An athlete who took a stand by sitting out the national anthem.
A woman thrust into the spotlight after capturing the horrific aftermath of her fiance’s shooting death by police.
A singer whose artistry and activism launched a thousand think pieces and set the internet ablaze, as everyone took to social media to debate and dissect her every move.
These are just a few of the people who, over the past 12 months, have defined the black experience in America. At a time when the country continues to devalue black lives at every turn, these are the people who step forward to remind the world that not only do black lives matter, but that it is black people who have helped shape and influence every part of this country.
Since 2009, The Root has compiled a list of the 100 newsmakers and game changers, the innovators and the rule breakers, ages 25-45, who excel across multiple disciplines—entertainment, sports, media, science, politics, social justice and technology.
We combed through hundreds of names and submissions—from famous celebrities who use their high profile to speak out about injustices to unheralded community leaders who toil tirelessly in the background—to devise a list of the most influential African Americans. Now, we proudly present to you that list: The Root 100 2016.
The person who earned the No. 1 spot on our list is Beyoncé Knowles Carter. No other artist dominated the cultural landscape over the past year quite like Queen Bey. Two years after her surprise album shook up the music industry, Yonce, once again, forced the world to stop and bow down—first in February, when she dropped her “Formation” video on the Saturday before her stunning Super Bowl performance (which was technically billed as a Coldplay halftime show, but who really remembers that?).
We watched her bask in all her blackness, boldly and unapologetically, as she called out police brutality, declared her love for black beauty (those “Negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils”) and made it clear who really runs the world, all while carrying hot sauce in her bag (swag). So strong was her influence, she even reportedly boosted sales at Red Lobster by 33 percent simply by mentioning the seafood chain’s name.
Before we even had time to catch our collective breaths, in April, she released Lemonade–her powerful and stunning visual album that unveiled her sixth studio album, which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard like her previous five albums. Lemonade offered a glimpse—perhaps—of her own personal journey of love and betrayal, while also honoring the strength and resilience of black women.
And though her philanthropy is often overlooked, (over the past few years, she’s given $7 million to a homeless shelter in her hometown of Houston), we noticed when her BeyGood Foundation raised money that went to the Flint, Mich., residents living through that city’s water crisis and scholarship money for Detroit high school students.
To echo the words of New Orleans icon Big Freedia in the “Formation” video, Beyoncé came to slay. And slay she did.
Our No. 2 honoree is The Chosen One, Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, who, by sheer force of will, led his team to an epic comeback during the NBA Finals after his team fell behind to the Golden State Warriors 3-1. No team in the history of the NBA had ever come back to win a title after being down 3-1, but none of those teams had a player like James, who also continued his charitable works, whether it was donating millions to send kids to college or buying new uniforms for a high school basketball team.
At No. 3 is actor Jesse Williams, who isn’t on the list simply for that amazing and fiery speech on race, justice and cultural appropriation at this year’s BET Awards. No, the Grey’s Anatomy star has been speaking truth to power for several years now—whether by protesting in Ferguson, Mo., or executive-producing a documentary on the Black Lives Matter movement. And his passionate commitment to social justice is already leading some to label him this generation’s Harry Belafonte.
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick is No. 4 on our list for launching a protest movement that rippled throughout not just the NFL but high school football teams, youth leagues and even other sports, when he opted out of standing for the national anthem to protest police brutality. He also backed up his stance by donating $1 million to San Francisco Bay Area charities, and when his jersey became the No. 1-selling jersey in the NFL, he pledged to donate that money, too, putting his money where his heart is.
Rounding out the top 5, is Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry. His lights-out shooting helped propel his team to a second-straight NBA Finals and set a new regular-season wins record of 73-9, beating the old mark of 72-10 set by the ’95-’96 Chicago Bulls. Curry also set a single-season record with 402 3-pointers, besting his own previous record of 286 (the feat may well land him on the list of unbreakable records by black athletes). If not for the Herculean efforts of the No. 2 honoree, Curry may have landed even higher on the list.
To determine this list of influencers, we considered several factors. Each nominee was measured by his or her traditional and social media reach, which is why a fair number of celebrities appear on the list, like Ava DuVernay (No. 8) and Kendrick Lamar (No. 25), who have both been honored in past years.
But to give some shine to those people who don’t live in the limelight—like lawyer Adam Foss (No. 49), who founded an organization to hold prosecutors accountable in a broken criminal-justice system that too often targets people of color—we used a mathematical formula to determine the substance of their work (with 10 being the highest substance score) and then calculate their level of influence. The higher the influence, the higher they rank on the list.
As with last year, activists fighting on the front lines of social justice have a fair number of slots on The Root 100. Newcomers to the list include Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds (No. 14), who bravely and calmly live-streamed the aftermath of the police shooting that took the life of her fiance, Philando Castile, showing the world the horror of police brutality in real time; University of Missouri grad student Jonathan Butler (No. 18), who put his life on the line when he engaged in a hunger strike to force the resignation of the university president for failing to act against racism on campus; and Lezley McSpadden (No. 74) and Erica Garner (No. 31), who both lost loved ones to police brutality—McSpadden, her son, Michael Brown; Garner, her father, Eric Garner—but turned their grief into action to ensure that black lives do indeed matter.
As this is an election year, those in the political arena also made their way onto the list: Marlon Marshall (No. 43), director of states and political engagement for the Hillary Clinton campaign, is the highest-ranking African-American staffer of any presidential campaign; also on the Clinton team is LaDavia Drane (No. 58), who is the Democratic presidential nominee’s deputy director of congressional affairs; while Symone Sanders (No. 65), during the primary season served as Bernie Sanders’ press secretary and fiercely fought to ensure his message was heard.
Playing real-life political figures helped several stars from the hit Broadway musical Hamilton make the list. Leslie Odom Jr. (No. 6 ) is the Tony Award-winning actor who played Aaron Burr opposite show-creator Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Alexander Hamilton. Odom is joined by Daveed Diggs (No. 29), Renée Elise Goldsberry (No. 30) and Christopher Jackson (No. 50). These African-American actors were front and center in a multicultural ensemble that literally cast the country’s Founding Fathers in a whole new light and made American history accessible to those whose ancestors were never allowed to be in “the room where it happened.”
These are just a sample of the leaders and innovators who comprise our list of the most influential African Americans. Please join us in congratulating The Root 100 2016!