In July 1927, blues singer Bessie Smith was doing what she often did — entertaining an audience of admirers on a makeshift stage in an oversized tent — when she was made aware that the Klu Klux Klan had come for a visit. When the hooded and robed white men attempted to pull out the wooden pegs that kept the tent attached to the ground, she stopped mid-performance and went out to confront them. According to her biography, she walked toward the men until she was 10 feet away. Putting one hand on her hip, she used the other to shake her fist at them. “What the fuck you think you’re doin’?” she yelled. Perhaps the Klan were used to people running away versus challenging them to a fight, as they stood there in shock, seemingly stunned into silence. After a few seconds, the men turned around and quietly retreated, realizing that this was a fight that they most likely would lose. Without hesitation, Smith also turned around and continued entertaining her fans. When discussing the history of Black women in rock music, Smith is commonly positioned as one of its early purveyors.
Rock music is the soundtrack to Black American life, as its sonic aggressiveness matches the lived experiences of fighting for one’s rightful space in the world. Musicians like guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who had one foot in gospel music and another in rock ‘n’ roll, demonstrated how the sacred and the secular were integral in the development of rock music. Tina Turner’s serrated vocals, tough attitude and sexualized stage performance demonstrated how Black women could be self-possessed and strident in their beliefs, yet still display an emotional vulnerability that complicated notions of what a “modern” Black woman could be. When accompanied by music, the messages of these artists reflected lived experiences that went on to influence a myriad of musicians that have been able to express themselves on their own terms. Unfortunately, Black women in rock of both the past and present continue to face erasure, their contributions to the genre either dismissed or disregarded entirely, only to be acknowledged long after the fact.
Thanks to the internet and social media, the contributions of these artists have become more well-known, to where we’re able to understand just how integral Black women have been — and continue to be — to rock. But it’s important to really understand that in a musical context. This guide serves as an introduction to Black women in rock and the defining albums they made that are testament to their impact, as it highlights artists from the ‘70s up until now.
Album to listen to: Pressure Cookin’ (1973)
I position the early recordings of Black women rock musicians as important for a simple fact: they were simply doing what was commonplace in eras in which there was a generalized assumption that Black American life existed as a monolith. While the trio of powerhouse singers — Patti Labelle, Nona Hendryx, and Sarah Dash — met when their all-girl singing groups merged to form The Ordettes, their name change to Labelle in 1971 opened more opportunities in the rock world. Previously known for their wild and flamboyant costumes and wigs, they changed their look to fit the trends of the era and to acknowledge the burgeoning Black Power Movement. Opening for The Who that same year led to landing a recording contract with the band’s own label, including a distribution deal with Warner Bros. records. What was interesting about Labelle is their soul and gospel renditions of rock singles like The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” which was featured on their 1972 album, Moon Shadow. While the album didn’t sell, the lyrical prowess of the three singers led to their individual success in later years. But it’s Hendryx who re-positioned herself as an avant-garde rock songstress, even fronting her own progressive art rock group Zero Cool in the early ‘80s. Still performing today, Hendryx is just as known for being an outlier in the Black rock scene for her outspokenness and eclectic costuming, which has inspired other Black women rock vocalists, like Joyce Kennedy from Mother’s Finest and Sandra St. Victor from The Family Stand.
Album to listen to: They Say I’m Different (1974)
Betty Davis was a young singer and songwriter when she released three seminal albums — Betty Davis (1973), They Say I’m Different (1974), and Nasty Gal (1975) — that flew under the radar until they were all reissued in the early 2000s (Is It Love or Desire, a full-length album she recorded in 1976 that was shelved was finally released in 2009). Similar to Bessie Smith, Davis was unabashedly frank with her sexual exploits (and those of her male lovers), and was smart enough to know that her passions for raw and heavy funk served as a suitable soundtrack. While not every single was a “hit,” and Davis’ scratchy vocals might have not been as feminine as some of her counterparts, Davis managed to craft a sound that was undeniably her own, injecting her youthful passion into the then-trendy psychedelic rock sound of the time. Currently, there are several Black women rock musicians who view Davis as a muse in their artistry, like Canada’s SATE; Tamar-Kali; and Kimberly Nichole who, like Davis, was inspired by rock music’s penchant for flamboyant expressions as they are by Black funk musicians.
