It’s no secret to anyone who knows anything about the history of popular American music that rock n roll is a direct descendant of the African American musical tradition, rooted in gospel, the blues, and R&B. Even the most casual cultural observer could rattle off the names of artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Ike Turner, and a host of other highly influential African American musicians considered early pioneers of the genre, not to mention Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone, Rick James, Prince, and Lenny Kravitz later in the 20th century. Bands like Living Colour, King’s X, and Fishbone certainly come to mind when discussing acts situated on the edgier end of the Black rock continuum, and artists such as GRAMMY Award winner Gary Clark, Jr. and Marcus Machado appear to be at the forefront of a blues rock revival.
Yet, often missing from these conversations are the names of the Black women who also gave rise to rock n roll. From blues women like Bessie Smith, Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton, and Etta James; to trailblazers Tina Turner and Nona Hendryx, and genre-blending artists like Meshell Ndegeocello, Imani Coppola, and Alice Smith, Black women have played a substantial role in shaping and expanding rock music. Infusing elements of soul, funk, R&B, and hip-hop into their recordings and live performances, Black women rockers prove time and time again that they are a force with which to be reckoned.
In honor of NMAAM’s Hear Me Roar! campaign in celebration of Women’s History Month, let’s take a look at some of the wild, wondrous women who birthed and nurtured rock n roll, and who continue to give it wings.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Widely hailed as the premiere Black woman architect and “Godmother” of rock n roll, Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Sister Rosetta Tharpe is credited as being the first artist to bridge gospel with secular music. In fact, many male rock legends (including the aforementioned Chuck Berry and the so-called “King of Rock n Roll,” Elvis Presley) cite Tharpe as a major source of inspiration. Known for soul-stirring songs such as “Didn’t It Rain,” “Down By the Riverside,” and “Up Above My Head,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe is also famous for her unique electric guitar playing style, considered to be the foundation for what would become the definitive rock n roll sound. Tharpe remains one of the most important figures in American music, whose legacy is evident across a broad range of artists and genres throughout the world.
If Megan Thee Stallion is the face of women’s sexual empowerment in today’s popular music, funk diva Betty Davis is the prototype. Affectionately called a “nasty gal” long before Vanity 6 extolled the possibilities of being about that life, Davis’ raspy voice and raw sexuality positioned her in stark contrast to other acts of the 1970s, even as shifting social and political tides and the emergence of the disco era opened the door to greater sexual freedom and experimentation. During her brief marriage to jazz legend Miles Davis, Betty Davis is said to have significantly influenced her then-husband by introducing him to the music of Jimi Hendrix and Sly Stone. As a songwriter, the lady Davis didn’t shy away from exploring the pleasures of the flesh, unapologetically and unabashedly spinning her tales of love, sex, and triumph over the course of 3 albums (Betty Davis, They Say I’m Different, and Nasty Gal). Tracks like “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up,” “Anti Love Song,” and “They Say I’m Different” stand out not only for their lyrical boldness, but also for the undeniable funk-flavored rock they bring to the table; however, that fierce spirit was met with more than a little controversy, with community groups and even the NAACP boycotting her shows and pressuring radio stations to ban her music. Davis disappeared from the scene altogether after her third album and has rarely been heard from since. A documentary about her life, Betty: They Say I’m Different (Native Voice Films), is available to stream on select platforms.
If ever there were an heiress apparent to Betty Davis, it would certainly be Joi Gilliam (check out her cover of Davis’ “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up” from her 1997 release, Amoeba Cleansing Syndrome). From her 1994 debut The Pendulum Vibe through her fourth album, 2018’s SIR Rebekkah Holylove, this dynamic singer/songwriter and producer has issued a catalogue laced with funk, hip-hop, and more than a little bit of rock n roll. Her electrifying live performances are the stuff of legend, and both her musical approach and her fashion sense have captivated audiences and contributed to her critical acclaim. Her songs “Ghetto Superstar,” “Lick,” and “Missing You” further propelled Joi into otherworldly superstardom, and her short stint as Dawn Robinson’s replacement in the neo-soul group Lucy Pearl was one in a long line of musical partnerships that crystallized this effervescent artist’s place in music. Joi shared the stage with D’Angelo and the Vanguard as a vocalist during the Second Coming tour, and boasts collaborations with Erykah Badu, Outkast, Goodie Mobb, George Clinton, Fishbone, and dozens of other artists spanning multiple genres.
