Legends never truly die, they say. Some of our favourite late celebrities are still making more money than most of us might see in a lifetime. Whether it’s going to their estates, labels, or foundations in their names, the cash flow hasn’t stopped. They remain some of the highest-paid celebrities among the dead and the living.
While 13 celebrities made the recent Forbes list of the world’s highest-paid dead celebrities, with Michael Jackson leading the pack, our focus is on the black music legends, who still heavily influence global pop culture decades after their death.
The collective earnings of these 13 deceased celebrities reached an estimated $470 million over the last 12 months, marking a significant 70% dip from the staggering $1.6 billion achieved in 2022.
This decline in revenue is largely due to a significant drop in the sales of major music catalogues, which had formerly boosted the income of these legendary figures. In contrast to the previous year, where over fifty percent of the leading earners gained from the purchase of intellectual property rights, this cycle has witnessed just one celebrity maintain that position.
Let’s take a closer look at the late black entertainers who made the list of the highest-paid dead celebrities.
Earning: $115 Million
Died on: June 25, 2009
Cause of death: Overdose/Homicide
Michael Jackson’s legacy as the King of Pop remains unshaken. This cultural icon of the late 20th century, who began his journey with The Jackson 5, catapulted into the spotlight with his solo career at just 13. But it was his 1979 fifth studio album ‘Thriller’ that launched him into global prominence, having sold over 47 million copies.
Today, his estate benefits from the Broadway sensation, ‘MJ: The Musical’, which grossed about $85 million in ticket sales over the last 12 months. Jackson also rakes in millions from the Cirque du Soleil show, ‘Michael Jackson ONE,’ in Las Vegas.
It is projected that his earnings will continue to rise as his estate recently signed a deal for a Michael Jackson biopic, which would be directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring Jackson’s nephew Jaafar, ensuring his status among highest-paid celebrities even in death.
Earning: $30 Million
Died on: February 11, 2012
Cause of death: Accidental Drowning
Whitney Houston’s unparalleled vocal prowess earned her the nickname “The Voice”. While her life was a tapestry of highs and lows, her musical legacy remains untainted.
This year marked what would have been her 60th birthday, and in celebration, her estate witnessed a surge in collaborations and a biographical film, ‘Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody’. The biopic garnered nearly $60 million globally. With MAC Cosmetics releasing a collection in her honour, the resonance of Whitney’s influence is undeniable.
Her estate is run by her sister-in-law, Pat Houston, and Primary Wave, cementing her place among the highest-paid celebrities.
Earning: $30 Million
Died on: April 21, 2016
Cause of Death: Overdose
Prince Rogers Nelson was an American singer, songwriter, musician, record producer, and actor. The recipient of numerous awards and nominations, he is widely regarded as one of the greatest musicians of his generation.
Prince famously called the afterlife “a world of never-ending happiness.” For his estate—and Primary Wave, which owns a stake in his masters royalties, writer’s share, name, and likeness—that means publishing more music.
Since Prince’s death in 2016, the Purple One has released three posthumous albums. And later this month, a remastered version of his classic 1991 album Diamonds and Pearls is dropping. The box set features 47 unreleased songs and hours of never-before-seen concert footage, adding to his posthumous highest-paid celebrities earnings.
Earning: $16 Million
Died on: May 11, 1981
Cause of death: Cancer
Robert “Bob” Nesta Marley is considered one of the pioneers of Jamaica’s reggae music and arguably gave it international exposure. Fusing reggae with elements of ska and rocksteady, Marley’s heartfelt lyrics and infectious melodies made him and his work something of a benchmark, not just in reggae but also as a singer-songwriter.
More than 40 years after Bob Marley’s death, his music is still in high demand. As are the rights to his name and likeness, which can be found on headphones, speakers, sneakers, and, yes, cannabis.
Earlier this year, the first Marley-branded dispensary opened in his native Jamaica. And next year, the movie Bob Marley: One Love, starring Kingsley Ben Adir, will hit the big screen, contributing to his ranking among the highest-paid celebrities.
How their earnings were calculated
This year’s Dead Celebrity ranking includes pretax earnings from sales, streams, licensing deals, and other sources between October 1, 2022, and September 30, 2023, as well as estate acquisitions made or announced during the same period.
Forbes compiles the numbers with the help of credible data and interviews with industry insiders. Fees for agents, managers, and lawyers are not deducted, but the figures are still enough to place these iconic figures among the highest-paid celebrities in history.