“Black Women Rock!”
August 21, 2018
The history of rock and roll isn’t a fixed object, but a moveable feast, one that changes constantly depending on your own knowledge and curiosity. There are those who still believe that Elvis Presley was The King, while others are well-schooled on the moves and grooves of darker hued originators, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Ike Turner. In the telling of these tales, however, women, especially Black women, are often relegated to history’s footnotes.
In early 2018, when Sister Rosetta Tharpe was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it felt good to hear Alabama Shakes singer Brittany Howard break down the history of the guitar-playing singer from Cotton Plant, Arkansas who began her career in the church. Howard explained to the audience that Sister Rosetta was a woman who merged gospel and blues to create a whole new thing. She is referred to as “the godmother of rock and roll,” because Tharpe’s “boogie woogie” sound influenced Presley, his little cousin Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry. With songs like “Rock Me” and “Strange Things Happening Everyday,” Sister Rosetta was, as Howard said, “A trailblazing musician (who) shattered stereotypes, defied expectations and blended musical cultures.”
Today, Tharpe’s spirit and mission can be heard in work of her rock-hard goddaughters, an extensive list that includes the entire line-up of women gathering to play at AFROPUNK Brooklyn 2018, and as part of the PowerJam. Curated by Toshi Reagon, it will also include Nona Hendryx, Militia Vox, Kimberly Nichole, the Nova Twins and activist/writer Angela Davis, whose political stance and style in the ‘60s and ’70 helped define a generation of proud Black women on the international stage. “Davis and Nona Hendryx are collaborating on a song written especially for this event,” says Reagon. “The theme of our show is liberation, and what better way to express that concept than two women who have fought those battles for years.”
As a singer and songwriter with vast ambitions, Reagon was raised in a politically charged, civil-rights-fighting household, and those teachings and ideals have remained a part of her work as a recording artist. She’s released eleven albums and contributed to projects such as Shout Sister Shout, an album dedicated to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Raise Your Voice, a tribute to Sweet Honey in the Rock, the all-Black female a cappella ensemble founded by her mother Bernice Johnson Reagon. Toshi Reagon’s most recent project was a concert adaptation of Octavia E. Butler’s dystopian novel, Parable of the Sower.
“The context for Davis being a part of this set is to bring attention to Black Women intentionality, whom we are here for, what we stand for, and what we are here to do,” Reagon wrote in a note. “Our words are powerful, and starting with words by Angela and Nona, they will bring a focus to everything else done on the stage. Black women have always been a part of rock, but there is this idea that we don’t belong, or we shouldn’t.”
Singer-songwriter Stephanie McKay, who graced the AFROPUNK stage as part of Meshell Ndegeocello’s band in 2014, just recently released her most recent project Song in My Heart. “Rock and roll would not exist without the voices of Black woman whose expression of joy, love, pain, power, tenderness, and political consciousness is the root, the lifeline, the foundation of American culture,” McKay said. “From our grandmother’s lullabies, the harmonies of the Sunday church choir, the call and response in the marches for justice, and the voices of freedom in the civil rights movement, Black women’s voices are the rich well from which spring history, spirit, resistance, funk, heart and soul inspiring generations to come.”
While Black women rockers might draw inspiration from the same foundation, that’s not to say they all sound alike. Indeed, they could be uproarious, like Etta James and Tina Turner; hippie, like the Rotary Connection’s Minnie Riperton and Cree Summer; punk, like Poly Styrene and Big Joanie; wild, like Betty Davis or Joyce Kennedy of Mother’s Finest; Afro-Futurist, like classic LaBelle and Skunk Anansie; calming, like Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman; or raw, like Grace Jones and Joi, whose 1994 debut The Pendulum Vibe is one of the best end of the century rock albums.
Listening to Pendulum’s Vibe’s “Sunshine & the Rain,” one can hear a style that would inspire Erykah Badu, Martina Topley-Bird and Janelle Monáe, among others. Although Joi’s record company wanted her to be more R&B, she rejected their straight jacket. Joi was more concerned with defining herself as an artist, not the latest cliche.
“I didn’t want to do anything with drum tracks,” said Joi, whose most recent project SIR Rebekkah Holylove was released this summer. “I wanted to do funky, groundbreaking stuff. I wanted a band. Vocally, I believe in taking risks. I think of myself as a vessel that the music moves through. The expression that I release as a result of the music, I like to think that’s the most free, uncut, unfiltered experience that I can offer someone.” In 1996, on her follow-up, Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome, Joi’s cover of Betty Davis’ brilliant “If I’m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up” introduced that then-underappreciated rocker to a new generation of fans. “George Clinton and Fishbone turned me on to her,” she said.
