There’s no shortage of Sisters who make hit songs. Whether their careers remain active or not, what unites these women is the ability to touch the lives of listeners all over the world.
But who specifically are these women we talk about? Well, here’s a list of the top black female singers ever.
As the lead singer for Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé quickly became one of the world’s most famous black female singers. The group was a hit in the 1990s.
When they disbanded, Beyoncé continued her solo career and sold over 120 million records. Many awards acknowledged her musical triumph, but one of her unique distinctions is that Beyoncé was the first female singer to have more than six albums land at the top of the Billboard 200.
2. Whitney Houston
Whitney Houston is the twentieth century’s best-selling soul singer.
She is best known for her songs:
- I Wanna Dance With Somebody
- I Will Always Love You
Over the years, Houston has received multiple Grammys and awards recognizing her music’s power, dynamics, and impact on listeners.
3. Lauryn Hill
Lauryn Hill’s initial success came from singing as part of a trio of rappers. She then embarked on a solo career.
Her first album was a triumph. It won ten Grammy Awards, and in its first week, its sales records made history in its first week. Never before had a black female singer’s music made so much money quickly.
Unsurprisingly, Hill remains one of the most famous women rappers there is.
4. Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald is a renowned black female jazz singer whose musical career began when she was 17. Her signature song was “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” which riffed on the famous nursery rhyme of the same name.
Fitzgerald was famous for her rich, velvety tone and her astonishing diction, even when singing at breakneck speed.
5. Aretha Franklin
Like many black female singers, Franklin got her musical start by singing gospel songs for her local Baptist church.
Franklin received many awards throughout her career, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the National Medal of the Arts. She twice appeared on the Rolling Stones list of “100 Greatest Artists of All Time,” where she consistently ranked as number nine.
6. Leontyne Price
In 1953, the Met invited Price to sing Gershwin’s “Summertime.”
Price soon became an integral part of the Met’s music scene. For years she was the Met’s go-to singer for Verdi’s eponymous Aida, and her lyrical, bell-like High C had a clarity that singers today still aspire to emulate.
Rhianna is a renowned Bajan singer and actress.
Initially, Rhianna auditioned as part of a trio. But her musicality and charisma were such that she unwittingly eclipsed her fellow singers and rapidly became a musical sensation as a solo artist.
Before auditioning, Rhianna had no formal vocal training; She developed her technique as her career gained traction. Her music blends the reggae of her Caribbean childhood with hip-hop and R&B.
8. Etta James
Etta James was born Jamesetta Hawkins in 1938. She has an immediately recognizable voice to her fans because she was the connective musical tissue between R&B and rock ‘n roll.
James began professional musical training when she was five. At 14, she charmed James Ottis into auditioning her for a performance, and while stories on how she did this vary, musicologists agree it was the start of James’ career.
James’ most recognizable song is “At Last,” but it wasn’t her only hit. She died in 2012 at 73 years old.
9. Kathleen Battle
Born in 1948, Kathleen Battle wasn’t always the renowned black female opera diva the world knows her as. She started her career as a school teacher in her native Ohio.
She sang gospel music in her local Methodist church growing up. They knew her as the youngest of seven children. But in 1972, Battle sang at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto. Overnight she became a household name.
In 1975, Battle debuted at the Metropolitan Opera. But she and the company had a complicated relationship, and she parted ways with the famous opera house in 1994. She didn’t return to the Met stage until 2016, when she gave a concert featuring a selection of spirituals.
10. Shirley Ellis
Shirley Ellis was the stage name of the black female singer Shirley O’Garra.
Some of her best-known songs include:
- The Name Game
- The Clapping Song
- The Nitty Gritty
“The Clapping Song” sold especially well in the UK, where today’s listeners may know it as the song featured in a recent commercial for Samsung smartphones.
11. Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday was a jazz musician, sometimes called “Lady Day.”
She was famous for her clever vocal improvisations and her radical phrasing. Holiday took her cue from jazz instrumentalists, shaped her phrases, and selected her tempo in ways that echoed some of her time’s more famous instrumental solos.
She began singing in her teens, and though her career was successful, it was also troubled. She died at 44 of liver failure as a result of alcoholism.
