Free association time: Several months ago First Lady Michelle Obama was “scolded” for presenting at the Black Girls Rock Awards. This was apparently viewed by a few reactionaries as exclusionary though it was a nod to the organization Black Girls Rock Inc. a “youth empowerment and mentoring organization established to promote the arts for young women of color.” Founded in 2006 by Beverly Bond it exists for a reason: in a society that tends to operate in racist and sexist ways black women are often unheralded hence the necessity of outlets that acknowledge their status and provide genuine visibility. The coverage of Mrs. Obama’s presence sparked a musical thought in me: “Black Girls Rock, Too.”
In the context of popular music contemporary listeners tend to associate rock ‘n’ roll and rock with white men like Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, Roy Orbison, and Buddy Holly. Though black proto-rock ‘n’ rollers like Wynonie Harris, and pioneers like Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Little Richard are commonly understood as musical architects of rock ‘n’ roll the racial politics of the 1950s restricted their commercial exposure and recognition compared to white counterparts. This was eventually rectified (i.e. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions) but tellingly they are not referred to as the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
The story for women in rock ‘n’ roll is also complicated. Pioneers like the eclectic pre-rock singer Ella Mae Morse and the rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson only scored a few hits and never quite became stars. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that women like Janis Joplin and Grace Slick expanded the popular imagination to begin including women as legitimate rock performers. Since then Stevie Nicks, Debbie Harry, Joan Jett, Pat Benatar, Chrissie Hynde and younger performers like Alanis Morisette have gained iconicity. Missing from this list for the most part are black women. Tina Turner, whose dynamic performances and raspy vocals led many to regard her as the “Queen of Rock,” is probably the only black female singer who immediately comes to mind in the rock pantheon. She also occupies an important place in R&B and pop as well; in terms of rock though although she seemingly stands alone among black performers.
A closer look reveals a more diverse roster of performers of rock. Most recently the Alabama Shakes, fronted by the biracial singer and guitarist Brittany Howard, topped the albums charts with Sound & Color. I was aware of the Shakes’s 2013 debut but what caught me recently was Howard’s impassioned rendition of “Don’t Wanna Fight” on Saturday Night Live (aired February 28, 2015). She sang with a stirring mix of power, control, and vulnerability modulating the song’s dynamics with impressive precision. Her performance impressed me and reminded me of the ways the music industry tends to narrowcast black female singers.
The first female performer to win a Grammy Award for rock singing was Donna Summer whose victory for “Hot Stuff” proved she was more than a Disco Queen or an R&B singer. She was nominated again in this category for “Cold Love” (1981) and “Protection” (1982). In other words rock music was as integral to her sound as other more stereotypically “black” musical influences. Many people may be unaware that in 1981 Summer was working on a double album that showcased a different sound for her. The album featured rock songs, new wave tunes, dance pop and ballads. Her record company doubted its commercial viability and she hurriedly record and released 1982’s Donna Summer. In 1996 the unreleased album, called I’m a Rainbow was released and it showcased Summer on everything from “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” to songs that fit comfortably into the rock and new wave of the early ‘80s including “Leave Me Alone,” “Highway Runner,” “Melanie,” and “Romeo.” Had she released the album circa 1981/82 it may have opened doors for other women-of-color to rock especially given her popularity at the time.
Alongside Turner, Summer, and Howard several other black females are part of the rock continuum, and their recordings are easy to find. From the 1930s to the early 1950s country blues singer-songwriter Memphis Minnie pioneered the singer-composer-performer archetype rock ‘n’ rollers adapted in the mid-1950s. She wrote much of her material wasn’t afraid to sing about sexuality (“Me and My Chaffeur Blues,” “In My Girlish Days”) in playful but discernible terms. Rory Block, Maria Muldaur, Bonnie Raitt, Phoebe Snow, and Lucinda Williams are indebted to her and have covered her material. About a decade later the guitar slinger Sister Rosetta Tharpe broke with gospel tradition inflecting traditional songs with touches of the blues that generated considerable controversy. Her legacy has shaped the technique and repertoire of folk, gospel, R&B, rock ‘n’ roll and jazz performers including Odetta, Bob Dylan, and Little Richard. Before Etta James gained crossover fame with “At Last” she sang some of the slyest and most buoyant tunes of the mid-1950s including “Roll with Me Henry” and “Tough Lover.” While the music industry steered many black singers primarily toward R&B, funk and disco in the ‘70s, from the ‘80s onward performers as disparate as Joan Armatrading, LaBelle singer Nona Hendryx, Tracy Chapman, Toshi Reagon, Me’shell N’degeocello, and Dionne Farris have all flexed their rock chops on record throughout their careers.
The racial rock deficit grew to the point that black male and female musicians responded in the mid-1980s by founding of the Black Rock Coalition in New York. The group’s website defines its mission as supporting the “development, exposure, and acceptance of Black alternative music.” The idea that rock ‘n’ roll, a genre that drew heavily from gospel, the blues, and jump blues, and its offshoots, are now viewed as “alternative” music for black performers is perversely ironic. Since the mid-1950s performers as diverse as Rick James, Prince, Living Colour, Fishbone, Lenny Kravitz, Terence Trent D’Arby (now called Sananda Maitreya), and more recently Raphael Saadiq and Gary Clark Jr., have asserted enough of a black male presence in rock that it is slightly (only slightly) less novel for audiences to associate black men with rock.
In the mid-1990s Darius Rucker stood out as the black lead singer of the otherwise white pop/rock group Hootie & the Blowfish, and he has remained a virtual outlier in his recent solo career as a success country performer. Rucker’s successes in these incarnations did not exactly motivate record companies to seek more diversity in rock and country; he remains a musically conventional but socially unique performer. One hopes that Brittany Howard is not a novelty, but yet one of many women of color with the chops and industry support to make a living performing in a rock vein. Until the culture recognizes the historical roles of black musicians in shaping the rock tradition and until record labels acknowledge the commercial viability of women of color in rock organizations like the Black Rock Coalition and Black Girls Rock Inc. remain vital resources for their literal and symbolic encouragement for musicians of many stripes to rock.
COPYRIGHT © 2015 VINCENT L. STEPHENS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.