The Black community mourned the loss of dozens of trailblazing artists and athletes in 2021. These deaths have touched the community and reminded us how precious life is.
While it’s sad to say goodbye, we celebrate the extraordinary lives of these influential Black celebrities by paying honor and tribute to their legacies.
They are gone but not forgotten. Read below for our tribute to 31 Black celebrities that died in 2021.
1. Hank Aaron (February 5, 1934 – January 22, 2021)
Hank Aaron died in his sleep of natural causes at age 86. Aaron was known to baseball fans as Hammerin’ Hank, famously breaking Babe Ruth’s Major League Baseball home run record. Aaron sent a staggering 755 balls over the fence in his 21-year professional baseball career.
Though Barry Bonds would go on to usurp Aaron’s home run record, he still holds MLB records for extra-base hits, runs batted in, and total bases. He also holds the record for most All-Star game appearances with 21.
2. Cicely Tyson (December 19, 1924 – January 28, 2021)
Cicely Tyson passed away two days after publishing her memoir, Just As I Am. She was 96. Tyson was a successful and influential model and actress. Her career stretched over seventy years and garnered the actress three Primetime Emmy Awards, a Tony Award, an Academy Award, and a Peabody Award.
Tyson rose to prominence in the ’70s with roles that focused on social justice and racial issues. These performances included the miniseries Roots and King, the latter of which she played MLK Jr.’s wife, Coretta Scott King.
3. Reggie Warren (1968 – March 14, 2021)
Reggie Warren passed away at age 52 after an extended illness. Warren was a founding member of the New Jack Swing R&B group TROOP. TROOP – an acronym for “Total Respect of Other People – would record five albums, three of which were certified gold and one certified platinum.
In addition to topping the Billboard R&B Chart, TROOP is known for its cameo in the crime thriller New Jack City, where the group sings a cappella.
4. DMX (December 18, 1970 – April 9, 2021)
DMX battled addiction throughout his career and succumbed to a cocaine-induced heart attack at age 50. He was an actor and legendary rapper that sold over 74 million records while starring in movies such as Belly, Romeo Must Die, and Cradle 2 the Grave.
Known for his gruff vocal delivery and juxtaposing dark narratives with his religious faith, DMX became the first artist to debut an album at the number one spot on the Billboard 200 five times consecutively.
5. Black Rob(June 8, 1968 – April 17, 2021)
After battling health problems for several years, Black Rob died of a cardiac arrest at age 52. He was a rapper best known for his affiliation with P. Diddy’s Bad Boy Records. Through the ’90s, the rapper would gain prominence lending his talents to remixes by R&B acts such as Total, 112, and Faith Evans.
Black Rob would score a chart hit with 1999’s “Whoa!” The song would help propel his debut full-length album, Life Story, to platinum status.
6. Samuel E. Wright(November 20, 1946 – May 24, 2021)
Samuel E. Wright died at home at age 74 after battling prostate cancer for three years. Wright was an actor and singer. His best-known role was as the voice of Sebastian in The Little Mermaid. He also sang the character’s signature song, “Under the Sea,” which won a Grammy Award.
Wright earned two Tony Award nominations for Best Featured Actor for his performances in the Broadway productions The Tap Dance Kid and The Lion King. He also portrayed Dizzy Gillespie in the film Bird.
7. Suzzanne Douglas (April 12, 1957 – July 6, 2021)
After a two-year battle with cancer, Suzzanne Douglas passed away from the disease at age 64. She was an award-winning actress whose career spanned four decades. Best known for her role as Jerri Peterson in the sitcom The Parent ‘Hood, Douglas was the matriarch that helped the show portray a positive image of black families to white audiences.
For her role in the 1989 dramatic film Tap, Douglas received the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress.
8. Charlie Robinson(November 9, 1945 – July 11, 2021)
Charlie Robinson passed away at age 75 due to complications from cancer. He was an actor best known for his role as Mac Robinson in the sitcom Night Court. For his role as the Vietnam veteran court clerk, Robison received the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series.