12. Jessye Norman
Another famous black female singer in the operatic world was Jessye Norman. Norman had a voice described by many as mansionlike because of its grandeur, breadth, and impressiveness.
She was a dramatic soprano but gamely ran the musical gamut from Wagner to Beethoven.
Despite her operatic success, Norman famously took her musical cue from a young Billie Holiday. She once said that Holiday taught her that artistic interpretation was as important as technique. This conviction gave Norman’s singing an idiomatic quality, leaving a strong impression on the operatic stage.
Norman died in 2019.
13. Nina Simone
Eunice Kathleen Waymon, born in 1933, was better known as Nina Simone.
Her career spanned decades, but her success was mixed. Simone funded her vocal tuition by singing and playing at various New Jersey music and grill locales. One of her most notable early successes was with “Little Girl Blue.”
But she became considerably more famous when she was heard singing in the background to a Chanel No. 5 commercial. The song “My Baby Just Cares for Me” is what many people consider Simone’s signature song.
14. Diana Ross
Originally, Diana Ross was one of several black female singers integral to The Supremes.
The Supremes are still considered one of the most technically and musically brilliant groups. A large part of that came from the caliber of the singers. In 1970, Ross began a solo career, and technical proficiency was integral to her success.
She’s best known for the song “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
15. Angel Blue
Angel Blue’s career began in the beauty pageant industry. But she’s also one of opera’s rising stars.
Born in 1985, Blue studied music at the undergraduate and graduate levels. She has since become a staple at opera houses like The Metropolitan Opera and La Scala.
Her vast repertoire runs from the jazzy Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess to Verdi’s La Traviata.
16. Tina Turner
Turner’s career began in the 1960s with her rendition of the famous song “A Fool for Love.” Previously, Turner was involved with the R&B group Turner’s Kings of Rhythm and Blues.
But the group disbanded, and Turner’s career changed direction. She did this several times, always with outstanding success. She had several hits as a solo artist and is widely regarded as one of the most popular black female singers of her time.
17. Roberta Flack
Roberta Flack began her musical career at an astonishingly young 15 years old. She was the youngest student to attend Howard University. In fact, her talent was such that she won a full scholarship.
It was the beginning of a highly successful career. In the 1970s, Flack became the first singer to consecutively receive the Record of the Year Grammy Award twice.
18. Sarah Vaughan
Born in 1924, Sarah Vaughan was a famous black female jazz artist. Her signature song was “Misty,” but it wasn’t her only hit.
Like many of her contemporaries, Vaughan’s career began with singing in local cafes and clubs. She made her first recording in 1945. Later, she had a successful radio program and earned reliable income singing for commercials.
Vaughan kept performing throughout 1989, despite an arthritis diagnosis that made piano playing challenging. Simultaneously she began suffering from lung cancer. Although she returned home to undergo chemotherapy, she passed away soon in 1989.
19. Dinah Washington
Dinah Washington was the stage name of Ruth Jones. Born in 1924, this black female jazz singer is another artist who got an early musical start. She began singing in jazz clubs at 15 and soon became a household name.
She was as hard-working as she was popular and produced seven successful albums rapidly.
Her voice was highly flexible, and Washington could sing everything from jazz and blues to increasingly popular pop and country. It made her unpopular with music critics but a sensation with fans from all corners of the musical world.
Her career was cut short by her premature death in 1963.
20. Grace Jones
Grace Jones blended new wave music with pop, R&B, and the reggae of her Jamaican upbringing.
Jones began her career as a model in the 1960s. By the 1970s, she was dabbling in music and acting. Her androgynous musicality took the world by storm.
When disco fell out of favor, she shifted to the new wave. She always had a finger on the pulse of modern music and ensured her continuing popularity.
21. Toni Braxton
Like many black female singers, Braxton began her career as part of a band. Initially, Braxton sang with her sisters before embarking on a solo career.
Her first album, released in 1993, was an immediate success. From there, Braxton’s career took off. Her warm contralto voice was popular with critics and fans alike. Her most famous song was “Un-Break My Heart.”
In 1993, artist Brandy Norwood made a move from backup singer to soloist. It was a risky move but one that bore fruit. Her first album was called Brandy, and that became her stage name.
