In This Issue
H.E.R. is one soulful sista. She delivers vocal perfection with the instrumentation to back it up—that's exactly why she's EBONY's June cover star. She's a multi-talented artist who can play the drums, the piano and shred the guitar. Her presence as a Black female guitarist has brought visibility to Black women globally throughout history who have dominated the instrument but received little recognition.
Below is a timeline of guitar-wielding, Black women who have not only blazed a path for young guitarists like H.E.R. but have greatly influenced the scope of Black music:
Elizabeth Cotten (1893-1987)
Elizabeth "Libba" Cotten, was a tour de force in her own right. She learned to play guitar on her own as well as learned to play a guitar strung for a right-handed player upside down, which she later dubbed the style as "cotton-picking." Her most notable song was "Freight Train," which she wrote in her adolescence. She was rediscovered in her 60s, after her retirement from playing the instrument, which opened up the opportunity for her to have a recording career.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973)
Often credited as being the Mother of Rock & Roll genre, Sister Rosetta Tharpe made waves for her distinguished mixture of Gospel and Blues coupled with her raw lyrics. As a six year old, she began touring the American South with her mother as a musical prodigy and evangelist. Though many saw Rock & Rock as "devil's music," Tharpe maintained the term "SIster" in her name to honor her Gospel roots. Not only is she revered today as a musical virtuoso, but she is also a queer icon.
Odetta Holmes (1930-2008)
Commonly referred to simply as Odetta, Odetta Holmes was a prominent voice during the Civil RIghts movement. She was inspired by music of the South and mastered folk music, the blues, ballads and Negro spirituals to incorporate into her performance. After rising to prominence as a folk musician, she gained greater notoriety for singing at the March on Washington in 1963. She was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Bill Clinton in 1999 and deemed a Living Legend by the Library of Congress in 2003, five years before her passing.
Joan Armatrading, CBE (1950-present)
A music pioneer who got her start in the 1960s and 1970s, Joan Armatrading is an English rocker born in Saint Kitts. Armatrading is noted for being the first British female singer/songwriter to gain international success. A self-taught guitarist, she has described her performance style as being influenced by the genres of rock, folk, jazz, blues, soul and reggae.
Tracy Chapman (1964-present)
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Tracy Chapman received her first instrument, a ukelele, at the age of three. This investment led to her love of guitar and songwriting. Chapman received wide acclaim over the course of her career with songs such as "Fast Car," "Give Me One Reason," and "Talkin' bout a Revolution." After her debut album Tracy Chapman was released in 1988, she became a commercial success and continued to soar following her appearance at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday Tribute concert. The album went platinum and has been certified six times. Though she has not released new music in some time, Chapman's work has inspired many and her songs have been widely covered.
Known for her lyrics promoting Black beauty and positive affirmations, India.Arie has one of the most recognizable voices in the R&B and Neo-Soul genres. Although she studied a variety of instruments in her youth, she became particularly attracted to the guitar while at the Savannah College of Art and Design. Her debut album Acoustic Soul gained great success and since that time, she has been a strong advocate for musicians maintaining ownership and authenticity over heir craft.
Esperanza Spalding (1984-present)
Esperanza Spalding is known for her command of bass instruments, including the electric bass, acoustic bass guitar and double bass. Inspired and enamored with fusion jazz, Spalding has staked her claim as a multi-faceted musician with a signature sound. With eight studio albums and a plethora of accolades, she widely incorporates a variance of cultures into her sound and reflects her multi-ethnic heritage through her ability to sing in multiple languages.
Lianne La Havas (1989-present)
Heavily encouraged by her parent's taste in music and her father's talents as a multi-instrumentalist, London born artist Lianne La Havas has performed with the greats from Alicia Keys to Prince. Interestingly enough, La Havas did not learn to play guitar until the age of 18. After being discovered on MySpace in 2008, her career has seen great heights for her rich vocals accompanied by her guitar playing.