In the late ‘60s, Betty Davis was a former fashion model living in New York City, and as familiar with Harlem as she was with Andy Warhol’s Factory. The influential ex-wife of legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, Betty helped her former husband cross the threshold into the next dimension of sound when she introduced him to the work of her friend Jimi Hendrix, and that of Sly Stone. After their divorce, Betty left New York City and moved to the Bay Area. It was there that she began applying herself towards developing her own musical style.
A hurricane of a woman with a huge voice, Davis was as much a screamer in the studio, as she was on stage. She recorded three albums — a 1973 self-titled debut; 1975’s They Say I’m Different (also the name of a recent documentary about her); and Nasty Gal (also from 1975). Writing all her own lyrics and humming grooves to the band, Betty teamed-up with former Sly Stone drummer Greg Errico, who produced her first project.
“After the blues women like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith decades before, no one was as bawdy as Betty,” said Elissa Blount Moorhead, the Baltimore-based artist, film producer and co-founder of the influential TNEG studio and collective. “I can remember growing-up and staring at her album covers. She had the ill costumes and an immense talent that set the scene for artists like Poly Styrene, Tamar-kali and the Noisettes. Plus, she was down with Miles, Jimi and Sly. Betty Davis was a triple threat.”
When Errico befriended Betty, he was blown away. “The female recording artists at the time were nothing like her,” he said in 2014. Errico recruited Family Stone veteran bassist Larry Graham, a couple of Tower of Power horn players, soulful background singers the Pointer Sisters and future disco star Sylvester to play on her record. “Betty Davis was ahead of her time.”
Yet, after a few years of trying to crash the glass ceiling, Betty quit the music business completely and returned to her adopted hometown of Pittsburgh. While Betty wasn’t successful by industry standards, her influence was far-reaching, it could be seen and heard in the work of Joyce Kennedy (lead singer for Mother’s Finest, whose 1976 anthem “Niggizz Can’t Sang Rock ‘n’ Roll” said it all); in the work of Chaka Khan, and LaBelle, the remarkable trio of Patti LaBelle, Sarah Dash and Nona Hendryx, released their best album Nightbirds in 1974.
Once an innocent girl group with matching dresses and co-ordinated hairdos who called themselves Patti LaBelle and the Blue Belles, the trio had been recording since they were teenagers in the 1960s with hits that included “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman” and “Down the Aisle (The Wedding Song).” But, it was during the Nightbirds period that Labelle took their look towards glitter and glam, with outrageous costumes and revved-up material that set them apart from their peers.
“What LaBelle was doing was a precursor to Madonna, Beyonce and Lady GaGa,” Vicki Wickham, the group’s former manager, explains. “Nona Hendryx was writing more of the group’s songs, and her stuff could be out there — whether talking about space, revolution or social issues. Their sound became more adventurous and extremely rock influenced.”
Mother’s Finest, featuring vocalist Joyce Kennedy, was another powerhouse Black rock group of the 1970s, who toured extensively with white hard-rock artists, including AC/DC and Black Sabbath. Prince was an early admirer of the band and learned a lot attending early Mother’s Finest shows, and observing lead singer Kennedy do her thing on songs that could roar (“Don’t Want to Come Back”) or swoon (the sweaty ballad “Baby Love”).
“I always wanted to do something a little bit different, to paint outside the lines,” Kennedy says. “It may not have helped as far as being huge or with record sales, but because I’m an African-American sister, I wasn’t going to choose: ‘I got to do soul music, R&B or dance music.’ Hopefully, the work that I did paved the way for other people to be free with their music and explore themselves and not corralled by others because of the color of their skins.”
Songwriter and former Chaka Khan backup singer Sandra St. Victor, who first came to prominence as a member of funk rockers, The Family Stand, and later won critical acclaim for her 1996 solo album, Mack Diva Saves the World, grew-up in Texas listening to Mother’s Finest on her transistor radio. “Joyce Kennedy had these soaring vocals that were full of power and grace, and then they put that in the middle of a rock track. There was something about her voice that energized me from the beginning.”
