A Tribute to Black Icons — from Harry Belafonte to Whitney Houston — by the Family Members Who Know Them Best

For these legends of Black history and the family members honoring them, talent and passion is in their DNA

01 of 14

Bob Marley by Stephen Marley

Bob Marley ROLLOUT
Bob Marley. Heilemann/Camera Press/Redux

Reggae legend Bob Marley, who died in 1981 at age 36, was Jamaica's greatest musical export. Seven of his 11 children followed him into music, including Stephen Marley, 49, an eight-time Grammy-winning producer and musician.

My father's music was his greatest gift as an artist. It has always and will continue to bring many people together from around the globe and from all walks of life. The music and his words have remained relevant to the times in which we are living — listen to "400 Years" and think about what's happening today. He made timeless music and represented a way of life that has inspired people to be better, be stronger and be more conscious. My father was a superhero dad. He could be mild mannered one minute, and the next minute, he's off saving the world. I try to honor him every day.

02 of 14

Harry Belafonte by Shari Belafonte

Harry Belafonte Adrienne Belafonte Shari Belafonte
Harry Belafonte Adrienne Belafonte and Shari Belafonte. Martha Holmes/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

Grammy- and Emmy-winning Harry Belafonte, 94, was at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and '60s. His actress daughter Shari, 67, appears as Julia on the Apple TV+ series The Morning Show.

My father bridged the gap with his music and activism: He's the man who married Martin Luther King Jr. with the Kennedys and said, "Look, you know, John, Bobby, you've got to step up to the plate here and listen to what Martin's got to say." As much as Black Lives Matters is a whole new movement, Dad set the pace by making it clear to the Kennedys that Black lives should matter to them ... to everyone, in fact.

He was not the warm and fuzzy father figure depicted in early TV shows. But then, who really was? My parents separated when my mother was pregnant with me, so I did not grow up with him in our household. My grandmother and mother raised me, and they would be talking about "Harry"— "Harry's coming over to pick up Shari at whatever time." So 90 percent of the time, I refer to him as "Harry." A few times over the years, he's gone, "Why don't you call me 'Dad'?" I say, "Well, OK, I'll make more of an effort to do that!" Our relationship has gotten so much better in the last 20 years. There's a lot of icons out there, but Harry pretty much beats the band when it comes to people of color.

03 of 14

Donna Summer by Brooklyn Sudano

Donna Summer
Donna Summer. Harry Langdon/Getty

From "Love to Love You Baby" to "On the Radio," Donna Summer, who died in 2012 at age 63, ruled disco dance floors in the '70s. Her daughter, actress Brooklyn Sudano, 41, is working on a documentary about Summer and her genre-defining music.

My mother was known as the Disco Queen. She was like, "Hey it's great to be the queen of something." However, her music transcended disco. She won five Grammys in four different musical categories. She was the Beyoncé of her time. The dance floor in the '70s and '80s was the great equalizer. Her music brought people together: Black, white, Latino, gay, straight, men, women. She grew up in a time where it was really tough being a Black woman. But she taught me and my sisters to only look forward. Through her life experiences and her voice, she was able to touch people in a way where they felt loved and accepted, regardless of who they were.

04 of 14

Martin Luther King Jr. by Martin Luther King III

Martin Luther King Jr. Martin III Yolanda
Martin Luther King III, Martin Luther King Jr. and Yolanda King. Marvin Koner/Corbis/Getty

Nobel Peace Prize winner Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968 at age 39. Human rights activist Martin Luther King III, 64, is the second of his four children.

I remember our father being so loving. Dad was fun. He was like our buddy, like our playmate. I remember one time, him coming up the steps as we looked out of the window to see him. It was amazing to see the transformation. As he was coming up the stairs, he seemed to be pulling 100-pound iron weights on his legs. He was exhausted. But as soon as he saw us, an exhilaration came over him, because we were so excited to see him: "Daddy's home! Daddy's home!" When he got up to the top of the stairs and the door was open, a renewed energy came across him.

I hope that he would be proud of the fact that our family is still engaged. I'm sure he'd be proud of his granddaughter [Yolanda, 13]. She says, "I want to continue in my grandfather's and grandmother's footsteps, but I want to create my own footsteps." It's in her DNA.

