Reclaiming Rock and Roll: Black Women Thinkers in Rock Music

Growing up, my dad listened to rock music consistently and naturally this musical taste rubbed off on me. However, I always felt a disconnect between those promoted as the face of rock (white men) and my own identity as a Black woman. Rock and roll was born out of a tradition of Black music and the genre draws from blues, gospel, R&B, funk, country, and folk. It is only in recent years (and due to extensive digging) that I have come to learn of the Black women who have been integral to the creation and re-imagining of rock throughout the decades. Since its inception, Black women have used rock music as an avenue to sing pain and seek liberation. Heard through the free flowing, strong, and soulful vocals of legends like Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner, rock proves to be an empowering space for Black women. This collage series seeks to re-center the contributions made by Black women in the formation of rock as a genre. Each collage was made to capture the essence of the music these women created. Flowers are a reoccurring symbol in every collage to represent how these women nourished the genre from its infancy, brought it to life, and continue to reshape the diverse garden soundscape of rock and roll.

**Of course, this list of 10 Black women is not exhaustive. There are many other Black women who have (and continue to) contribute to the rock genre!**

You can also find this series on tumblr: http://reclaimingrocknroll.tumblr.com/

1) Rosetta Tharpe

Sister Rosetta Tharpe – 1930s-40s

Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a guitarist and singer who was highly influential during the early stages of rock music. She was an inspiration to Chuck Berry, Elvis, and Little Richard. Tharpe was known for her energetic guitar playing and extroverted stage presence, which set the precedence for rock performances as we know them today.

Watch: Didn’t it Rain – https://youtu.be/SR2gR6SZC2M

2) Lavern Baker

LaVern Baker – 1950s

LaVern Baker was a vocalist who played a major role in popularizing the R&B sound and integrating rock instruments and beats into her music. Baker’s accomplishments were often countered by white artists who would cover her songs and gain more notoriety. Nevertheless, Baker remains an integral figure in the incorporation of R&B into rock music.

Watch: Jim Dandy – https://youtu.be/qy6N1aWVW7k  Love Me Right in the Morning – https://youtu.be/TE7uwzc9xFo

3) The Shirelles

The Shirelles – 1960s

The Shirelles were a girl group who wrote their own music and were the first of their kind to have a number one pop single. The idea of a girl group served as a source of shared community power between the girls listening. Their songs, such as “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”, discussed taboo subjects of the time like premarital sex. These songs were a departure from the innocent love songs of other girl groups at the time. The Beatles were also highly influenced by the sound and aesthetic of the Shirelles’ girl group prototype. The popularity of the Shirelles paved the way for the Beatles to capture the hearts of young girls everywhere.

Watch/ Listen: Will You Love Me Tomorrow – https://youtu.be/c_cRHw8PAPA, Mama Said – https://youtu.be/WQlImg2bm28

4) Odetta

Odetta – 1950s-60s

Odetta was a folk singer and guitarist who was able to portray deep emotion through her music. She was also very active in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. During this time period, Odetta performed at political rallies and protests and sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after being introduced by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Both Bob Dylan and Joan Baez cite Odetta as a musical inspiration.

Watch: The Waterboy – https://youtu.be/V6xJLQKIRUI, Give Me Your Hand – https://youtu.be/g_Y7tXdOdIw

5) Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin – 1960s-70s

Aretha Franklin is a gifted vocalist whose iconic voice injects life into any song she sings. Crowned the Queen of Soul (depicted as royalty in the collage surrounded by jewels), Franklin’s powerful voice is an example for rock singers who incorporate strong vocals into their own music.

Watch: Don’t Play That Song (You Lied) –  https://youtu.be/2ZVUVNJwQKI, I Say A Little Prayer – https://youtu.be/7Ifw8JhDBvs

6) Tina Turner

Tina Turner – 1960s-80s

Tina Turner is a powerhouse vocalist and performer who is known for her outrageous voice and energetic dancing. Turner taught Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones how to dance! A survivor of domestic abuse, rock and roll was an avenue for Turner to sing her pain, and she poured strength into her music.

Watch: Proud Mary – https://youtu.be/hzQnPz6TpGc, River Deep, Mountain High – https://youtu.be/VN_Aq2W2Yi0

7) Betty Davis

Betty Davis – 1970s

Betty Davis is a vocalist who created sexually charged funk music. Davis owned her sexuality and was vocal about it. Her music is laden with growling, hard-hitting vocals and she was explicit about her sex life as exemplified by the song “He Was a Big Freak”. Though Davis was liberated in her music, mainstream audiences did not accept her. Davis’ music was denounced by the NAACP and banned from radio stations.

Listen: He Was a Big Freak – https://youtu.be/JrRndTURujo, Don’t Call Her No Tramp – https://youtu.be/4KKLtyxqPGU, Anti-Love Song – https://youtu.be/fxKBnR_8LIM

8) Poly Styrene

Poly Styrene – 1970s

Poly Styrene was a punk singer who was known for being the front woman of the band X-Ray Spex. In the late 1970s, Styrene was at the center of the budding punk movement in London. Being a Black woman in the punk scene was a rebellion within itself because it was heavily saturated with white men. Styrene constantly channeled anger into her music and asserted her power as a Black woman in punk.

Watch: Oh Bondage! Up Yours! – https://youtu.be/ogypBUCb7DA, Identity – https://youtu.be/fYoiCStDTQg

9) Grace Jones

Grace Jones – 1980s

Grace Jones is a model and performer who subverted gender norms through her image and stage shows. Jones toyed with ideas of masculinity and femininity in ways that no one had done before her. Both Jones’ music and live shows were abstract and out of this world.

Watch: On Your Knees – https://youtu.be/sxQG9fatx04, Live Concert Highlights – https://youtu.be/-5EyewfIODI

10) Tracy Chapman

Tracy Chapman – 1990s

Tracy Chapman is a singer, songwriter, and guitarist who gained popularity in the late 80s and early 90s. Many of Chapman’s songs deal with issues surrounding poverty and social activism. Chapman draws on the legacy of Black women singing folk and acoustic music and reintroduced this facet of rock music to the mainstream in the 80s and 90s.

Watch: Talkin’ Bout a Revolution – https://youtu.be/f0TdGGpOpVE

 

4 Comments
  1. Great list! I’m a big fan of a lot of these artists, and the others (Odetta and LaVern Baker) I will soon become a fan of.

    I’m always happy to see some love for Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I remember hearing her stuff for the first time, it was like a benign electric shock. It’s not only tragic but downright bizarre how little recognition she gets even in these days of worldwide interwebs.

    Also, can whoever did those collages come and decorate my flat and/or my life?

  2. Pauline Black [of the Selecter], Nona Hendryx [originally with Labelle], Joan Armatrading [Tracy Chapman decades before there was a Tracy Chapman], Shara Nelson [Massive Attack], Darlene Love [sang on everything in the 60s], and Merry Clayton [without whom “Gimmie Shelter is just another Stones track] all belong on this list.

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