Rise of the Funky Divas

Labelle put their big-girl space-boot platform shoes on

Beginning in the early 1970s, a small army of female funk-rock performers that included Chaka Khan, Betty Davis, Labelle, Mother’s Finest, Brides of Funkenstein, Parlet, Teena Marie and other funky divas delighted in pushing the aural envelope.

Inspired in part by the James Brown Revue’s Vicki Anderson, Marva Whitney and Lyn Collins, as well as Sly Stone’s baby sister Rose and fellow Family Stone bandmate Cynthia Robinson, these women exploded with the intensity of a lit match tossed into a firecracker factory.

“Women are always told what they can and cannot do,” says Dyana Williams, a DJ and Philadelphia music personality currently spinning on Old School 100.3. “But the fem funk women refused to be limited. They were like superheroes.” 

Having lived through rebellions and talk of revolution in the new America that began in the 1960s, these women brandished explosive voices that sounded laced with Molotov cocktails. There was a strength and freedom interwoven in their funkiness, a real rawness that pierced your soul while also kicking down the doors of musical perception for other women to follow.

“Those early funk performers put a lot of passion and artistry into what they were doing,” says Joi, the Southern funky soul singer currently living and performing in Los Angeles. “But there is also much discipline and complexity as well. Chaka might not have been the first female funk artist, but her success helped make it easier for women artists like Joyce Kennedy [of Mother’s Finest], Bernadette Cooper [of Klymaxx] and myself to do what we do.”

Unfortunately, while the importance of back in the day funk women should be written in stone, many cultural gatekeepers have collective amnesia when it comes time to celebrating the musical contributions of female funk rock artists.

“They were on the same level as the legends that people are always talking about, but they are often brushed aside,” New York based singer Kimberly Nicole says. “The funk-rock women were all great performers, but they were also bold and avant-gardists.”

Unlike Parliament-Funk and Sly and the Family Stone, who are heralded with inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, feature film documentaries and numerous articles, the same kind of respect is rarely bestowed upon the Black women artists of the same caliber. Although they never uttered the word, they were feminists fighting for equality in the studio and on the stage.

“The ’60s were over and nobody was listening to The Marvelettes anymore,” LaBelle’s manager Vicki Wickham recalls. “Female artists like Labelle, who had come out of the girl group tradition, were ready to be more adventurous. They wanted to talk about space, revolution, social issues or whatever they could dream of.”

While the importance of back in the day funk women should be written in stone, many cultural gatekeepers have collective amnesia when it comes time to celebrating the musical contributions of female funk rock artists.

While Patti sang most of the leads in Labelle, group member Nona Hendryx became the primary songwriter, penning such gems as “You Turn Me On,” “Who’s Watching the Watcher” and “Nightbirds,” the title track of their most popular 1974 album that also contained the hit single “Lady Marmalade.”

Nona, whose latest solo album Mutatis Mutandis came out last year, says, “I had always read and wrote poetry. In school, my first love was writing, but I was into reading the works of e.e. cummings, the Brontë sisters and James Weldon Johnson. Years later, I got into H. Rap Brown and Nikki Giovanni. One of the first songs I ever wrote was with my old friend Curtis Mayfield, who encouraged me as a lyricist.”

While more established Black pop performers like the Supremes, the Three Degrees, Love Unlimited and others were still cooing softly in the shadows of love, proudly representing a virginal image of womanhood, Labelle was waving their freak flag. “We began as a traditional girl group, but later Labelle broke the mold of what girl groups used to be,” says Hendryx. “Creatively, behind the scenes, we were more involved in the writing of the songs.”

Former Family Stand singer-songwriter-vocalist Sandra St. Victor cites “Baby Love” vocalist Joyce Kennedy as another mighty influence in the fem funk canon. “Joyce Kennedy had one of those voices that was too Black for rock and too rock for R&B,” says St. Victor, whose latest solo album, Oya’s Daughter, drops in September. “She has a certain edge that is always amazing.”  

Currently touring Europe with Mother’s Finest (who have a Kickstarer campaign to raise funds for their next project), Joyce Kennedy says, “I just wanted to do something different, to paint outside the lines. Being different didn’t garner me huge record sales. But I do feel as though I paved the way for others to be free with their music and explore themselves.”

Kennedy catches her breath and continues. “When I’m in front of the mic, I want to get into your guts, into your heart. I want you to feel as if I was totally there for you.” While in the ’70s, Mother’s Finest opened shows