Forget what it sounds like for a minute, let’s consider the spirit of rock and roll: Rebellious. Energetic. Vocal. Independent. Driven. Unapologetic. Powerful. They’re characteristics I could attribute to damn-near every sister I know.
In fact, my personal Who’s Who of Rock and Roll is stacked with bomb Black women. Betty Davis. Grace Jones. Tina Turner. Aretha Franklin. Nona Hendryx. Poly Styrene. Joan Armatrading. Joyce Kennedy… and that’s just 1976-77.
So why do so many people go out of their way to marginalize or flat-out disregard Black women as both pioneers and torchbearers of rock? Why are we so indifferent to the fact that more than a few African-American women strapped an instrument to their back and helped carry the genre from the fields to the church to the juke joint to the charts to a multimillion-dollar industry?
Probably because someone told us it wasn’t ours and we chose to believe it. They said it was devil’s music, so we cast it out. We let it go because someone gave it white skin, a penis, and the green light to cross boundaries that Black people couldn’t. And in so doing, they convinced the world that our pioneers didn’t deserve equal recognition, equal exposure or equal ownership.
So complete was this rebranding that many of our musical treasures are only really thought of in the context of their contributions to more “acceptable” White artists. Blues singer Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton—consummate performer and multi-instrumentalist in her own right—will be forever linked to Elvis Presley as the person who sang “Hound Dog” (in 1952) before the industry-appointed “king” made it a no.2 Billboard pop chart hit four years later.
Rock legend Janis Joplin rode Big Mama and blues pioneer Bessie Smith’s shoulders to the top, later acknowledging her debt by paying for Smith’s graveyard headstone. Johnny Cash thanked Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the self-billed “singing and guitar playing miracle,” in 1992 when he accepted his place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Tharpe, arguably the first to successfully walk between gospel and secular worlds with genre-straddling songs like “Rock Me,” likewise inspired Little Richard with her talent and flair for dynamic performance. (Richard, notoriously, practically invented rock and roll—just ask him.)
Yet, despite the influence these women had on many influential artists, it seems their connection to rock has been severed.
Take Ma Rainey: one of the first blues artists to have her songs recorded. Memphis Minnie: among the first blues performers to switch to electric guitar. Elizabeth Cotten: self-taught guitar- and banjo-picking goddess who played with the likes of Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker well into her eighties. Victoria Spivey: who performed and recorded for over 40 years, also owning her own record label (Spivey Records) way in 1962. LaVern Baker: featured prominently in Hollywood rockers like Rock, Rock, Rock (1956) and Mister Rock and Roll (1957) and unsuccessfully sued her record label when her originals were more successfully covered by White artists. Nina Simone: an always über-expressive pianist and singer who mixed genres so effortlessly and sung with such fervor that if she were White, there’d be no question that she embodies rock and roll.
So what is it? Do we think that rock is defined by screeching guitars? Long hair? Head-banging versus booty-shaking? Men over women? White over Black?
Come on. Rock is no more defined by those things than we are limited by them. Rock is music, sound, life and emotion—undefinable and limitless. And we, Black people, have created entire cultures. So if we need a guitar to say what we have to say, then somebody better turn the amplifier up to 11.
Those who know, know. Those who don’t can hear the legacy in the music of Meshell Ndegéocello. Martina Topley-Bird. Santigold. Imani Coppola. Joi. Tamar-kali. Kamara Thomas. Light Asylum. Tracy Chapman. Sandra St. Victor. Skin. Kat Dyson. Toshi Reagon. Lisa Kekaula. Sophia Ramos. Davina Robinson. Felice Rosser. Esh. Shingai Shoniwa. cocknbullkid. Sylvia Gordon. Starr Cullars. Cindy Blackman. Honeychild Coleman. And hundreds more that I haven’t the space to name. Every one of these women is simultaneously a history lesson and a glimpse into the future of music.
So let’s pay these ladies some rock reparations. For every pioneer who went so underappreciated at the time of her death as to have been buried in an unmarked grave (Big Mama Thornton, LaVern Baker, Bessie Smith, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Memphis Minnie, and too many more), let’s—right now!—support these keepers of the flame. See a show. Buy a record. Pick up a bass. There’s still so much work to be done.
LaRonda Davis, National President of the Black Rock Coalition and long-standing board member of Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, fully supports undervalued creative communities and encourages others to do the same. Her talented friends keep her rocking daily.