Black people’s contributions to dance music’s many sub-genres continue to be disregarded to this day.
During BET’s annual Black Girls Rock! award show — which aired on Sunday, September 8 — Robin S., Crystal Waters and CeCe Peniston performed a medley of their greatest songs together.
The almost six-minute long set began with Robin’s “Show Me Love,” which was followed by Crystal Waters’ “Gypsy Woman” and Peniston’s “Finally.” Various parts of the performance have since hit social media, with users speaking favorably of the performance. But the tribute also reflects just how pivotal black people — especially black women — are to dance music’s beginnings and rise.
Crystal Waters performing on television in 2019? God is so good to me pic.twitter.com/peyhMSUlqa
— Love. Angel. Music. Benji. (@benarmishaw) September 10, 2019
Wow, these are 3 iconic black women in house music that everyone should know about!
This moment is so beautiful!!! pic.twitter.com/4CraVo5P0A
— OHSO 🏁 (@DJOHSOxo) September 11, 2019
“Show Me Love,” “Gypsy Woman,” and “Finally” have all received praise since they were first released in the early ’90s. The three songs have appeared on countless best dance anthems of the ’90s lists and have been referred to as some of the best dance songs of all time, helping to make house — a sub-genre of dance music — more mainstream after its creation in Chicago in the early and mid-’80s.
Although house music was created by black DJs and producers like Frankie Knuckles, Ron Hardy, Steve “Silk” Hurley and others, the music genre — and dance music as a whole — has been whitewashed. In March of this year, Billboard released its Dance 100 list, with the top five being given to white DJs and producers like Marshmello, Calvin Harris, and the Chainsmokers.
“Walk into a Las Vegas club today, and you’ll hear music — mainly, what’s known as EDM — that draws on this earlier sound,” Katie Bain wrote in her piece “Gay Black Men Helped Create EDM. Why Do Straight White Men Dominate It?” for Billboard. “Like the blues and other genres before it, it is music forged by a marginalized community that is now dominated by the heteronormative mainstream, with straight, white, cisgender men populating label boardrooms and festival lineups. While underground LGBTQ-oriented clubs continue trendsetting in major cities, in the most visible and lucrative incarnations of the scene they created, gay and black artists are in the minority.”
The erasure of gay black men’s contributions to dance music also extends to black women. Earlier this year, Pitchfork published a piece titled “Yvonne Turner Helped Invent House Music—So Why Does No One Know Her Name?” The article is centered around Turner, a producer, mixer, and remixer who endured everything from her name being misprinted to not being correctly credited for the role she served on a particular song.
In 1984, singer Colonel Abrams released the song “Music is the Answer,” but its instrumental dub version — mixed by Turner — received plenty of play in New York, Chicago, and Detroit. However, not only was the mix wrongly credited (Evan Turner was the name that appeared on initial pressings of the song’s release) but subsequent pressings failed to have Turner’s name at all.
“If I had been a man, it wouldn’t have happened in that way, not being called for work anymore,” Turner said in the piece. “Being a girl, that’s the way it goes. I had to kick the door back down.”
Turner also faced opposition from some of the male artists she worked with, including Willie Colón. Carol Cooper, a former music journalist and one of the first black women to head A&R at major labels and currently an adjunct professor at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute, had enlisted Turner to create a dance song for Colón. The end result was “Set Fire to Me (Latin Jazzbo Version),” which, according to Cooper, “made Willie Colón popular outside of his very small world.” Turner would also dub out “She Don’t Know I’m Alive,” Colón’s follow-up to “Set Fire to Me.”
But following after that, Colón no longer wanted to work with Turner out of fear of being eclipsed by her.
“He was afraid that Yvonne would get too much credit for the record and refused to work with her anymore,” Cooper said.
Although Robin, Crystal Waters, and Peniston are now regarded as pioneers of house music, they have spoken about the challenges they faced prior to their rise, primarily by their peers in R&B music who didn’t see the value in dance music.
“I love my R&B artists but we weren’t given the respect by our peers in that genre of music because it was said we couldn’t hold our own or do what they could do,” Robin said in a 2016 interview. “But now since the R&B artists are using our music and getting awards and being noticed and recognized for best dance artist in awards, now it’s OK to have house music playing all over the place…it takes everyone else to embrace it to do what we’ve been doing for years.”
In that same interview, Peniston also voiced her frustration with prominent dance music DJs like Calvin Harris and David Guetta for not working with older black artists who are a part of dance music’s legacy.
“Why’re you not working with us?” Peniston said. “What would be greater than us, who are the vets, and coming in with somebody new and mixing those all together?”
Some of the artists have maintained careers that continue now, as well as still perform live. In 2013, Crystal Waters appeared on Armand Pena-produced dance song “Blow;” that same year she was also featured on Chris Cox and DJ Frankie’s track “Oh Mama Hey.”
While speaking on the former track with Billboard around the time it was released, Waters offered a statement that reflects why her Black Girls Rock! performance alongside Robin and Peniston is so important, saying:
“EDM kind of validates what we were doing in the ’90s. They told us what we were doing was bullshit and would never last. For [dance music] to come back and come back so strong kind of makes me proud.”