Missy Elliott, SZA and Other Black Stars Who Are Making History Now: 'I Could Do Anything'

<p>Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty</p>

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty

These eight MVPS from movies, music, TV, sports and modeling are changing the world by changing the game. From Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Missy Elliott and Grammy nominee SZA to Abbott Elementary's Emmy-nominated Tyler James Williams and model and trans activist Zaya Wade, they're leaving marks that will inspire future generations to dream big.

Missy Elliott, 52

<p>Derek Blanks</p>

Derek Blanks

HOW SHE’S MAKING HISTORY She’s been the first in so many things, including being the first female rapper to be inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2019, alongside Cat Stevens, John Prine and Tom T. Hall, and becoming the first female rapper to enter the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in November.

PROPS FROM A FELLOW HIP-HOP LEGEND “To see the levels and the control that [women in music] have—Missy is that artist that shows you it can be done, and she did it,” Sandra Denton of Salt-n-Pepa told PEOPLE in November. “She tapped into everything and did it well.”

ONE OF A KIND “Missy Elliott was one of the first artists I looked up to for her fearlessness and creativity,” Ciara, who collaborated with the Portsmouth, Va., native on her 2004 hit “1, 2 Step,” told PEOPLE in 2020. “To this day there’s no one like her—she created a lane of her own.”

Tyler James Williams, 31

<p>Michael Tullberg/FilmMagic</p>

Michael Tullberg/FilmMagic

HOW HE'S MAKING HISTORY He made the rare successful transition from child TV star, as the title character on the CW sitcom Everybody Hates Chris, to adult two-time Emmy nominee for his role as Gregory Eddie on ABC’s acclaimed hit Abbott Elementary.

A HIGHER PURPOSE “I don’t believe in just making art just for art’s sake,” Williams, who grew up in Yonkers, N.Y., told PEOPLE last June. “I believe that it should probably move the conversation forward culturally in some way. So whenever I work on something, I’m looking for a way to effect change.”

SETTING AN EXAMPLE “One of the things that a lot of Black men in America have suffered from is the inability to craft their own narrative and to be role models for each other,” the actor said of his activism, which covers education and LGBTQ+ causes. “I think it’s really important that we counter that narrative as much as possible. It’s one of the reasons why I want to be as vocal as I am . . . because we have to show another way.”

SZA, 34

<p>Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty</p>

Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty

HOW SHE’S MAKING HISTORY With her massive hit 2023 album SOS, SZA (real name: Solána Imani Rowe) has become the hottest Black female vocalist on the charts, and she leads this year’s Grammy class with nine nominations.

REALIZING HER WORTH “I always thought, ‘Oh my God, I’ll never have the approval of anyone in life, this must be my defining factor, this must be the bottom line that I’m not a cool person,’ ” says the St. Louis native of being bullied while growing up in Maplewood, N.J. “I realized that all the things that made me feel so lame were actually what made me into who I am.”

LOFTY CREATIVE GOALS “I wanted to accomplish things that people didn’t know that I liked or could do,” says the singer, who experimented with rap, pop rock and acoustic ballads on SOS and is gearing up to release the deluxe version of SOS, titled Lana, which will include 7-10 new songs. “I’m never going to be what people are telling me [to be], because I could do anything.”

Zaya Wade, 16

<p>Cruz Valdez/Trunk Archive</p>

Cruz Valdez/Trunk Archive

HOW SHE’S MAKING HISTORY The model daughter of former NBA star Dwyane Wade and stepdaughter of actress Gabrielle Union has been making invaluable contributions to trans visibility since coming out in 2020 at age 12.

A SHOUT-OUT FROM DAD “I’ve sat back and watched how gracefully you’ve taken on the public scrutiny,” Dwyane said to Zaya from the stage at the 2023 NAACP Image Awards, adding, “I admire how you’ve handled ignorance in our world. . . . To say that your village is proud of you is an understatement.”

