When it comes to music, the 1990s were a decade filled with popular hits from diverse musical genres. From pop to R&B, this musical era saw a surge of female black singers, and their songs ranked on the charts.
The following list breaks down 11 of the best black female singers of the 90s.
Toni Braxton was a 90s music sensation. The singer was born on the seventh of October, 1967, in a religious household. The oldest of six children, Braxton’s family had strict rules about engaging with popular culture.
Braxton began singing in her father’s church choir early in her childhood. Her combined voice talent and love for music led her to pursue a career as a music teacher. However, before she could complete her degree, she was discovered by Bill Pettaway, who helped her land a recording deal with Arista Records alongside two of her sisters.
Her solo single “Love Shoulda Brought You Home” on the soundtrack for the Eddie Murphy film, Boomerang, launched Braxton’s first hit. This was the catalyst for a self-titled debut album which peaked at number one in the U.S. Billboard 200.
In 1996, Braxton’s second album, Secrets, broke the top ten on a variety of international charts and hit number two on the Billboard 200. It went platinum, selling over 8 million records. The album’s single “Un-Break My Heart” became a musical sensation.
The next year, the singer took home two Grammys for the album—for Best Female R&B Pop Vocal Performance as well as Best Female R&B Vocal Performance.
In addition to her pop and R&B megahits, Braxton had a fruitful career as a Broadway actress. She made history for being the first black performer to appear as Belle in Beauty and the Beast.
Braxton would go on to have successful albums throughout the early 2000s. She is still recording music today, most recently competing on season six of The Masked Singer.
Vanessa Williams was born Vanessa Lynn Williams March 18, 1963 to musical educators Milton and Helen Williams. As a child, she exhibited a great talent for music and dance and had a dream to become the African American Rockette.
She studied theater and music at Syracuse, and during this time, was crowned Miss New York in 1983. Soon after, she was the first black woman to be crowned Miss America. Due to a nude photo scandal from before she was crowned, Williams struggled to get a legitimate foothold in Hollywood in the years that followed.
Her first breakthrough came in the form of a role in the movie The Pick Up Artist in 1987. This led to her first recording contract and the release of her album The Right Stuff, which went gold.
Her second album was released in 1991. The Comfort Zone was very popular, selling over 2 million copies and went triple platinum. It also helped Williams achieve five Grammy nominations and stayed in the number one spot on the pop charts for five weeks.
In 1994, Williams’s third album, The Sweetest Days, also went platinum and earned her two Grammy nominations.
Throughout her illustrious career, Williams has found success as a singer, actress, and fashion designer. She has been the recipient of several Emmy nominations, a Tony nomination, and 11 Grammy nominations. She has also received four Satellite awards and seven NAACP Image Awards.
Shanice Lorraine Wilson was born on May the 14th, 1973. She was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Shanice became a professional singer at the age of 8 years old when she was selected to sing alongside Ella Fitzgerald in a Kentucky Fried Chicken commercial. At the age of 10, she had already won first place on the tv talent show Star Search, a win that led to her first recording contract with A&M Records.
She released her first album “Discovery” when she was only 14. Her second studio album, Inner Child, was released in 1991. The single “I Love Your Smile” from this album launched Shanice into international fame; it peaked at number one on the Billboard R&B charts and number two on the Billboard pop charts.
In addition to her musical prowess, Shanice also spent the late 90s flexing her acting chops. She was the first black woman to play Eponine in the Broadway musical Les Miserables.
Shanice showcased her three-and-a-half octave vocal range on a total of five studio albums from the late 90s to early 2000s. She was nominated in 1993 for a Grammy award for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance and won a Golden Lion Award for Best International Artist the same year.
Aaliyah was born in Brooklyn as Aaliyah Dana Houghton in 1979. Her family settled down in Detroit, Michigan where she would take voice lessons and dream of becoming a big star.
Aaliyah began her quest for fame on the tv show Star Search when she was 11 years old, signing a contract with Jive Records a year later. She was a soprano with a voice that would go on to be described as both silky and sweet.
She didn’t see success until 1994 when she was 15 when her debut album, Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number, burst onto the R&B charts. The album sold over a million copies and went platinum. Her 1996 sophomore album One in a Million was released when she was 17, sold two million copies, and recognized Aaliyah as a confident, mature artist.
In the next couple of years, Aaliyah would gain further recognition for her soundtrack recordings on popular films Anastasia and Dr. Doolittle.