05 of 14

Muhammad Ali by Laila Ali

Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali and Laila Ali. Paul Harris/Online USA, Inc.

Muhammad Ali was a civil rights activist, three-time world heavyweight boxing champion and Olympic gold medal winner who died in 2016 at age 74. His daughter Laila, 44, one of Ali's nine children, is a retired prizefighter, wellness advocate and TV host.

My whole outlook on life, my belief in myself, the humility that I have was all ingrained in me by my father. We would be driving down Wilshire Boulevard in California in his Rolls-Royce, and he'd pull over and give homeless people money out of his pocket on a regular basis. And when we would go places, he would always look for the janitor or the waitress, whoever thought they were invisible to him. He would take the time to speak to them. He would say, "I do that because those are the people who think you're not going to talk to them or think that you're not paying attention to them. It makes them feel special." So, I always take the time to speak to people, to thank people.

What I miss the most about my dad is his silky hair, the softness of his skin, his natural scent; it was just so pure. He was just like a big old sweet baby. He loved to be hugged. When I was a child, I couldn't stand it because he was always kissing us. And I was like, "Eww! No wet kisses." I remember sitting in the kitchen and eating cereal and he'd come in and want to take a bite. And I'm like, "Gross!" The milk was dripping off the spoon back into my bowl. But as I got older, I loved his hugs and kisses. And when he was suffering with Parkinson's and didn't really speak anymore, we had a connection just with his eyes. His eyes said so much. He was such a gentle human being to be such a fighter and a warrior.

06 of 14

The Jackson Family Legacy by Tito Joe "TJ" Jackson

Jackson Five
The Jacksons. John Olson/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock

The Jacksons, led by Michael, who died in 2009 at age 50, burst onto the pop scene in 1969 with "I Want You Back." Tito Joe "TJ" Jackson 43, and his brothers Taj and Taryll (their dad is Tito Jackson, 68) formed 3T in 1994 and scored a Top 20 pop hit with "Anything."

The foundation of our family is being kind to others, and I'm so thankful for that. It's one of the things that I think helped differentiate us, and that stems from my grandmother Katherine. We've had our stones thrown at us, and she has always been a place of safety and a place of stability, and that gives you an inner rhythm of calmness that I think has been able to help us get through. Her strength was focusing on character and love. That balance has been a baseline for all of us.

I'm proud of my family. When Black people talk about my family, there's joy and excitement — there's an underlying message about the impact my family has had. That's something my grandparents, my father, my uncles and aunts have been very humble about. They just wanted us, the second generation, to be respectful and to believe in ourselves.

07 of 14

Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee by Guy Davis

Ossie Davis Ruby Dee
Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee. Jon Naso/NY Daily News Archive/Getty

Tony nominee Ossie Davis, who died in 2005 at age 87, and his wife of 57 years, Oscar nominee Ruby Dee, who died in 2014 at age 91, played major roles in the Civil Rights Movement and were Hollywood fixtures for seven decades in films like 1961's A Raisin in the Sun and 1991's Jungle Fever. Their son, Guy Davis, 69, is an actor and guitarist who scored a 2022 Grammy nod for his blues album Be Ready When I Call You.

My parents participated in the 1963 March on Washington and were friends with both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. At a time of great economic and racial disparity, my mother and father used their art to speak out. "Love, Art and Activism" is the creed they lived by. Two of dad's mentors were Paul Robeson, the singer/social activist, and W.E.B. Du Bois, a founder of the NAACP. Mom was highly educated, played piano, danced and recited poetry. In a time when the entertainment industry was not open to full, free participation for Blacks, they took notebooks filled with poems and stories by authors of all races and nationalities and performed them in schools, hospitals, libraries, theaters, union halls and community centers. When they received their Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Awards in 2001, they performed a poem that spoke of needing to keep guns out of school kids' backpacks.

To my two sisters and me, our parents were our heroes. From my mom, I learned focus and drive. From my dad, I learned how to be strong enough to be gentle. From both of them, I learned that the people who come to see me entertain deserve every bit of integrity and energy I've got.