Later in his career, Robinson would be known for cameos in the television shows Home Improvement, House, The Bernie Mac Show, and My Name Is Earl.
9. Biz Markie(April 8, 1964 – July 16, 2021)
Biz Markie passed away at age 57 after suffering complications from Type 2 diabetes. Markie was a DJ, rapper, and record producer. He is best known for his single “Just a Friend,” which hit the top 40 globally in 1989. The song became his signature track and is considered a classic one-hit-wonder.
Despite his one-hit-wonder designation, Markie’s career spanned three decades through numerous guest verses on records and cameo appearances in television shows.
10. Ronnie Wilson (April 7, 1948 – November 2, 2021)
Ronnie Wilson died at age 73 after suffering a stroke. Wilson formed the funky R&B group The Gap Band with his brothers Charlie and Robert. The group found early success backing up Leon Russell on his 1974 album All That Jazz before transitioning to their own recording career.
With a string of hits in the early ’80s, The Gap Band became multi-platinum selling artists. As hip-hop rose to prominence, a new generation found Wilson’s music through the genre’s heavy sampling of funk music.
11. Michael K. Williams (November 22, 1966 – September 6, 2021)
Michael K. Williams died at age 54 due to an accidental drug overdose after buying heroin laced with fentanyl. Williams started his career as a dancer for George Michaels and Madonna, eventually becoming one of the most respected actors of his generation through his dramatic roles in television and film.
Best known for his role as Omar Little on the critically acclaimed HBO drama The Wire, Williams’ helped usher in a new era of television as a respected art form. His gritty performance as an openly gay stick-up man in Baltimore was revolutionary.
12. Colin Powell (April 5, 1937 – October 18, 2021)
Colin Powell passed away from COVID-19 complications at age 84. Powell was a highly decorated Army officer, diplomat, and politician. During his three decades in the military, he became a four-star general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Powell was often rumored as a presidential candidate but never officially ran. He became the first Black secretary of state in 2001, an era that saw the September 11 attacks and the beginning of the War on Terrorism.
13. Virgil Abloh (September 30, 1980 – November 28, 2021)
After a two-year battle with cancer, Virgil Abloh passed away at age 41. He was an iconic fashion designer. His background in architecture and streetwear combined to innovate the world of high fashion and represented Black culture and creativity in spaces where it is often lacking.
Abloh’s Off-White brand remains a vital component of American fashion and streetwear. Along with his Ikea collaborations and time as artistic director of Louis Vuitton, Abloh’s fingerprints are all over American style in the ’10s and ’20s.
14. Demaryius Thomas (December 25, 1987 – December 9, 2021)
Demaryius Thomas died after suffering a seizure. It’s believed to be a lingering effect of a car crash he survived in 2019. He was 33. Thomas played in the National Football League for ten seasons. The wide receiver was named to four Pro Bowls and won the Super Bowl.
He currently holds many substantial receiving records for the Denver Broncos, where he spent most of his career after being drafted in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft.
15. bell hooks (September 25, 1952 – December 15, 2021)
Gloria Jean Watkins, better known by her pen name bell hooks, died of kidney failure at age 69. She was an author, academic, and social activist. She was a leading voice in racial and feminist studies, and her writing helped spread awareness of the intersecting roots of inequality in different studies.
Her writing received nominations for several prestigious awards while she maintained an academic career at such esteemed institutions as Yale and Oberlin College. Moreover, hooks’ contributions to our understanding of gender, race, and capitalism will leave a lasting legacy on America’s academic institutions.
16. Young Dolph (July 27, 1985 – November 17, 2021)
Young Dolph was murdered at age 36 by two gunmen while picking up cookies from a local bakery. Dolph was a philanthropist and rapper. Beloved in his home of Memphis, Dolph released several records on his independent label, Paper Route Empire. Several of his albums hit the Billboard charts, with 2020s Rich Slave peaking at number four.
