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25 musicians who broke barriers

  • 25 musicians who broke barriers

    Sixty years ago, Berry Gordy Jr. took an $800 loan from his family and founded Tamla Records in Detroit, Mich. The label—which was incorporated as Motown Record Corporation in 1960 and went on to sign such iconic acts as Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross & the Supremes, and The Temptations—touched off an era representing a some of the greatest musical gifts of the 20th century. Motown's influence widely resonates today, in genres as far-flung as rock 'n' roll, R&B, and hip-hop.

    Motown's cultural contributions run even deeper than the music. When Gordy launched the label, he opened up new avenues to success for black musicians, singers, writers, and producers who had previously been underrepresented, underemployed, and underpaid for their talents. Motown Records was the first black-owned label to reach national recognition and success—as well as the most successful independent label of all time and the most lucrative African-American-owned business in America of its era, to boot.

    The perseverance of Gordy—and all the talented people he represented—demonstrates the resiliency of the human spirit, as well. The life of a musician isn't always easy. Gigs are hard to get. Fans can be finicky. Life on the road can be lonely. It's even more difficult for those who've faced racism, sexism, or other barriers into the industry. Some artists overcome disabilities in pursuit of their dreams. Ludwig van Beethoven, one of history's most famous musicians, started losing his hearing in his 20s. That didn't keep him away from the piano; he continued composing and playing even as he went deaf. Despite going blind from glaucoma when he was 6, Ray Charles mastered the piano and the saxophone to become a soul legend.

    When the popularity of rock n' roll surged in the ‘50s, black musicians still faced discrimination in the Jim Crow South. For starters, segregated restaurants and hotels turned non-white musicians away. The Flamingos, an all-black group inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, weren't allowed to look at white fans in the audience—and were monitored by cops to ensure the rules were followed.

    Women also fought against racism and sexism. Before Beyonce opened the doors for other black artists, Odetta James sang civil rights anthems and marched with Martin Luther King Jr. Shattering gender stereotypes, rocker Joan Jett showed that female musicians didn't have to be so polite. Others faced issues around their sexual identity. Performers like Queen frontman Freddie Mercury and Elton John helped pave the way for LGBTQ men onstage. In the early ‘90s, singers Melissa Etheridge and K.D. Lang represented gay women in modern music.

    Using information from “Rad American Women A-Z” by Kate Schatz, news reports, and biographies, Stacker created a list of 25 musicians who succeed despite challenges. Click through to learn more about the artists who broke barriers and carried on the precedent Motown set.

    You may also like: 50 ways music has changed in the last 50 years

  • Stevie Wonder

    Blinded by being given too much oxygen just after birth, Stevie Wonder — born Steveland Hardaway Judkins — learned to play the harmonica, drums, and piano before he was 10. Wonder signed with Motown Records in 1961 and promoted social justice and racial tolerance throughout his career, including singing the duet “Ebony and Ivory” in the ‘80s with Paul McCartney. During his career, he won 25 Grammy Awards, including the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

  • Freddie Mercury

    Freddie Mercury, born Farrokh Bulsara, started the rock band Queen in the early ‘70s. Mercury, who said he was bisexual, challenged the heteronormative stereotypes around what a man should be like on stage. Although he was known for his skin-tight costumes and charismatic stage presence, some say Mercury was actually shy when he wasn't performing.

  • Nina Simone

    Jazz musician Nina Simone, who was classically-trained but also loved folk, started playing the piano when she was 3. Simone used her music to speak out about racism and social justice during the Civil Rights Movement of the early ‘60s. Her music inspired modern black artists like Lauryn Hill, Kanye West, and John Legend.


  • Joan Jett

    Joan Jett started performing with the all-girl rock band the Runaways in 1975. Along with fellow members Cherie Currie, Micki Steele, and Sandy West, Jett changed what it meant to be a woman in rock. "The Runaways were groundbreakers," says Holly George-Warren, a music historian and author of "The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock." "The lyrics were provocative and they didn't have this prettiness that was expected of female musicians."

  • Prince

    Prince signed a contract with Warner Bros. when he was 17, launching a successful career that spanned 40 years. His first album came out in 1978, and “Little Red Corvette” was one of the first videos by a black artist to appear on MTV. After his death in 2016, one of Prince's bandmates said he was a once-in-a-lifetime artist. “Prince broke so many barriers. He broke walls down. There were other people who did it, going back to Jimi Hendrix, Little Richard, but not like Prince,” says Mark “Brownmark” Brown.

  • Ludwig van Beethoven

    Born in Germany in 1770, Ludwig van Beethoven started playing the piano as a young boy, giving his first performance when he was 8. He began to lose his hearing when he was in his 20s. Throughout the decline of his health and hearing, he continued composing and playing the piano.

  • Adam Lambert

    In 2009, American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert opened up about being “bi-curious” and gay. While Lambert isn't a music icon yet—though he does collaborate with Queen—he helped usher in a new era of gay acceptance simply because he was on a mainstream television show. At the time, only 37% of Americans supported same-sex marriage.

  • Hazel Scott

    Piano prodigy Hazel Scott joined her mother's touring jazz band when she was only 15. In the late ‘30s and ‘40s, she performed at cafes and on Broadway in New York. In 1950, she became the first black woman to host her own television show.

  • MC Lyte

    Years before Nicki Minaj exploded on the rap scene, there was MC Lyte. Lana Michelle Moorer was the first female rapper to release a solo album and the first to be nominated for a Grammy. In 1993, her single “Ruffneck” was nominated for Best Rap Single. In 2006, she founded the Hip Hop Sisters Network, a non-profit organization that provides mentorship for young people and “promotes positive images of women of ethnic diversity.”


  • Bill Withers

    Though he was born with a stutter, Bill Withers went on to win three Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. Withers, who shot to fame with “Ain't No Sunshine” in 1971, challenged racial stereotypes. “Not a lot of people got me,” says Withers. “Here I was, this black guy playing an acoustic guitar, and I wasn't playing the gut-bucket blues. People had a certain slot that they expected you to fit in to.”