Aaliyah died in a plane crash. It was August 25th 2001, and she was 22. She was nominated for numerous posthumous awards and won the Billboard-AURN Top R&B/Hip-Hop Female Artist in 2003. Overall, she was nominated for 73 awards and won 14.
In her short life, Aaliyah left a major imprint on the music industry as a whole, as well as on the pop, R&B, and hip hop genres. She was known as the “Princess of R&B” and the “Queen of Urban Pop.”
Known professionally as Sade, this Nigerian-born British singer was born on January 16, 1958, as Helen Folasade Adu. Her father was a Nigerian-born economics teacher, and her mother was an English nurse.
She was raised in Essex by her mother. Throughout her childhood, Sade found joy in listening to American soul music. She was particularly fond of artists and bands like the Jackson 5, Donny Hathaway, and Curtis Mayfield. Initially, she planned to pursue a career in fashion but shifted to music and songwriting while in school.
She began touring with a Latin funk band called Pride in the late 70s and early 80s. Eventually, she signed on with several members of the original group under the name Sade. Despite this success, she spent much of the 80s living as a struggling artist in less than ideal living conditions.
The 90s saw the release of the band’s fourth studio album, Love Deluxe, which peaked at number four on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 list, and number one on the U.S. Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs. It was an international success as well, reaching certified quadruple-Platinum and certified Gold in the U.K.
In 1994, a compilation album was released titled The Best of Sade. This album broke the top ten on the charts in the United States and the U.K. The band would go on a long hiatus after this success and would not go on to record anything new until 2000.
Overall, Sade and her band would release six studio albums and go on six tours from 1984 to 2011. Sade was also the first Nigerian woman to win a Grammy award for Best New Artist. Her smooth R&B music and thoughtful lyrics brought her critical acclaim and public popularity that endured for decades.
Tracy Chapman, born March the 30th 1964, was raised by her mother in Connecticut after her parent’s divorce. Her mother introduced her to music when she was three after gifting her a ukulele, and she would go on to play guitar and write her own moving songs.
She recorded her first self-titled debut album in 1986 for Elektra Records. The album, released in 1988, catapulted to number one in the United States and the U.K. thanks to its single “Fast Car.” Her initial album earned her three Grammy Awards for Best New Artist, Best Contemporary Folk Album, and Best Female Pop Vocal Performer.
The 90s saw highs and lows for Chapman. Her subsequent album releases did not achieve the same popularity or recognition her initial project did.
However, her album, New Beginnings, released in 1995, sold 5 million copies and was home to the popular singles “Give Me One Reason” and “Smoke and Ash.” The album would earn Chapman her fourth Grammy for Best Rock Song, in addition to several other nominations and awards.
Her resonating, deep voice and folksy style of rock were unique standouts in the 90s pop, grunge, and R&B-heavy influences.
Born Eve Jeffers to Julie and Jerry Jeffers, Eve lived in West Philadelphia until her parents’ divorce when she was 12. As a child, she was extremely interested in poetry and proved to be a talented singer. She later joined a hip-hop group with a couple of friends called Edjp.
Eve spent time after graduating from high school in New York. She worked for a short period as a stripper before buckling down and pursuing her music career. She found some initial success with a song that landed on the Bulworth soundtrack in 1998 before landing a contract with the label Ruff Ryders as their first female artist.
Her debut album was released in September 1999, which sold over 2 million copies and went certified as Double Platinum. She wrote all of the songs on the album, which peaked at number one on the Billboard 200 charts.
The success of this album led to collaborations with other famous 90s and early-2000s performers like Nas, Missy Elliott, Gwen Stefani, and Faith Evans.
Her follow-up album in 2001 was also a big success. The album’s single, “Who’s That Girl,” peaked at number 47 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and made it to number six in the U.K. The single, “Let Me Blow Ya Mind,” would go on to win a Grammy Award for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration in 2002.
Throughout her career, Eve has become known for her sharp, staccato-style rap style and lyrics written frequently from the perspective of her life experiences. She has won a total of 20 awards and found additional success as an actress in movies like the Barbershop franchise.
Brandy Norwood was born in February of 1979 in Mississippi. She was the daughter of Sonja and Willie Norwood, a successful gospel singer. She is also the eldest sister of entertainer Ray J and Snoop Dogg’s cousin.
She got her start in the music world as a child singing in her father’s church choir. Her first solo came at the age of two years old. Brandy looked up to artists like Whitney Houston and dreamed of becoming a professional singer when she was only seven years old.
