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/
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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