08 of 14

Audre Lorde by Dr. Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins

Audre Lorde
Audre Lorde. Jack Mitchell/Getty

Poet and LGBT activist Audre Lorde was one of the most prominent Black feminists of the '60s ,'70s, and '80s and the author of 15 books, including 1980's The Cancer Journals and 1984's Sister Outsider. She died of breast cancer in 1992 at age 58. Her daughter, Dr. Elizabeth Lorde-Rollins, 58, is a New York-based OB-GYN.

There wasn't a single place that my mom traveled that she didn't home in on the most marginalized populations in that area — women championing women's rights, gay folks championing gay rights. I think she'd be very pleased that her words have become the rallying cry for LGBT folks fighting against people being beaten in the street and killed on their way home, and that her words are on the lips of the warriors of the Black Lives Matter movement.

She had so many identities, but I always considered "mother" her primary identity, because that's who she was to me. I didn't really understand how big she was in the world in terms of being a poet and a writer until I was 16 and started to read her work. She sent me to San Francisco for the summer, and I had the luxury of distance. Reading her books really changed the way I saw my mother. She belongs to the canon of American poets, in the same way Adrienne Rich belongs to the canon of American poets, in the same way Gwendolyn Brooks belongs to the canon of American poets. Her work is going to continue to reverberate as long as there is oppression and activity against it. Her words are going to continue to be used, and that's what she wanted most of all.

09 of 14

Isaac Hayes by Isaac Hayes III

Isaac Hayes
Isaac Hayes. Anthony Barboza/Getty

A Best Original Song Oscar winner for his 1971 smash "Theme from Shaft," Isaac Hayes, who died in 2008 at age 65, became a star to a new generation with his role as Chef on South Park. His namesake son, 45, one of the late superstar's 14 children, is a record producer, voice-over artist and tech CEO.

My dad promoted standing in your Blackness and being authentic to who you are. He was a trailblazer in fashion and culture: a Black man with a bald head and a beard, with gold chains and his shirt off, flamboyant with his clothes. I think that had an impact on the perception of Black male strength and sexuality. He was the inventor of modern R&B. Before him, you never heard really heavy drums and organs and bass guitars mixed with flutes and strings. You don't think of these lush orchestral arrangements as not being Black anymore, but before Isaac Hayes, they weren't Black. That was classical music. That was white music. Black people didn't do strings and orchestras and all that kind of stuff. He definitely broke the mold.

As a dad, he was a disciplinarian, very strict on education, knowledge, but also manners — being respectful to people: "Yes, sir. Yes, ma'am. Thank you, sir. Thank you, ma'am." His work ethic was probably the most influential thing. It was a work ethic I hadn't seen before. I've always had that in my mind as I work and build things. That's probably one of the biggest influences he had on me.

10 of 14

Cissy and Whitney Houston by Dionne Warwick

Whitney Houston Cissy Houston
Whitney Houston and Cissy Houston. Timothy White/Trunk

A Grammy-winning singer, Cissy Houston, 88, grew up in a musical family. She and her siblings — including Lee Drinkard, Dionne Warwick's mom — formed the groundbreaking gospel group the Drinkard Singers in the late fifties. Cissy's daughter, Whitney Houston, who died in 2012 at age 48, was a global superstar, and her niece Dionne Warwick, 81, is a five-time Grammy winner.

I called her Aunt Cissy growing up. Because we were so close in age, I always looked at her as an older sister. But every now and then, she'll say, "I'm still your aunt." With gospel, we're singing the words of the Bible and that is some really good stuff. Cissy had an incredible voice and that something special transferred to her baby, Whitney. It was just preordained, as if God pointed a finger at us and said, Let those vocal cords do what they got to do. Watching Whitney was like seeing Cissy grow up again.

The voice, the dedication — she had a presence that is still very much with us. I come from a family where we understand our purpose: to connect with people on a level that everyone understands. Opera superstar Leontyne Price, 95, is a cousin on my mother's side. When I heard her sing Aida, it was overwhelming. Oh my God, I'm related to you? She carried that legacy the same way Whitney did. And now with my sons David, 53, a songwriter, and Damon, 48, a music producer, all this talent is bursting out of my babies. And the beat goes on.