OPENING MINDS “When Zaya was 3 years old, Gabrielle and I had that conversation about the possibilities,” Dwyane told PEOPLE in 2021. “I come from a macho, male-dominated sport, but I started learning.” Added his wife: “Once she identified as trans, I reached out to everyone from Instagram and social media. They responded with love, resources, information. We don’t have all the answers, we’re going to mess up, but we’ve got to listen and be led.”

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, 54

<p>Mat Hayward/Getty</p>

Mat Hayward/Getty

HOW SHE'S MAKING HISTORY Oscar-nominated for her role in 2021’s King Richard, the actress garnered major attention for her lead role in Origin, a biopic of bestselling author Isabel Wilkerson. Angelina Jolie, Regina King and Ben Affleck all hosted special VIP screenings.

CALLING OUT A RACIST PAST “I come from a culture, I come from a state that wants to redact people who look like me out of the history books,” says the actress, who grew up in Mississippi—where she has spoken out against its now-discontinued Confederate flag. “So my intention is to right that wrong. That’s my mission statement.”

HOLDING HOLLYWOOD TO A HIGHER STANDARD “I wish everything I did tried to achieve the heights that Origin tries to achieve, but that’s not the case,” she says of the Ava DuVernay-directed tale of racism and caste systems. “This film does something that is very, very brave,” but Hollywood, she adds, tends to “award the White guys for that kind of work.”

Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone, 24

<p>Arnold Jerocki/Getty</p>

Arnold Jerocki/Getty

HOW SHE’S MAKING HISTORY The Olympic gold medalist and newly minted author holds the world record for the 400m hurdle, and she’s expected to be back in the running at the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.

OVERCOMING PERFECTIONISM “I think when you’re in a profession where you’re fighting for gold, silver and bronze, it’s always going to be an opportunity to look at yourself and want to be perfect,” the New Jersey native says. “I will never be perfect, and that’s okay.”

THE POWER OF WORDS “Writing has taught me a lot about myself in terms of how I want to conduct myself moving forward in the years to come,” the athlete says of her memoir Far Beyond Gold: Running From Fear to Faith. “I’ve learned how to view my wins, my losses, everything in between as just God’s plan and appreciate the in-between. You can strive for excellence, but excellence doesn’t always mean perfection—and there is a difference.”

Kelvin Harrison Jr., 29

<p>Amy Sussman/Getty</p>

Amy Sussman/Getty

HOW HE'S MAKING HISTORY He’s earned acclaim and brought Black history to the big screen by playing multiple legends, including Black Panthers activist Fred Hampton in The Trial of the Chicago 7, blues great B.B. King in Elvis and, this month, Martin Luther King Jr. in National Geographic’s anthology series Genius: MLK/X.

THE MEN BEHIND THE MYTHS “One of the reasons why I do a lot of these biopics is I learned so much about what greatness actually is and what it means to truly be uninhibited,” explains the New Orleans native, who will next play the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. “These incredible young Black men that found a real sense of their identity and were fearless in sharing it with everybody—that’s what I aspire to be. That excites me and ignites me every single day. That’s why I tell stories.”

PAYING RESPECT TO ROYALTY “This is so not on the Martin Luther King train of things, but it’s just the truth—I love me some Beyoncé,” Harrison says of his favorite Black trailblazer. “She’s my queen.”

Aaron Pierre, 29

<p>Natasha Campos/Getty</p>

Natasha Campos/Getty

HOW HE’S MAKING HISTORY One of the most versatile rising British actors, he’s played Cassio in Othello and the title character in August Wilson’s King Hedley II onstage, and this month the star of the 2021 limited series The Underground Railroad appears as civil rights icon Malcolm X in Genius: MLK/X.

FILLING BIG SHOES “I understood the enormity of the responsibility of attempting to portray this man’s life and what he means to so many,” the Londoner says of becoming Malcolm X onscreen. “His power reverberated all the way to where I grew up and beyond.”

STAYING GROUNDED “I’m always celebrating and championing my heritage, the contributions my community and diaspora has given to this world,” says Pierre, who’s inspired most by his parents: “They instilled these tremendous roots in me.”

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