Album to listen to: Private Dancer (1984)
Musically, Turner’s best rock music — unfortunately — stylings emerged with her collaboration with Ike Turner, her ex-husband, rock ‘n’ roll guitarist and bandleader, and abuser. After one particularly horrendous incident, Turner left from the motel she was staying at with her husband and their band, and walked across a busy freeway towards her freedom with nothing but a handful of change in her pocket. In reinventing herself as a solo artist, Tina showed she could deftly switch from R&B and soul to rock ballads with absolute ease. But, similar to Davis and Hendryx, Tina is known primarily for what her physical presence represented in the circles she moved in. As Maureen Mahon mentions in her book, Black Diamond Queens: African American Woman and Rock and Roll (2020), in the ‘80s Black women R&B singers — especially middle-aged women like Hendryx and her bandmates in Labelle, as well as Turner — had a difficult time working within a racialized popular music category that limited their creativity, so they went to where their voices were celebrated: rock music. In 1984, Turner released her fifth solo album, Private Dancer. Although it’s best known for her most successful single to date (“What’s Love Got to Do with It”), it’s the album’s provocative title track that not just demonstrated her prowess as a rock star, but also served as another continuation of Bessie Smith’s lyrical legacy of reclaiming one’s sexual autonomy (especially considering both Smith and Turner’s experiences as victims of domestic abuse). It also must be noted that, while Turner (and artists who precede her like Davis) presented a sexually subversive onstage presence similar to her white male rock counterparts, it was frowned upon by Black viewers who felt that the women were perpetrating the racist tropes that they were trying to eschew in their everyday lives. Turner tested the limits as to who could “rock” in a culture that celebrated unconventional freedom of expressions, by being herself without any societal limitations.
Album to listen to: Germfree Adolescents (1978)
Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, better known as the late Poly Styrene, was the Somali/English singer for the seminal British punk rock band X-Ray Spex. Formed in 1976, she was only 15-year-old with a mouth full of braces when she began singing for the band. Musically, X-Ray Spex is interesting. They were not a three-chord punk band but instead veered more toward producing a rich and full sound, even incorporating a saxophone (which often competed with Styrene’s high, slightly-out-of-tune vocals) in a way that made their music more robust than their counterparts. Like Bessie Smith, Styrene’s lyrics were powerful and an inspiration to many of the band’s followers, as she wrote about her identity as one of the few Brown faces in the UK punk scene, as well as class politics and a British government that seemed to vilify youth subcultures. However, according to her daughter Celeste (who recently released a documentary about her mother’s life), Styrene hated performing live despite her popularity. As one of the few women — and the only biracial woman within the UK punk scene — there was too much anxiety and a lot of unpleasantness that challenged her experiences. These experiences played a part in the artist’s mental illness, which plagued her until her early demise in 2011 at the age of 53. Styrene and her band went on to influence artists like Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, Boy George, and members of Slater-Kinney, as well as contemporary Black UK bands like Big Joanie and the Nova Twins, both of which carry on Styrene’s quirkiness and fearlessness in their music.