She attended high school at the Hollywood High Performing Arts Center before dropping out to sign with Teaspoon Productions as a backup vocalist in 1990. She wouldn’t release her self-titled debut album until 1994, which peaked at twenty in the U.S. Billboard 200. The songs “Baby” and “I Wanna Be Down” each cracked the top ten on the Billboard Hot 100 list.
The album saw mostly positive reviews from critics and sold six million copies across the globe. It earned her two Grammy Award nominations for Best Female R&B Vocal Performance and Best New Artist, four Soul Train Music Awards, and the New York Children’s Choice Awards. She was only 15 at the time.
The initial success of this album led her to collaborate with popular artists like Boyz II Men, Chaka Khan, Tamia, and Monica.
She furthered her fame as the star of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s television version of Cinderella, also starring Whitney Houston and Whoopi Goldberg. This led to a second album which Brandy helped write and produce. In 1998, she went on a world tour and performed sold-out shows throughout the U.S., Europe, and Asia.
Brandy’s career has spanned music, television, Broadway. Her soft, husky, warm voice and fan-favorite riffs helped her to win nine awards. She has also sold over 40 million records and wears the crown for the longest-running number-one song in the U.S. with “The Boy is Mine.” Her style spanned several genres, including contemporary R&B, pop, gospel, soul, and hip-hop.
Mýa Harrison is a black Italian singer, songwriter, actress, and dancer born in 1979 in Washington D.C. As a child, her primary hobby was dance, dabbling in ballet, tap, and jazz as young as four years old.
Mýa had a unique, slightly breathy voice that spanned four octaves. She signed her first recording contract as a teenager with Interscope Records. Her self-titled debut album was released in 1998 and peaked at number 29 in the U.S. Billboard 200. It was a critical success, selling over 1 million copies in the United States and over 2 million copies worldwide.
The album earned her two Soul Train Music Awards and an Image Award for Outstanding New Artist from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She won her first Grammy Award in 1998 for the collaborative single “Ghetto Superstar” with rapper Ol’ Dirty Bastard which was a number one hit in countries all over the world.
Mýa helped write, record, and produce her sophomore album Fear of Flying in 1999. The songs featured themes of feminism and female sexuality, although it was generally considered a slump. It was re-released a couple of years later with additional tracks.
In 2001 she recorded the 1975 hit “Lady Marmalade” with singers Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, and Pink. The single was a success worldwide and spent five weeks at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 and would earn Mýa a Grammy Award.
In addition to her collaborations with popular pop and R&B artists of the late 90s and early 2000s, Mýa cited Aretha Franklin, Madonna, Prince, Sade, and Minnie Riperton as major influences in her musical career.
Mary J. Blige
Mary Jane Blige was born the 11th of January 1971, to the Bronx, New York. That said she was raised in Georgia.
She released her first studio album in 1991, titled “What’s the 411?” The album was produced by Sean “Puffy” Combs and helped establish Blige as the queen of her own genre, a mix of soul and hip-hop music.
Her sophomore album was released in 1995 and is credited for helping introduce R&B and hip-hop to the mainstream pop scene. It featured emotionally raw and poignant lyrics that exposed Blige’s pain and strenuous relationship at the time.
While her initial album had a heavier rap influence, her follow-up albums featured more classically soul tracks that had heavy emotive power. Her work was expressive and creative and paved the way for future 90s black female singers.
Over her career, Blige released thirteen studio albums, won nine Grammy Awards, twelve Billboard Music Awards, and four American Music Awards.
Des’ree (born Desirée Annette Weekes on November 30th, 1968) was born in Croydon, London, to parents from British Guyana and Barbados. There, she was raised on the music her parents loved, including jazz, reggae, and calypso, all of which would influence her unique sound.
She struck musical luck early on. In her early 20s, her boyfriend mailed off her demo tape to Sony Music, and she was quickly signed on in 1991.
While she released music the very year she was signed, she didn’t make it big in the USA until she collaborated with Sananda Maitreya with the song “Delicate.” However, she really blew Americans out of the water with her hit single “You Gotta Be,” which peaked at number five.
Known for R&B and Soul music, Des’ree is still releasing music today. Her most recent album is from 2019, but the singer currently has no plans to stop making music. She’s won seven awards over the course of her career and produced five albums to date, not including compilations and singles.
Top Black Female Singers of the 90s, Final Thoughts
The 90s saw a breakthrough for popular young black women in the music industry. Artists in this decade brought new life to the R&B, hip-hop, and pop genres and made way for artists in the same genres in the 2000s.