, dealing yet another blow to hip-hop culture. Born Robert Ross, he was best known for his legendary single “Whoa!” from his debut album, True Story. Sean “Diddy” Combs called him “one of a kind” days after his passing, which prompted ongoing conversations about the establishment of funds to support legendary hip-hop artists.
(August 25, 1963 – April 22, 2021)
Rounding out the trio of deaths of hip-hop artists this spring, Shock G died at 57. The founder of Digital Underground, the Bay Area producer and rapper brought the world songs like “Doowutchyalike” and “The Humpty Dance.” He also went on to produce music for 2Pac, Prince and more. Shock G once said the characters that he created and portrayed entertained himself, as well as his audiences.
(July 7, 1966 – May 23, 2021)
Best known for taking images of hip-hop’s most legendary artists of the 1990s, acclaimed Nigerian-born photographer Chi Modu died after a bout with cancer. Modu was one of the first directors of photography at The Source in the ’90s and photographed 30 covers for the publication. He was known for his clear and natural images of artists, and shot the first professional images for a slew of music icons.
(April 8, 1964 – July 16, 2021)
Once dubbed the “Clown Prince of Hip-Hop,” Biz Markie was known for his turntable skills and as “The Human Beatbox.” With songs like “Just a Friend,” Biz was a pioneering member of The Juice Crew and, by incorporating humor, became one of the more unique figures of hip-hop music and culture.
Michael K. Williams
(November 22, 1966 – September 6, 2021)
The Emmy Award-nominated actor best known for his incomparable portrayal of Omar Little on HBO’s The Wire died at 54 this year. Williams had recently appeared in the critically acclaimed series Lovecraft Country, and was beloved as both an actor, a dancer and choreographer.
(April 5, 1937 – October 18, 2021)
Military and political leader Gen. Colin L. Powell, America’s first Black national security adviser, first Black Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman and first Black Secretary of State, died of complications from the coronavirus. Respected on both sides of the aisle and a Republican for most of his career, Powell was a public speaker, an author and served on the board of directors of Revolution Health and the Council on Foreign Relations.
(September 6, 1957 – October 21, 2021)
A member of the famous DeBarge music family and singer for the R&B band Switch, he was known for his falsetto on the classic singles, “There’ll Never Be” and “I Call Your Name.” The group went on to influence countless R&B stars. Natives of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Tommy and brother Bobby ended Switch to mentor their younger siblings. The DeBarges went on to record numerous albums among them, inspired by their mother, Etterlene DeBarge, a gospel artist.
(October 4, 1967 – October 28, 2021)
The longtime Atlanta news anchor died at age 53 after a battle with brain cancer. A beloved staple of Atlanta news, Moore joined WSB-TV, Channel 2, an ABC affiliate, in 1998 as an evening anchor. A supporter of the arts, she sat on the boards of the Center for the Visually Impaired, Dress for Success, the YWCA of Greater Atlanta and the DeKalb Symphony Orchestra. She was also a proud member of the National Association of Black Journalists and a past vice president-broadcast for the Atlanta Association of Black Journalists.
(September 30, 1965 – November 22, 2021)
The daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz died in her Brooklyn home after an illness. She and her twin sister, Malaak, are the youngest children of the civil rights legend, and were born months after his assassination.
(September 30, 1980 – November 28, 2021)
Abloh was a celebrated fashion designer and founder of the popular street wear label, Off White. In 2018, he was named men’s artistic director for Louis Vuitton, the first African American to helm a line at the company. Abloh was a frequent Kanye West collaborator and worked with myriad A-List celebrities.
(September 27, 1953 – December 8, 2021)
Famed bass player and one half of the pioneering rhythm duo Sly and Robbie died at age 68. For over four decades, the prolific musician worked with reggae artists including Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Gregory Isaacs and Black Uhuru. He also played alongside rock and pop stars like Bob Dylan and Grace Jones, cementing the latter’s 1981 Nightclubbing LP into a serious classic.
(December 2, 1949 – December 9, 2021)
Dennis was a Jamaican music legend credited among the architects of “electro reggae,” a fusion of reggae and electronic music conveyed by Black Uhuru, his world-renowned band. His group won the very first Grammy Award for Best Reggae Recording with Anthem in 1984, and rocked the globe for years both before and afterward.
(December 25, 1987 – December 9, 2021)
The retired NFL wide receiver died in his Atlanta home from natural causes. Thomas spent most of his career with the Denver Broncos and won two AFC championships and a Super Bowl. In a statement, his former team said, “Demaryius’ humility, warmth, kindness and infectious smile will always be remembered by those who knew him and loved him.”
(September 25, 1952 – December 15, 2021)
An acclaimed author, activist and professor, hooks was best known for writing books and articles about the connection between race, gender, class and spirituality. Gloria Jean Watkins published under the pseudonym bell hooks to honor her maternal great-grandmother, Bell Blair Hooks. Per reports, Hooks once said the decision to spell her name with lowercase letters points to the “substance of books, not who I am.”