How Zendaya, Lil Nas X and Issa Rae Are Paving the Way for Up-and-Coming Black Talent

As part of PEOPLE's ongoing Black History Month coverage, editors celebrate legends who are busting open doors and making history now

01 of 07


Pascal Le Segretain/Getty

First Black actress to win two Emmys for a leading role

After becoming the youngest woman to win the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series Emmy in 2020, the Euphoria star picked up the honor again in 2022 for her role on the HBO series. Zendaya has gracefully transitioned from a Disney Channel child star into a formidable leading lady, showing off her acting, singing and action skills on Euphoria, in the 2017 hit film The Greatest Showman and in the blockbuster Spider-Man franchise. Though she's only 26, she's already providing a blueprint for the next generation, like her Euphoria costar Storm Reid, 19, who calls Zendaya "my fourth sibling." Says Reid: "To go from someone that you look up to, to working with them is really cool. Having her pour into me is a huge blessing."

02 of 07

Issa Rae

Issa Rae
Tyren Redd

First Black female creator and star of a premium cable series

On the heels of her successful YouTube series The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl, Rae, 38, created the 2016–21 HBO dramedy Insecure, which earned her three Emmy nominations for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. "I'm proud to show what's possible," she says of the upgrade to cable. She moved to the big screen in 2020 with The Photograph and The Lovebirds, and in 2022 premiered her latest cable creation, the HBO Max comedy series Rap Sh!t. "I will always be chasing the experience I had with Insecure," she says. "It gave me confidence in my ability to tell stories and connect with an audience."

03 of 07

Lil Nas X

Lil Nas X
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First openly gay rap superstar

Born Montero Lamar Hill, the rapper, 23, has been dismantling stereotypes and upending hip-hop tradition ever since his 2019 breakthrough single "Old Town Road" made him a star. While the song, a blend of rap and country with a hook sung by Billy Ray Cyrus, was enjoying a 19-week run at No. 1, Nas X came out as gay on Twitter, breaking down a barrier in a genre that's been criticized for its homophobia. The Grammy winner, who hails from Lithia Springs, Georgia, has also become a style icon with his bold, colorful outfits. His A-list contacts have expanded since "Old Town Road" (he's worked with Cardi B, Nas and Jack Harlow, among others), but when Cyrus got the offer to guest on the then relatively unknown teenager's soon-to-be smash, jumping in was a no-brainer. Says Cyrus: "They said, 'When can you do it?' And I said, 'Today.' "

04 of 07

Janet Mock

Janet Mock attends The 2021 Met Gala Celebrating In America: A Lexicon Of Fashion at Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 13, 2021 in New York City.
Theo Wargo/Getty

First Black trans woman to write and direct a TV series

Mock, 39, started transitioning as a freshman in high school and had gender confirmation surgery at 18. She began a career in journalism after graduating from New York University — including a stint as an editor at PEOPLE! — and wrote about her journey in the bestselling 2014 memoir Redefining Realness. When Pose premiered in 2018, with Mock onboard as a writer and director, it made history as the scripted series with the largest number of transgender actors in regular roles. "For me to be here as a thirtysomething trans woman of color doing this work, I know that's rare," the activist told PEOPLE in 2017. "And I don't want that to be rare anymore."

05 of 07

Donald Glover

donald glover
Daniele Venturelli/WireImage

First rapper to score Grammys for Song and Record of the Year

There isn't much Glover, 39, doesn't do. Known in the music world as Childish Gambino, he was the first rapper to nab Grammys for both Song and Record of the Year, which he did for his 2018 hit "This Is America," and he's also won a pair of Emmys for his work on the FX show Atlanta, which he created. In 2017, Glover became the first Black director to win Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series, while his Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series Emmy made him the first Black actor to win that category in 32 years. His aptitude for juggling music and acting makes him an inspiration for other multihyphenates. "I think there's something cool about blowing up at the same time in both fields," actor-rocker Machine Gun Kelly told PEOPLE in 2019, "like Donald Glover."

06 of 07

Colson Whitehead

Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty

First Black two-time Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner

As one of only four writers to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction twice, author Colson Whitehead, 53, is part of a very exclusive club. "His novels are also bestsellers — which shows both the power and breadth of his storytelling," says Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden of Whitehead's diverse portfolio, which ranges from The Underground Railroad, a slavery saga that was adapted into an acclaimed 2021 limited TV series, to the zombie thriller Zone One. "He's especially adept at transforming historical figures and conflicts — both recorded and long forgotten — into metaphors for our lives today."

07 of 07

Ava DuVernay

TODAY -- Pictured: Ava DuVernay on Monday, November 21, 2022 -- (Photo by: Nathan Congleton/NBC via Getty Images)
Nathan Congleton/NBC/getty

First Black female director of a $100 million-grossing film

When DuVernay's A Wrinkle in Time crossed the $100 million mark in 2018, she tweeted: "Lovely room to be in. But can't wait for more sisters to be here too." The first Black woman to direct a Best Picture Oscar nominee (2014's Selma), DuVernay, 50, aims to provide opportunities to the Black community through her arts and social impact collective ARRAY. "When I think of my career, I think of all the artisans and directors we have welcomed into the ARRAY family that created strides in their respective careers," she says. "I have had the opportunity to provide equitable hiring access, interactive educational materials about Black history and free public programming for the Los Angeles community. I hope I laid a similar infrastructure for the next generation to build upon."

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