Dolph was a leading voice in Southern hip-hop and a respected member of his community. For his philanthropic work and artistic legacy, a street in Memphis bears his name.
17. Mary Wilson (March 6, 1944 – February 8, 2021)
Mary Wilson passed away at the age of 76 from cardiovascular disease. Wilson rose to fame as a founding member of the seminal Motown recording act, The Supremes. The group was the most successful Motown Records act in the ’60s and is the highest-charting girl group ever.
Wilson remained with The Supremes until their demise in 1977, after which she recorded a solo record and wrote several best-selling memoirs. The Supremes became members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.
18. Shock G (August 25, 1963 – April 22, 2021)
Shock G died from an accidental drug overdose at the age of 57. He was the leader of the influential hip-hop group Digital Underground. The group’s signature single, “The Humpty Dance,” has become one of the most commonly sampled hip-hop songs.
In addition to his work with Digital Underground, Shock G served as a mentor to a young 2Pac. He helped produce 2Pac’s debut album and rapped on the album’s biggest single, “I Get Around.”
19. Chi Modu (July 7, 1966 – May 23, 2021)
Chi Modu died of cancer at age 54. Modu was a photographer most famous for his intimate portraits of rappers during the ’90s and ’00s. He was instrumental in giving a face to hip-hop at a time when the genre was exploding into the mainstream.
As a photographer for The Source in the early ’90s, Modu had incredible access to some of the most influential rappers ever. His photographs of Biggie Smalls, 2Pac, Mobb Deep, and Snoop Dogg are iconic.
20. Tommy DeBarge (September 6, 1957 – October 21, 2021)
Tommy DeBarge died from liver and kidney failure at age 64. He played bass in the ’70s and ’80s funk band Switch with his brother Bobby. The group recorded for a subsidiary of Motown Records after a chance meeting with Jermaine Jackson brought them to Berry Gordy’s attention.
Switch is best known for their single, “There’ll Never Be.” The song was their biggest hit, cracking the Billboard Top 40. They would record several more R&B hits before the DeBarge brothers left the group in the mid-80s.
21. Greg Tate (October 14, 1957 – December 7, 2021)
Greg Tate died of cardiac arrest at 64. He was a writer and musician. Best known for his work with The Village Voice, Tate focused on Black culture and helped establish an early body of hip-hop criticism that validated the fledgling genre.
Tate’s essays also appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, DownBeat, Essence, and Vibe. His writing showcased modern Black art as work worthy of the considerations that only jazz and visual art had previously received.
22. Lee Elder (July 14, 1934 – November 28, 2021)
Lee Elder passed away at the age of 87 without a cause of death reported. Elder was a professional golfer most famous for breaking the color barrier by playing in the 1975 Masters Tournament. In 1979 he would become the first Black golfer to qualify for the Ryder Cup, which he helped the United States win.
Elder would notch 4 PGA Tour wins, and 8 Senior PGA Tour wins before retiring. His philanthropic work included raising money for the United Negro College Fund and serving on the advisory board of Goodwill.
23. Robbie Shakespeare (September 27, 1953 – December 8, 2021)
Robbie Shakespeare passed away following kidney surgery at age 68. He was a bass guitarist best known for his work with drummer Sly Dunbar as the rhythm section duo Sly and Robbie.
As players and producers, Sly and Robbie were well renowned in the reggae community, working with artists as esteemed as Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. As the reggae sound infiltrated pop music, the duo worked with Bob Dylan, Grace Jones, Mick Jagger, and dozens more.
24. John Chaney (January 21, 1932 – January 29, 2021)
John Chaney died at the age of 89 of an unspecified illness. He was a college basketball coach known for his two-decade tenure at Temple University. Chaney is one of the winningest collegiate coaches of all time, notching over 700 victories in his career.