Album to listen to: Villains EP (1984)
“No one is going to remember Bam Bam,” muttered producer Jack Endino when talking about his and his partner Chris Hanzsek’s first clients at Reciprocal Recordings, their Seattle-based studio. Little did the two music veterans know that they had unwittingly started a viral phenomenon that led to the rediscovery of Bam Bam, the ‘80s sludgy, hard rock band that was fronted by Tina Bell, a diminutive, young, African-American singer and songwriter with a pronounced fashion sense who has recently been credited as the “godmother of grunge” amid renewed interest in her role in Bam Bam. Listening to Bam Bam’s singles today, you can hear the blend of musical influences that went on to symbolize the Grunge era: a dash of punk attitude, Delta blues riffs that were so deep your soul might melt, and a sludgy dirge that slowed the whole thing down. I immediately thought of Soundgarden’s “Slaves and Bulldozers” when I listened to “Ground Zero.” However, I’m admittedly on the fence as to how Bam Bam laid the foundation for a music style and culture because of the lack of available recordings to peruse. Even though the band played a series of prominent showcases and festivals in Seattle while they were active from 1983–1990, they’re omitted in the plethora of books and documentaries about Seattle’s grunge scene. Hell, it was even a shock to discover that Soundgarden and Pearl Jam drummer Matt Cameron was the original drummer for the band (and Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain once served as their roadie). There are two ways to look at this glaring omission: that Seattle has always had a phenomenal and diverse music scene, so Bell’s presence might not have been noteworthy at the time, or it could be what Bam Bam bassist Scott Ledgerwood and Bell’s ex-husband and co-founder, Tommy Martin argued — that it was racism that deterred Bell and the band’s career. While other Black women rock artists around that time had slightly better luck — like Skin from the UK-based Skunk Anansie and a decade later with Santi White from the New York City-based alternative punk band Stiffed — Bell’s music has been only recently celebrated. Last year, Seattle punk/rock musician Om Johari (Re-ignition) produced a concert celebrating her life and her music.
Album to listen to: Paranoid & Sunburnt (1996)
Skin, the singer and songwriter for Skunk Anansie, is a British-Jamaican woman with a shaved head and a futuristic punk ethos. When I first saw the video for their single “Selling Jesus” — which was prominently featured in Kathryn Bigelow’s 1995 film Strange Days — I completely freaked out in excitement. To this day, Skin is the only public-facing Black woman that I immediately latched onto, as the band’s music was not just a break from the overconsumption of the grunge era, but also because she attacked racism and sexism through her lyrics. She embodied what I wished I could be. Skunk Anansie went on to release several full-lengths, B-sides, and singles, but their first album, Paranoid & Sunburnt (1995), is reflective of what all new bands should aspire to be. A heavy mix of aggro punk, alternative rock and electronica, the album’s sound was new within the public sphere. The confusion came from the fact that a Black woman’s voice was amplified to the point that her urgent messages about sexuality, desire, racism, and loss couldn’t be dismissed as another R&B album. Contemporary artists like Audrey Ebroité from the French melodic death band Ianwill, Alexis Brown from Straight Line Stitch, and Meredith Bell from Palaceburn have continued Skin’s legacy through their own music, reminding the public how crucial it is to hear alternative depictions of Black life and womanhood.
On Valentine’s Day in 1998, Sista Grrl Riot produced their first show. The name was inspired by the Riot Grrl scene that coincided with the grunge era, and despite the considerable efforts to bring awareness to all-women punk and rock bands, Riot Grrl was a predominately white female movement that also alienated a generation of women of color that had their own bands, feeling excluded from the movement because only white women received media attention. As a response to that, Carolyn “Honeychild” Coleman, Tamar-kali Brown, Simi Stone, Maya Glick created Sista Grrrl Riot, an alternative safe space for Black women punks. Taking turns organizing their events, the four women would each take to the stage with their own bands and perform individual sets of original music (with the occasional cover, mainly Davis’ “If I’m in Luck I Just Might Get Picked Up”). They created an “Afropunk” space in downtown New York City five years before the documentary Afro-Punk appeared at film festivals across the globe. Unfortunately, the collective received scant media attention when they were active, but all the musicians continue to create music.
Laina Dawes is a music journalist, former concert photographer, and the author of What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal (Bazillion Points, 2012, 2020). She is currently completing her Doctorate in Ethnomusicology at Columbia University in New York City.
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