Beyoncé, Michelle Obama, Shonda Rhimes And More Black Women That Defined The Decade

Whether it was through fashion, music or political movement, these are just some of the women that helped to define the 2010s.

At the tail end of November 2019, New York Magazine published a series of in-depth conversations featuring celebrity figures who “helped shape the decade.” Among them were names like Kim Kardashian-West, Margaret Atwood and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

None of the people asked to discuss the last 10 years in history and popular culture were Black women, who inarguably were at the forefront of just about every cultural and political movement, setting trends in fields across music and entertainment, social justice and reform, fashion and entrepreneurship. 

"A “conversation” about the 2010s with people who “defined the decade” and no Black women are included, lmao,” one Twitter user quipped cynically. “Y’all serious,  @NYMag?”

Same, sis. Which is why BET took some time to highlight just a few of the Black women whose contributions profoundly impacted the last 10 years, shifting more cultures than one. 

From Rihanna and Beyoncé to Tarana Burke and Janet Mock, Black women in the 2010s emerged purveyors of all things cool and the main source of inspiration behind some of the biggest campaigns. 

  • Shonda Rhimes

    For nearly an entire decade, lovers of wine, popcorn and nonsensical plots rejoiced every Thursday night with Shonda Rhimes’ #TGIT lineup of Scandal, How to Get Away With Murder and Grey’s Anatomy — one of the longest-running and highest-earning shows in television history. In 2007, Rhimes was named one of TIME magazine's 100 People Who Help Shape the World. Ten years later, Netflix announced that it had entered into a multi-year development deal with Rhimes that said all her future productions would be Netflix series originals. The award-winning writer, producer and director effectively gave our love of binge-watching new meaning.

  • Michelle Obama

    In the 2010s, the world got to experience the grace, humanity and elegance of our nation’s first African-American first lady. From her dazzling sense of style to her bold charisma, Michelle Obama was an exemplary look at Black Excellence. At once a trailblazing politician and pop culture mainstay of the decade, Michelle proved herself a model for women and worked as an advocate for education, physical activity and healthy eating, even in the years following Barack Obama’s presidency. So poppin' is Michelle’s influence that the first lady who succeeded her straight jacked Michelle’s 2008 address during the 2016 GOP Convention. True story. Michelle could also soon add another award to her already crowded mantel: a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Album for her memoir audiobook, Becoming.

  • Beyoncé

    When Beyoncé delivered a surprise self-titled album in the middle of the night in 2013, without any prior promotion or announcement, she single-handedly changed the way we as a culture consume music. The aftermath of that 14-track project – an album that concerned themes previously unexplored, including motherhood, the politics of pleasure and insecurities of marriage, postnatal depression – immediately set a trend of artists releasing whole albums without a moment’s notice.

    In April 2016, Beyoncé dropped a cryptic teaser for a project called Lemonade. We later learned it to be a one-hour film – the first known visual album in music history – that aired on HBO a week later. The corresponding soundtrack with the same title was released on the same day exclusively on TIDAL. Lemonade, which turned popular culture on its ear as fans speculated about Jay-Z’s infidelity, debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200, making Beyoncé the first act in Billboard history to have their first six studio albums debut atop the chart. Visually, Lemonade for months on end produced dialogue around Blackness in the diaspora, using concepts from the Yoruba religion. Its lead single, “Formation,” reverberated across culture as a Black anthem some have compared to “our generation's version of James Brown's 'Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud.'"

    In the vein of diaspora, Beyoncé earlier this year released The Gift, a Grammy-nominated soundtrack album for the 2019 photo-realistic animated remake of The Lion King. She enlisted a slew of African artists such as Burna Boy, Mr Eazi, Wizkid, Shatta Wale, Yemi Alade, Busiswa, Tiwa Savage and Tekno, among others.

