February is a month of celebration in the pop culture community — between the Grammy and the Academy Awards, the best in the music and cinema fields will be recognized in the next month. However, between the awards buzz for those two big nights, we want to make sure they do not overshadow February’s significance: Black History Month. So to follow the month’s trend of celebration, we plan to spend the next 29 days going through the most important African-American pop culture personalities of the last 29 years. We begin today with 1979.
In terms of pop culture ideology, there are few visionaries more worthy of mention than Robert Johnson in the last 50 years. In 1979, Johnson founded BET, Black Entertainment Television, a combination of music videos, urban-oriented movies and religious programming aimed at an African-American market. Whatever your opinion of the final product, Johnson’s idea is worthy of being the first name on this list. Johnson stepped out and wagered that an African-American audience could be enough to support a network, and it has — substantially. In 1999, Viacom bought BET for $3 billion, and Johnson was paid handsomly for his 63% stake. In 2001, Johnson became the first black billionaire in the United States. In 2007, Forbes valued his wealth at $1.1 billion, the second highest for an African-American, behind only Oprah.
Since giving up the CEO spot in the company in 2005, Johnson found an outlet for his millions in the Charlotte Bobcots. The NBA’s return to Charlotte has been slow, but Johnson and team president Michael Jordan believe they have laid the groundwork for a successful future. Johnson’s contributions to his race furthered the African-American influence in Hollywood, and countless musicians owe countless dollars to BET. While it may seem odd to start the recognition of African-American pop culture personalities with neither an actor, musician or comedian, Johnson’s influence in pop culture is immeasurable in ways that his performing peers are not.