The Family Stand’s 1989 album, Chain, which featured the hit “Ghetto Heaven,” was a success, but the ambitious fusion of sounds on their even-more-rock follow-up, Moon in Scorpio, proved a commercial failure. “With other groups including my own, sometimes there are problems with A&R, radio or the promotions department that just makes you know that you don’t fit,” says St. Victor. These problems of acceptance didn’t just lie with the industry, but also with listeners, many with limited musical tastes shaped by conservative radio programmers and hype. A lot of folks seemed to think that any Black artists that stepped outside the boundaries of R&B or hip-hop, into the region of “white people music,” had committed treason. Although it shouldn’t have made a difference, it often did.
Recently, jamming to Betty Davis and LaBelle songs three decades after they were originally released, I was reminded of the first time I saw Tina Turner gyrating across the stage of some early ‘70s variety show clad in a sequined mini-skirt and heels, her wild hair looked as though it were on fire. As a small boy used seeing polite Black pop women singers on television, Tina Turner was rude, crude and something completely different. A cross between sacred gospel wailer and a sinful blues brawler — she didn’t just sing the lyrics, she yelped and shouted. Onstage, Tina moved like a woman possessed as her band played with aggressive power.
“She looks so wild, like she’s having sex on stage,” my grandmother, standing behind me, screamed. Grandma’s voice was full of disgust, but I was delighted and moved as the music’s power propelled me higher. On her classic material “Bold Soul Sister,” “Proud Mary” and “River Deep Mountain High,” as well as onstage, Tina Turner was always fierce, funky and as charged as a thunderbolt. Rock royalty such as Mick Jagger and David Bowie were always vocal in how much they borrowed from Turner, and collaborated with Tina in the latter chapter of her career.
Coming of age in 1980s New York City, I was blessed to be in the right place when the recently formed Black Rock Coalition helped introduce a new generation of woman rockers, including Me’Shell NdegéOcello, DK Dyson of Eye & I, Kelli Sae of JJ Jumpers, Sophia Ramos of Sophia’s Toy, and Felice Rosser of Faith. (A few of whom will also take part in Reagon’s PowerJam.)
“For a lot of Black women musicians, by the time we joined the B.R.C., we’d already been through a lot shit,” says the vocalist/bassist Rosser. Felice moved to the city from Detroit in 1974 to attend Barnard College. Back in Detroit, Rosser used to kick out jams to the MC5, The Stooges and Jethro Tull albums. “People at home, in the neighborhood and family members would be like, ‘Why do you like this music? It’s horrible.’”
After attending a Patti Smith poetry reading on campus, Rosser went to CBGB’s on the Bowery. A few years later, while watching a Talking Heads performance, Tina Weymouth’s bass-playing inspired Rosser to pick-up the instrument. She relocated to the Lower East Side where she jammed with her friend, Jean-Michel Basquiat, before putting together Faith in 1987. Although Faith came close to signing major labels deals back early ‘90s, it never happened. That didn’t stop the group from self-releasing projects and touring. More than three decades and a few personnel changes later, Faith prevails.
Nineteen years into our new millennium and life hasn’t gotten easier for Black women playing rock and roll. But that hasn’t stood in the way of their striving determination of young artists like Adia Victoria, Deva Mahal, and the teenage punks, Harsh Crowd, to get their music and message across.
Part of the goal of the PowerJam is to expose a small part of the world to the immense talents of the participants while also redefining who can be referred to as a rocker. Onstage, the artists will be bringing a particular truth to light, that the music goes deeper than the mythology would have you believe.
“When you tell the truth it is when we step onto the rock and punk stage we expose the genres and their many collaborative ingredients,” Toshi Reagon said. “Rock comes out of blues, gospel and Black sacred music. Exposing those thing releases the falsehood that rock is white people’s music. It is necessary to bring the liberation movement and the music together.”
To paraphrase Annie Lennox and the late, great Aretha Franklin, who also happened to be the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, sisters are still doin’ it for themselves.
- Gayle Wald, Shout, Sister, Shout! The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe
- Kandia Crazy Horse, Rip It Up: The Black Experience in Rock N Roll
- Maureen Mahon, Right to Rock: The Black Rock Coalition and the Cultural Politics of Race
- Dangerous Minds: “The Fierce Funk Rock of Mother’s Finest, ‘The Most Dangerous Opening Band in Rock'”
- Laina Dawes, What are You Doing Here?: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal
- Barbara O’Dair (editor), The Rolling Stone Book of Women in Rock: Trouble Girls