  • Nicki Minaj

    A generation’s queen, Nicki Minaj is arguably the greatest artist of the last decade. While Pink Friday was the album that made Nicki mainstream, it was also her way of blazing a path for other women MCs. “They won’t look to sign other female rappers, so I’m doing this for all the girls,” Nicki said in a 2010 interview before dropping a debut album that went on to be certified three times platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). But for an entire decade, there was no competition. “This was the only era, before Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, that there was a single female rapper running the business for nine, ten years. There was no competition,” hip-hop veteran and Harlem rapper Cam’ron opines. As Young Money’s first lady, Nicki Minaj went on to lead a global following of faithful disciples dubbed The Barbz while making chart-topping records (à la "Supa Bass" and "Anaconda," for instance) that resonated with young Black and Brown women, as well as members throughout the LGBTQ community. Some of her biggest accolades include six American Music Awards, 11 BET Awards, four Billboard Music Awards, and 10 Grammy Award nominations, among many others. According to reports, Nicki has sold 30 million singles as a lead artist, 60 million singles as a featured artist, and over five million albums worldwide, making her one of the best-selling music artists in music history.

  • Janet Mock

    Janet Mock earlier this year signed a three-year, multi-million-dollar deal with Netflix, becoming the first Black trans woman to ink an overall deal at a major studio. The multi-hyphenate left out any major details about her upcoming projects, but promised in the deal's announcement to "introduce millions, hundreds of millions, of viewers to trans people and showing people who may not understand us that we can tell our own stories." A New York Times bestseller for Redefining Realness – a memoir that follows her journey as a young transgender woman in Hawaii – Mock made history with the largest cast of trans series regulars on TV with Pose, which she writes, produces and directs. In 2015, TIME magazine named Mock one of "the 30 Most Influential People on the Internet" and one of "12 New Faces of Black Leadership,” while Fast Company listed her as one of the "Most Creative People in Business." With hashtags like #GirlsLikeUs, Mock has dedicated the better part of her career to championing the lives of the LGBTQ community, with an emphasis on transgender rights.

  • Rihanna

    The ANTI singer has been so busy outside of recording it's hard to expect a new song, much less a new album before the year is over. With less than 30 days before we officially enter a new decade, it’s unlikely we’ll get the reggae album we all expected—and with good reason. Rihanna shook up several industries in the last three years alone, from starting a new fashion house to releasing a visual autobiography. Fenty Beauty proved to be a hit in the cosmetic industry since its 2017 debut; two years later she expanded into skincare and trademarked the name “Fenty Skin.”

    Simultaneously, Rihanna continued with her lingerie brand Savage x Fenty that’s since enlisted R&B sensation Normani as its first-ever brand ambassador. Sending the Navy into a collective frenzy, Rihanna became the first female designer of color for LVMH in a historic fashion deal that saw her become the wealthiest female musician in the world. Rihanna’s yearly benefit gala, the Diamond Ball, raised millions for her nonprofit charity, the Clara Lionel Foundation, which benefits impoverished communities around the world. And in October of 2019, the Bajan artist released a self-titled book that consists of 1,000 photographs of her “life as a musician, performer, designer, and entrepreneur.” Bad gyal, indeed.

  • Serena Williams

    Who gets to steal the moment in a Beyoncé video? Who do you know wins the Australian Open eight weeks pregnant? Who else can effortlessly appear on multiple covers of Sports Illustrated — and Vogue? Who can don leather, denim skirts, braids and catsuits as tennis uniforms and become a fashion and culture icon in the world of sports? Who gets to be the oldest player to hold all Grand Slam titles in singles and the Olympic Gold simultaneously? Serena Williams, that’s who. For the last decade and beyond, Williams has proven to be one of the greatest athletes and naturally gifted tennis players the world has known, all while combating institutionalized racism and sexism, and challenging today's industry beauty standards. 


  • Sandra Bland

    Unbeknown to her, Sandra Bland would become the face of a movement calling attention to violence against Black women in the U.S. The 28-year-old, who was from Naperville, Illinois, was arrested for allegedly assaulting a police officer during a traffic stop in Waller County, Texas, in July 2015. Well aware of her rights as a citizen, Bland challenged what was happening to her. She was found dead in a jail cell three days after she was taken into police custody. “Although Black women are routinely killed, raped, and beaten by the police, their experiences are rarely foregrounded in popular understandings of police brutality,” says Kimberle Crenshaw, director of Columbia Law School’s Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies. “Yet, inclusion of Black women’s experiences in social movements, media narratives, and policy demands around policing and police brutality is critical to effectively combating racialized state violence for Black communities and other communities of color.” #SayHerName has grown exponentially and serves as a key mouthpiece for many of the cases today concerning the unwarranted deaths and disappearances of Black and Brown girls and women, including the most recent call-to-action surrounding the case of Ruth George, a University of Illinois at Chicago honor student who was murdered and raped after refusing a man’s catcalls.  