She had many successes, but one of her biggest hits was “That Boy Is Mine,” which topped the charts in multiple countries and earned Brandy a Grammy award.
23. Mary Wilson
Mary Wilson was the founding member of “The Supremes” and often gets described as the glue that kept the band united.
However, like many of its members, Wilson severed ties with the band and enjoyed a solo career.
Wilson’s solo work gave her more artistic freedom and entitled her to more of the royalties her music generated. She was a successful Motown musician but remained best known for her Supremes connection.
Two of Wilson’s compositions, “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “You Can’t Hurry Love,” remain on the list of the 500 songs that defined rock ‘n roll as we know it today.
24. Carmen McRae
Born to Jamaican parents in America, Macrae began studying piano when she was eight. She quickly fell in love with the music of jazz greats like Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday.
Her music was wildly successful, and she became a staple at North American jazz clubs until she died in 1994 at 74.
25. Alicia Keys
Alicia Keys signed her first record deal when she was 15. But the deal fell through, and it wasn’t until 2001 that Keys began experiencing musical success.
One of her great talents was that she could sing and play the piano simultaneously. Despite her stumbling musical start, this black female singer is one of the most famous artists still performing. Her albums sold over 50 million copies, and she has received 15 Grammy Awards for her musical talent.
Artist Aaliyah signed her first record deal when she was 12. R. Kelly mentored her and quickly became one of R&B’s rising superstars.
Aaliyah’s music effortlessly combined R&B with hip-hop and pop. The result was music beloved by critics and listeners alike.
However, Aaliyah’s promising career was cut short in 2001 when her return flight from the Bahamas crashed. It killed everyone on board. But Aaliyah left a stunning musical impression behind her.
27. Chaka Khan
One of the distinctions of the black female singer Chaka Khan is that she was the first rhythm and blues singer to have a hit that featured a rapper.
Before Khan’s career, musical critics were inclined to be snobbish about rap, but Khan broke that barrier down to astonishing effect.
Khan was born Yvvettes Marie Stephens and sometimes gets called “Queen of Funk.” That title comes from her stint as part of a successful 1970s funk band.
Like many best black female singers, Khan can’t be put neatly into a musical box. In addition to funk and R&B, she’s also done stints singing classical, gospel, country, and pop music. Generally speaking, if it can be sung, Khan will sing it to great success.
28. Donna Summer
Summer began singing in the heady days of disco. During the 1970s, the world knew her as “The Queen of Disco” because of her popularity and musical ability.
One of Summer’s immediate successes was “Love to Love You.” Moroder and Bellotte wrote the song based on an idea of Summer’s. It was an instant success and laid the foundations for Summer’s evolving career.
She eventually moved to Germany and began a successful career as a soloist. Summer died in 2012 from lung cancer.
29. Mary J Blige
May J Blige first experienced musical success in the 1990s. She is often called “The Queen of Hip-Hop and Soul.”
Some of her biggest hits include:
- Not Gonna Cry
- Real Love
- Without You
Much of her success as a black female singer came from Bilge’s decision to make R&B and hip-hop a recognized part of mainstream music. She was instrumental in reshaping the way music critics talked about both genres.
Not only that, but Blige radically altered the impact black women had on rap and hip-hop, which male artists had dominated before her success.
30. Natalie Cole
One of Natalie Cole’s biggest hits was her duet with her father, Nat “King” Cole, singing his signature piece, “Unforgettable.”
But Cole was a successful black female singer herself. She began her career as part of the band Black Magic. They played at various clubs and increasingly made a name for themselves.
Songwriters Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancy noticed Cole and launched her career.
Critics anticipated a slump in the 1970s after her album Natalie debuted, but it never came. However, Cole was riddled with drug problems, and after battling addiction for several years, she died in 2015.
31. Marian Anderson
Marian Anderson was a black female contralto who found herself embroiled in early civil rights activity. That was because, in 1939, the Daughters of the American Republic refused to let her sing to an integrated audience.
Less surprisingly, the Roosevelts’ opinion outweighed the DAR, and Anderson famously sang to people of all creeds and colors at the Lincoln Memorial. She was the first African-American woman to sing at the Metropolitan Opera.