11 of 14

Nat King Cole by Casey and Timolin Cole

Nat "King" Cole Natalie Cole
Nat King Cole and Natalie Cole. Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Nat King Cole, who died of lung cancer in 1965 at age 45, was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2000. His five children include the late Grammy-winning singer Natalie Cole and twin daughters Casey and Timolin Cole, 60, who established Nat King Cole Generation Hope, Inc., to provide music education to underserved children.

Sadly, we were too young when our father died to have any clear memories of him. The lens through which we have come to know him has been via photographs, audio and visual footage and the heartwarming stories told to us by our mom, sisters Natalie and Carol, and our Uncle Freddy, our father's youngest brother. There is one glimmer of a memory that stands out. We are sitting at the top of the stairs in our home peering down at the bright chandelier, and he is walking up the stairs to us smiling and humming a tune. Listening to his music gives us a sense of serenity, and we like to believe he is singing directly to us.

The holidays are a particularly sentimental time, and for us, they start when we hear "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)." We get both excited and sad when we hear it. Mom used to say the holiday season was the happiest time of year because it was guaranteed that dad would be home with us. His voice continues to be the gift that keeps on giving. Of course, it was our sister Natalie who reintroduced him to a new generation with the "Unforgettable" duet in 1991. We will never forget the emotional experience of hearing that for the first time. It's hard not to shed a tear every time we hear it.

12 of 14

Richard Pryor by Rain Pryor

Richard Pryor
Bobby Holland /mptvimag

The Emmy- and Grammy-winner who influenced several generations of comedians, died in 2005 at age 65. His daughter Rain, 52, is an actress and comic.

Richard Pryor was a truth teller — he paved the way, he's the reason we have Kevin Harts and Dave Chappelles. But my father was very humble about who he was and what he meant to other people. It always shocked him if someone recognized him. In his latter years when he had MS, he was in a wheelchair, and a Vietnam vet approached him and said what his comedy meant while the guys were in the trenches. That really touched my dad. He looked at me and said, "I didn't know I meant that much to people."

He wasn't just a Black comedian. He was everyone's comedian. We heard it all the time from whites, Blacks, Asians: "Your dad was so funny. Your dad was a genius." I was always close to Daddy. I was a daddy's girl. I never saw him as Richard Pryor until I was older. He was just a dad. Was he good at it? Sometimes, no, he wasn't. But he was mine.

13 of 14

Ethel Waters by Crystal Waters

Ethel Waters
Ethel Waters. Movie Star News/Zuma

Ethel Waters, who died in 1977 at age 80, was a jazz singer and the second Black actress to be nominated for an Oscar (for the 1949 film Pinky), the first to headline her own TV series (Beulah, in 1950), and the first to be nominated for an Emmy. Her great-niece Crystal Waters, 57, is a pop and dance-music singer who scored a Top 10 hit with 1991's "Gypsy Woman (She's Homeless)."

I think it's important to know that my great aunt was the first in a lot of things. With Beulah, seeing a Black person on TV was probably a first for a lot of people. And she had equal billing with white performers on Broadway in the '30s. Maybe Black people didn't get to see Broadway shows or have TVs in the '40s and '50s, but it must have changed a lot of white people's minds about Black people.

My father was a jazz musician, so she directly influenced him. When I was eight years old, I started going on tour with my father every summer, and all he had were jazz albums, including her music. That's all I'd listen to. Her biggest influence in my life was the jazz singing she passed down to me.

14 of 14

Rev. Jesse L. Jackson by Santita Jackson

Jesse Jackson
Jesse L. Jackson. Mark Mann

Civil rights leader Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, 80, was the first Black person to run a national presidential campaign (in 1984 and 1988) and win state primaries and caucuses. His daughter Santita, 58, the oldest of his six children, is a singer, television personality and radio producer and host.

My father wasn't going to be home the night of my prom because he had a big speaking engagement. As my girlfriends were helping me to get my clothes on, I heard these familiar footsteps coming down the hall. It was my dad. My father had gotten to the airport and he turned around. He said, "I cannot not see my baby go to prom tonight."

I was so excited that my father was there. He said, "I can't believe I've been so privileged to see this, because Martin [Luther King Jr.] didn't get a chance to see his daughter go to prom. Malcolm [X] didn't do that. Medgar [Evers] didn't. I can't believe that God has blessed me to see this moment."

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