  • Tarana Burke

    Back in 2006, when Myspace was still a thing, civil rights activist Tarana Burke began using the phrase “Me Too” as a way to raise awareness and create dialogue around sexual violence. Her social activism would go on to spawn today’s internationally broader #MeToo Movement after the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations where dozens of women using the hashtag accused the American film producer of rape and sexual assault. Among a group of other prominent activists labeled as "the silence breakers,” Burke was named Time Person of Year in 2017. "We owe future generations nothing less than a world free of sexual violence," Burke says. "I believe we can build that world." 

  • Cardi B

    We were first introduced to Cardi B’s larger-than-life personality via social media platforms like Instagram, where the “self-described stripper hoe that's all about her shmoney” would share with followers her day-to-day experiences working in the nightclub industry. But in as little as three years, thanks to a number of factors including the power of the digital age and a brief stint on Mona Scott-Young’s popular reality television series Love & Hip-Hop: New York, Cardi B went from a “loud mouthed ghetto girl” with a flair for unfiltered jokes, to an award-winning recording artist. Following a pair of mixtapes, Gangsta Bitch Music Volumes 1 and 2, Cardi authored the song that would change her life forever. “Bodak Yellow” climbed the charts, broke records and gave the proverbial head b*tch in charge a catchy anthem to get down with. Less than a year later, she released her major-label debut, Invasion of Privacy. The 13-track album earned Cardi her first Grammy for Best Rap Album, becoming the first-ever female rapper to win the category as a solo artist. What the Bronx native ultimately wound up doing in the process of becoming a generation's rap star is give a voice to round-the-way Black and Brown girls too often seen as embarrassing, uncouth or worse, not good enough.  

  • Ava DuVernay

    In 2014, Ava DuVernay became the first Black woman to be nominated for a Golden Globe Award and the first Black woman director to be nominated for the Academy for Best Picture for her work on Selma, based on the 1965 Selma to Montgomery voting rights marches led by Martin Luther King, Jr. DuVernay has been on a path to the vanguard of visionary filmmaking since, using American history to help reshape Hollywood. She does this to blistering effect in 13th, her 2016 documentary on racial injustices in the criminal justice system and its lasting impact on Black and Latino men and women. In 2018, A Wrinkle in Time became the first live-action feature film with a budget of over $100 million by a woman of color. And in 2019, DuVernay again opened raw the wound of trauma when she premiered When They See Us, a Netflix miniseries exploring the lives of the five male suspects who were prosecuted and wrongly jailed for the rape and assault of a woman in Central Park. The series not only helped humanize the lives and experiences of the men unjustly associated with one of the most notorious crimes of the '80s, it broke open the doors of opportunities and new life for the Exonerated Five.

  • Mona Scott-Young

    Hate it or love it, but we cannot talk about the last decade without including Mona Scott-Young’s media franchise of Love & Hip-Hop. The reality television series first launched in New York in 2011 and resulted in huge success and the production of several spin-offs based in major cities like Hollywood, Atlanta and Miami. The show, which documents the personal and professional lives of hip-hop and R&B performers, managers and record producers (it also aided in launching the music careers of people like Cardi B), aired on VH1 garnering the attention of a niche, yet influential, community of viewers and critics that rolled up their collective sleeves every Monday night to live-tweet reactions to the illogical happenings and chaotic storylines of the evening’s episode. Recognized by the National Congress and Convention of Haitian-Americans, Scott-Young has been honored at ASCAP's Woman Behind the Music and with awards from the National Association of Black Female Executives in Music Entertainment. This year, Scott-Young was crowned “Reality TV Royalty” at the MTV Movie & TV Awards.

  • Black Lives Matter

    When George Zimmerman was acquitted of all charges in the case of Trayvon Martin in 2013, three Black women by the names of Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi created the #BlackLivesMatter movement in response to the extrajudicial murders of Black people. Black Lives Matter has since blossomed into a global network of chapter-based, member-led organization “whose mission is to build local power and to intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes.” Black Lives Matter and other closely related freedom organizers have been at the forefront of just about every protest related to the cases that have sprawled headlines in the last 10 years, including that of #MikeBrown and #TamirRice. From advocating for mental health and prison reform, BLM has also gone on to inspire new movements and political frameworks, such as the fight against gun violence and #AbolishIce.

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