32. Janelle Monáe
Janelle Monáe began her music career with the album “The Audition.” It was immediately successful, as were Monáe’s subsequent albums. Many of these were experimental and drew on various musical influences.
Most obvious was Monáe’s Kansas origins. Among other things, Monáe’s lyrics tackle the portrayal of working-class women of color in media.
33. Karla Burns
Karla Burns was an African-American mezzo-soprano who got her start studying music at Wyoming State University.
Her first role was in The Threepenny Opera by Kurt Weill. But she is most famous for playing Queenie in Showboat. Burns sang the part for the first time with Houston Grand Opera. It became Burns’ signature role.
Burns died in 2022 after experiencing a series of strokes.
34. Kandi Burruss
In addition to producing, Kandi Burruss is also a black female singer. She started her music career as part of the band Xscape.
They caught critics’ attention in 1992, and Burruss’s voice soon became a staple of the R&B scene. Since then, she has received several awards for her musical performances. Her best-known song is “No Scrubs.”
35. Jennifer Hudson
Jennifer Hudson became a musical personality when she placed seventh n American Idol in 2001.
An actress as well as a black female singer, Hudson was the lead in the film Dreamgirls, which told the story of The Supremes. In 2008, Hudson released an R&B album that received several accolades from the musical community.
36. Mahalia Jackson
Born in 1911, Jackson was always musical and liked to sing along with Bessie Smith while doing housework.
But her Southern approach to music shocked a distinctly Chicago church when she introduced them to gospel music. Less shocked was Thomas Dorsey, who spent two months training Jackson and encouraging her to sing slower songs.
Jackson did, infusing them with the lush musicality that characterized her gospel singing. She remains one of the most influential voices in American Gospel music.
37. Minnie Riperton
Minnie Riperton got her first job after Raynard Miner heard Riperton in a capella choir and was impressed by her talent.
Miner connected Riperton with The Gems, and the group jumpstarted Riperton’s career. Later, she joined the Rotary Connection, a band that blended funk, soul, and rock ‘n roll.
Her first album was Come Into My Garden, which debuted in 1970. Although Riperton still collaborated with other artists, she enjoyed success as a soloist.
37. Gladys Knight
Gladys Knight is a black female singer who started her career singing with The Pips. As her notoriety increased, she joined forces with Stevie Wonder, Elton John, and Dionne Warwick as part of an AIDS benefits single.
Knight also collaborated with Ray Charles. Her best-known solo album was Good Woman.
Other distinctions include collaborating on the James Bond track “Licence to Kill,” singing at Michael Jackson’s funeral, and the Super Bowl.
39. Bessie Smith
It’s impossible to talk about black female singers without discussing the woman who inspired many of them.
Bessie Smith sang the blues, and her voice significantly impacted the jazz and blues landscape of the 1930s.
Smith had a deep and rich voice and benefited from the early days of broadcast and electric recordings. They not only helped distribute her sound but highlighted how talented she was. Crucially, they ensured her sound reached a wider audience than would usually have been possible when America was segregated.
40. Jill Scott
Jill Scott is a black female singer whose career straddles multiple genres. She’s known for her neo-soul music but also gamely sings jazz, classical, and R&B.
Scott’s first album appeared in 2000 and was instantly successful. Her subsequent albums were similarly popular with listeners. Since then, Scot has received multiple awards for her music.
Her career is ongoing, and critics consider her a rising star in the music world.
41. Mariah Carey
In addition to being a renowned black female singer (she has a black dad), Carey is one of the best-selling artists of all time.
But while Time magazine ranked her as one of the 100 most influential people of 2008, Carey’s career was not the immediate success of other artists. She entered the music world in 1988, and her first album was slow to garner public attention.
It wasn’t until her fifth album, Daydream, that Carey began selling well. Carey continued refining her sound in the years following Daydream’s release and remains a famous singer with listeners today.
Best Black Female Singers, Final Thoughts
As this list demonstrates, the talent these black female singers brought to the musical world is tremendous. Many genres, like jazz and soul, would be unrecognizable without names like Ella Fitzgerald or Aretha Franklin behind them.
But for every black female singer discussed, there are another ten we didn’t get to. Hopefully, this list gets you thinking about the women who changed the musical world and the songs they sang.