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Aida Overton Walker,1900s
First female black entertainment superstar. Wife to George Walker of Williams & Walker; neither she nor her husband blacked up in their trailblazing all-black musical comedies of the 1890s and 1900s, though his partner (and the more famous/talented of the two by several orders of magnitude) Bert Williams did. Aida Overton was one of the first women to publically — that is, in the sphere of celebrity, of paying white audiences and fashion crazes, not op-eds in Negro newspapers and small-press pamphlets — challenge the American certainty that black women could not be beautiful, a belief still deeply entrenched in the culture today. She was also, contemporary accounts remark, a better singer and a better comedian than the male members of the establishment; but they got onto records — Williams is even on film — and she didn't.
Nevertheless you can trace a direct line of influence from her to anyone you care to name today — Mary J. Blige, Beyoncé, Janelle Monáe, whoever. Aida Overton to Florence Mills to Ethel Waters to Billie Holiday to Dinah Washington to Diana Ross to Whitney Houston and the stars beyond is only the quickest route; a more complete accounting would also take in Mamie Smith, Bessie Smith, Ruth Brown, Aretha Franklin, Linda Sharrock, Donna Summer, Vanity, Neneh Cherry, Lauryn Hill, etc., etc., etc. The history of black women singing is the history of American music, and we should all know our roots better than we do.