Chaney is just one of nineteen coaches in history to appear in 1,000 games. He coached Temple to the NCAA tournament 17 times and won the Henry Iba Award for college coach of the year twice. He is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
25. Wanda Young (August 9, 1943 – December 15, 2021)
Wanda Young passed away at 78 from complications of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. She was a singer and member of the Motown Records girl group, The Marvelettes. The Marvelettes would be the first Motown act to release a number-one pop single with 1961’s “Please Mr. Postman.”
Young would sing lead on many iconic Marvelettes tracks, including “I’ll Keep Holding On” and “Don’t Mess With Bill.” She would go on to record solo for a time before reuniting the Marvelettes in the ’80s.
26. Melvin Van Peebles (August 21, 1932 – September 21, 2021)
Melvin Van Peebles passed away surrounded by family at age 89. No cause of death was made available. He was an actor, playwright, novelist, and filmmaker. His five-decade career defied definition and saw him produce works for the screen and stage in English and French.
Van Peebles’ best-known work is the 1971 film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. It is considered one of the earliest and best examples of the blaxploitation genre that would become popular during the decade. He would write, direct, edit, and score the film.
27. Leonard Hubbard (1958 – December 16, 2021)
Leonard Hubbard died from multiple myeloma at age 62. He was the bassist for the influential hip-hop group The Roots. During his fifteen-year tenure with the group, they would record albums now regarded as classics, such as 1999’s Things Fall Apart, while selling millions of records.
The Roots’ influence on hip-hop and culture stems from their willingness to collaborate and experiment sonically. The group has worked with many R&B and pop singers while pushing the boundaries of rap by incorporating influences from jazz to rock.
28. Barry Harris (December 15, 1929 – December 8, 2021)
Barry Harris died at the age of 91 from COVID-19 complications. He was a pianist, composer, and teacher. His contributions to jazz are steeped heavily in his understanding of the bebop style.
Harris worked with some of the most important names in jazz history. Miles Davis, Sonny Stitt, Max Roach, and Cannonball Adderley are among some of his most notable contributions. He received numerous awards for his work in the field of jazz, including a Lifetime Achievement award from the American Jazz Hall of Fame.
29. Clarence Williams III (August 21, 1939 – June 4, 2021)
Clarence Williams III died of colon cancer at the age of 81. He was an actor for over four decades. While best known for his starring role in the late ’60s television show The Mod Squad, Williams’ career was an eclectic mix of tv and film.
Williams’ post The Mod Squad career found the actor working in the eccentric side of Hollywood. Younger audiences will be more familiar with the actor as Prince’s father in Purple Rain or an FBI agent in David Lynch’s cult classic Twin Peaks.
30. Irv Cross (July 27, 1939 – February 28, 2021)
Irv Cross died at the age of 81 from heart disease. He was a football player and sports broadcaster. During his nine-year football career, he earned two Pro Bowl selections. After football, Cross would become the first Black sportscaster on national television.
Cross’ work on The NFL Today broke barriers and set a standard for televised football analysis that would only increase as cable took hold in the 20th century. The Pro Football Hall of Fame presented him with the Pete Rozelle Radio-Television Award. He was the first Black recipient.
31. Kangol Kid (August 10, 1966 – December 18, 2021)
Kangol Kid died of colon cancer at the age of 55. He was a hip-hop producer, dancer, and emcee. He is considered a pioneer of rap for his work with UTFO. The group is best known for their hit “Roxanne, Roxanne.”
The group helped bring rap to the forefront of American culture. UTFO was the first hip-hop group to play at the Apollo Theatre, while Kangol Kid’s endorsement deal with Kangol was the first of its kind in rap.
Black Celebrities That Died In 2021, Final Thoughts
If you haven’t already, check our list of black celebrties that died in 2020.
From breaking barriers to bolstering our spirits, we will be forever grateful for the souls we lost in 2021. The Black community wouldn’t be the same without their contributions. We know our hearts are only this heavy because they made them so full of joy.
We hope you took a moment to pay your respects to the light that these lives shined upon our world. May their souls rest in power.