Rise of the Funky Divas

Rise of the Funky Divas

Men have dominated funk, but female funkateers like Betty Davis, Labelle and Mother's Finest should never be forgotten

by Michael A. Gonzales, August 12, 2013

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 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 for Aerosmith, they also played gigs with Labelle, Brides of Funkenstein and Betty Davis.

Once married to famed trumpeter Miles Davis, who she helped transform from a jazz son to the father of fusion, Betty Davis’s brilliant self-titled debut album dropped in 1973. In 1997, Joi began performing a cover of “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up,” making a new generation aware of Davis and her sonic innovations. In recent years, Brooklyn-based singer Nucomme has done a series of tributes simply called Betty’s Story. “In the ’70s, Betty only put out three albums,” Nucomme explains, “but she was just too raw. America wasn’t ready.”

Mother’s Finest’s third album, Another Mother Further, was released in 1977. Featuring their now classic “Baby Love,” some folks began comparing Kennedy to Khan. “Well, we both had red hair at one time,” Kennedy laughs. “But vocally, I’m nowhere near her class. You have to understand, that era was about women doing their own thing. None of us were doing exactly the same thing, so there was a love for individual talents and endeavors.

“We respected one another, so it was all love, all sugar. But please don’t forget about Tina Turner, because she was rocking for years before us.” Of course, Kennedy’s right. Thinking back, I can clearly remember seeing Turner in her miniskirt and heels wailing “Proud Mary.” I recall how disturbed my grandmother became whenever she saw the singer on television.

Gazing at Turner’s gyrating body, Grandma screamed, “She’s so vulgar! It’s like she’s having sex on the stage.” Later, Grandma’s word vulgar would be applied to other female artists including Chaka Khan, Shelia E. and Madonna.

“I blame what I call respectability politics as part of the reason the funk-rock some of the women from the ’70s aren’t better known,” Laina Dawes, author of What Are You Doing Here: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal, explains. “Despite the importance of their music and presence, many of the funk-rock females represented the aggressive behavior and sexuality that many people were not comfortable with.”

A decade later, fem funk drummer, singer, songwriter and producer Bernadette Cooper sipped from the same batch of courage as her predecessors when conceiving Klymaxx, Madame X and her own solo project. “When I look back at the forming of Klymaxx, it feels more like it was an out of body experience,” Cooper recalls. “I remember the struggles and the sacrifice, but I also remember the camaraderie of six girls focusing on one goal. This is very rare and hard to find.

“We sent out a few demos and immediately came to the attention of Solar Records through an executive named Margaret Nash,” Cooper continues. “Margaret urged her boss, Mr. Dick Griffey, to check us out. He came to our rehearsal, watched us play and offered us a record deal.” Signing on the dotted line in 1981, Klymaxx released three albums before finally having a hit with their fourth, Meeting in the Ladies Room, which featured the Cooper penned single, “The Men All Paused.”

Cooper remembers, “The reaction by other male groups to us was not very good. They did not embrace the idea. This is a male-dominated business and women are not supposed to be on drums or guitars.” In 1987, shortly after the group released their self-titled fifth album that contained “Sexy” (co-written with George Clinton himself), Copper conceived the side-project called Madame X, which consisted of vocalists Iris Parker, Valerie Victoria and Alisa Randolph.

Cooper wrote and produced the entire project. Inspired as much by opera (“Cherries in the Snow”) as she was by Minneapolis funk (“Just That Type of Girl”), Cooper crafted one of the best fem funk albums of the 1980s. “Freedom was my blueprint,” Cooper recalls. “I had just moved forward from Klymaxx, which was ruled by committee, and now I had the freedom to produce and write without any limitations. Sylvia Rhone signed the concept to Atlantic Records before I even found the girls.

“My engineer Gerry Brown and I crafted that project like it was the Mona Lisa. Every song was from either my life or someone else around me. I wasn’t searching for a hit. I just wanted the project to be pure. The girls did all of their own vocals and the result was the creation of a new sound and group.”

Without a doubt, women like Khan, Kennedy, Labelle, Davis and Cooper made it possible for post-soul artists Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj to get their freak on while making millions in the process. Says Kimberly Nicole, “With the rise of the female funk singers, you could see that it was all right to be raw and wild, both on stage and vocally.”

For many folks, including more than a few men, the dirty work of fem funk artists represented courage, and that message continues to inspire.


Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for VibeUptownEssenceXXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He’s also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.

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