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bhm: we need to talk about betty davis

February 19, 2019
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The growing gap in years between now and the past allows for a sort of retrospective appreciation of the shrouded genius that shaped that era. It was a rebellion of a different kind, not immediately evident to the Civil Rights movement, but significant as its own manifestation of Black liberation. Black Americans have had to navigate a society whose guiding principles were built to exclude while fostering compliance through pressure to aspire to those principles. The “Cult Of True Womanhood” (often referred to as the “Cult of Domesticity”), for instance, followed the belief that a woman’s virtue lay in her piety, purity and submissiveness — a mold shaped by white womanhood, or the version of white womanhood shaped by white patriarchy.

Black women have been playing catch up ever since, up until we didn’t. Somewhere along the way, the respectability politics was sopped out for bolder expressions of identity, even with the knowledge that any step they took past the norm was bound to brand them as controversial. Performers stopped shying away from the stereotypical tropes that haunted Black womanhood because of justified curiosity about the leaps and bounds of expression and identity — almost as if they had suddenly realized that guiding our behavior to contest whiteness’ renditions of Blackness still gives white supremacy power over Black identity. When we try to be who they think we’re not, we’re still taking their perception into consideration, as if it still matters to us and who we are as people.

That personal revolution experienced its most powerful manifestation in music, particularly for Black women. Instead of wearing the Jezebel trope like some scarlet letter, Black women in music dove into their sexuality and sexual expression to emerge with a voice outside the confines of respectability politics. Female vulgarity and aggression shoved its way into music spaces as the same kind of rebellion was often encouraged for their male counterparts. The curse of hyper-sexualization followed Black women in music everywhere and when they finally decided to say “fuck it” and run with their bliss, legends like Betty Davis are born.

The halls of Funk royalty are lined with legends like George Clinton, James Brown and Rick James but Betty’s presence sent shockwaves through the genre and other genres through her singular and sultry presence. Davis (born Betty Mabry in Durham North Carolina) was singer, songwriter, producer and model who introduced the notion of women’s sexual liberation wrapped in Afro-futurism to Funk but many know her from the surname she took from her famous ex-husband, legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.

To even be considered as a viable musical entity in the 1970s, a Black woman had to belt like Aretha or shake it out like Tina Turner. Rebellion either took you to church or blew your hair back but it was not overtly sexual and it was nowhere near the guttural sensuality of Betty Davis. As the best-kept secret Funk ever had, Davis is a cult figure whose legacy spans far beyond her marriage to Miles Davis. In the true misogynist custom that plagues music (and the world) Betty’s legacy is defined by her marriage to the musician when history tells a different story of the ineffable influence she had on funk and jazz. As for taking Miles’ surname after their marriage fell apart after a year, Betty said of the union, “every day married to him was a day I earned the name Davis,” in a documentary called They Say I’m Different: A Celebration Of Funk Icon Betty Davis, made as a way to address the myth of Betty Davis and her undeniably bright star and its equally jarring disappearance from public life.

Betty’s objective as singer/songwriter wasn’t to shock her audiences with the raw sexuality imbued in music. “I wrote about love, really, and all the levels of love,” she told the New York Times. Her musical exploration of love openly mused over all of love’s permutations without being chaste and euphemistic. Betty considered sex, desire and sensuality as a part of that package so she didn’t bother to omit those aspects when everybody else did. “When I was writing about it, nobody was writing about it. But now everybody’s writing about it. It’s like a cliché.”

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The story of Betty’s overflowing potential still baffles those who were enamored by her succinct-yet-powerful presence and subsequent disappearance, especially considering her implicit influence over her ex-husband Miles Davis. The two had met in a bar where Miles was playing —Betty being an afro-clad, gorgeous Black woman that caught the eye of one of the biggest musicians of all time. Miles, at the time, embodied the aura of someone you’d call a “smooth cat”, donning Italian suits to match his Italian sportscar. Miles’ style was a product of a time making its way out the door and his new wife made that point literal when she threw all his suits out the window and introduced him to the technicolor dreamboat that was the 70’s. Freedom was the message with music as the vehicle and Betty’s unleashing of Miles from his bespoke prison had seeped into his music when the trumpeter added a wah wah pedal (used by drummers and electric guitarists) to his sets, introducing a rock-jazz fusion that would send shockwaves through the genre for decades.

This wasn’t the work of a mere muse. Betty was a talented musician and visionary performer who was 19-years younger than Miles while still being able to school him on reinvention and the power of personal evolution. She gave the funk crowd its first taste of unabashed, almost aggressive female sexual autonomy: She moaned. She groaned. She conjured raw sexual energy that had one man actually trip and topple an entire table during a performance thanks to her hypnotizing sexuality. Her voice was rasped and roared, conjuring ecstasy and burnt honey, coursing deep enough in her audiences to elicit visceral reactions — often good and bad. She had a gift, she had a presence and she knew it when she formed her own band years after her divorce to Miles. 

Betty was fearless, brandishing newfound confidence and newly found connections through her brief marriage so she went out on her own, recruited her cousins and some of music’s future legends to form a band called Funk House and made her first album and completed it in three weeks; she even got Miles to arrange chords for her while she worked on it. She went on to make three albums with Funk House: Betty Davis (1973), They Say I’m Different (1974) and Nasty Gal (1975). Her sound was funk with a blues foundation and her style screamed African space Goddess from an alternate plain of existence. Betty was pure electricity on stage. Her performances were all afro and high kicks, paired with guttural moans and suggestive (or just plain obscene) microphone play. She was truly a talent born before her time and few times has that been so painfully true.

Funk’s progressiveness wasn’t enough to counteract the misogyny that lead to Davis’ opportunities drying up. After recording Is It Love Or Desire in 1976, Betty’s label didn’t take on the album according to “creative differences” as history would tell it but looking back with a clearer understanding shows a picture of a career suffocated because Betty dared to be different, simply because she just was. Even at her young age, she understood that there was immense power in embracing an identity she came to on her own without the fear. She was the proof of the underlying genius of Black womanhood, sexuality and imagination and just a veritable genius herself. If the world were anywhere near perfect, we would have enjoyed a decades-long career from her, but we’re just here, looking back to what could have been.

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