As front woman for The Alabama Shakes, Brittany Howard shook up pop music with a quickness with her raw, passionate vocals evocative of Etta James. Howard’s earthy, soulful, blues woman vocal style propelled the Shakes’ debut, Boys and Girls, and its follow-up, Sound & Color, and pushed the band even further into mainstream fame. Howard expanded her sound and persona with a new band, Thunderbitch, releasing a 10-song self-titled EP before Alabama Shakes opted for an indefinite break. During her 2016 performance on PBS’ Smithsonian Salutes Ray Charles: In Performance at the White House, she wowed with “Unchain My Heart” and later as part of the ensemble singing “Heaven Help Us All” and “What I’d Say.” In 2019, Brittany Howard dropped her debut solo album, Jaime, where she explores life and love as a queer woman of color against a backdrop of searing electric guitar and chill-inducing wails.
There is no shortage of sistahs who kill it on the bass: Meshell Ndegeocello, Rhonda Smith, Esperanza Spalding, Gail Ann Dorsey, and Vicki Randle are among the most well known black women to master the instrument. Add to that elite pantheon the mighty Nik West, hailed by rock n roll royalty from Prince to the Eurthymics’ Dave Stewart and Aerosmith front man Steven Tyler as one of the best to bring the thunder. With a style that seamlessly blends funk, rock, and soul, the singer/songwriter and bassist has become a sensation thanks to scorching live performances, solo recordings (Just in the Nik of Time and Say Somethin’), collaborations (“My Relationship” with Orianthi), and her covers of popular tunes (“Summertime” from Porgy and Bess, AC/DC’s “Back in Black”). With a look and vibe that merge Betty Davis, Parliament-Funkadelic, Bootsy Collins, and Tina Turner’s Acid Queen in The Who’s Tommy, Nik West is a fresh, funky voice whose musical sensibilities allow her to slip from jazz to soul to rock in the blink of an eye.
No list of black women who rock would be complete without left-handed guitar player Malina Moye. The WCE/Sony International recording artist, who was the only solo African American woman considered for inclusion in the Best Rock Performance category for the 58th Annual Grammy Awards (she ultimately was not nominated, however), is considered to be one of the top 10 female guitar players in the world, and for good reason. She’s performed alongside heavyweights such as Buddy Guy as part of the Jimi Hendrix Experience Tour, smashed Queen Elizabeth’s 60-year celebration with her spin on “God Save the Queen,” and recorded with funk bassist extraordinaire, Bootsy Collins. Moye’s undeniable energy onstage rivals any male musician one thousand-fold, and she brings a rad, righteous, and self-possessed sex appeal to her live performances.
Undoubtedly one of music’s unsung heroines, Cree Summer is the bohemian rock goddess whose affinity for Frank Zappa and poetic lyricism produced two stunning albums: 1993’s Womb Amnesia with her band Subject to Change, and her seminal 1999 solo release, Street Faërie. Womb’s harder-edged rock tracks like “I Me Me Mind” and “Beauty is Made” evoke Fishbone, Living Color, and Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, with the A Different World star and voice actress lending her brazen vocals to songs tackling socio/political topics over loose grooves. Subject to Change was short-lived and, according to Summer, a staggering break-up. From the ashes she arose like the phoenix she is with Street Faërie, produced by Lenny Kravitz and featuring songs co-written by Van Hunt. Revealing a somewhat softer and more reflective side, the album became one of the most coveted releases of the late ‘90s, but commercially couldn’t compete with more pop and R&B radio-friendly records despite its tight production and Summer’s solid performance and songwriting. Although Cree Summer has yet to deliver another album (she’s rumored to have new music in the works), in 2007 she dropped “Savior Self,” a heart wrenching ode to life, love, scars, and healing, as a video-only release directed by Mikki Willis and co-starring a young Zoë Kravitz.
Sandra St. Victor
Sandra St. Victor is rock personified. As the front woman for the Family Stand and a massive musical force as a solo artist, SSV has churned out three albums (Mack Diva Saves the World, Gemini: Both Sides, and Oya’s Daughter) and an EP (Sandra St. Victor’s Sinner Child); written hits for the likes of Paula Abdul (“Vibeology”), Chaka Khan (“I’ll Never Be Another Fool”), and Prince (“Soul Sanctuary”); and rocked stages all over the globe. Her blistering vocals steeped in gospel and soul perfectly complement bold, shoot-from-the-hip lyrics and also leave plenty of room for the growls and roars she ushers forth when the spirit moves her. St. Victor’s passion for preserving and promoting exceptional music and artists inspired her to create the Daughters of Soul project, which featured Lalah Hathaway, Syleena Johnson, Lisa Simone, Sylvette “Phun” Stone, Kori Withers, and Indira Khan, all daughters of legendary soul artists and spectacular musicians in their own right. She’s currently preparing for the highly-anticipated Family Stand reunion, with performances slated for spring and summer 2020.
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