The Conundrum of Being a Black Female Artist: Trailblazers, Troubled History, and a Recovering Present in the Music Industry

By: Eli Duah-Mensah

She bounces across the steps of her stairs, jingling the keys in her purse to enter her home. Being swiftly greeted by her puppy — a greyhound — she scoops him up and takes him for a night walk around the block. It’s 9:30 pm. She pops in her headphones, booting up a nightly walk playlist featuring some yearning, saccharine dreampop that feels like a soft-serve ice cream with some cookies sprinkled on top. These songs oscillate from this to a more underground, moodier mix of indie tunes. Those several minutes fly by as an airplane zipping through the sky. It was a tad wet outside as she shuffled her feet on the rug, plopping down on the couch. She procrastinates on completing her work by watching some dance videos for another 40 minutes, and before she knows it, it’s 10:50 pm. As she puts the final touches on her paper, she sends in her assignment and condemns herself to writing a few more pages for a short story she’s working on.

What kinds of art do you like? Architectural, cinematic, dancing, drawing, musical, painting, poetical, sculptural, theatrical, writing? Or do you like none at all? In any case, it’s no secret that all of these art forms have had an effect on someone. Art can make people feel euphoric, forlorn, nauseated, apprehensive, romantic, yearning, enraged, anything and everything. People show their appreciation to artists in a myriad of ways. Yet, historically, in art, black people, particularly women, have been repeatedly weighed down or washed away. What have the music, dance, and literary industries done to appreciate and represent black artists throughout time? Coming off the heels of Black History Month and ushering in Women’s History Month, today we’re going to explore the experience of a black female artist in two parts. This portion will focus on music, while the latter will focus on dance and books.

History of black female musicians

Now, if I told you to come up with the name of a famous blues singer, who would come to mind? Before some of the more recognizable names today, one Mamie Smith sauntered into a recording studio on Valentine’s Day in 1920, combating the belief that Black people would not listen to music, simply because they wouldn’t buy record players. Yet, in the midst of this ideology, one songwriter, Perry Bradford, spoke to Fred Hager at Okeh Records, arguing that Black people would listen to some records, if the color barrier was broken. When the duo recorded “Crazy Blues”, the song skyrocketed in popularity, catapulting blues into the highest order for a market of music by and for black people. Soon, a plethora of artists burst onto the scene to make their case in the music industry: Ethel Waters, Ma Rainey, Edith Wilson, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, and Ida Cox. Soon, both black and white listeners were enjoying their music, upending a historically dominated male genre into a female-led musical machine.

In tandem with the rise of female jazz and blues artists, queer artists began rising to the top as well. In fact, throughout the blues era, it was rumored the singer Gertrude “Ma” Rainey was romantically involved with Bessie Smith (a bisexual woman), having several affairs with chorus women. Rainey, who was also bisexual, wrote the cheeky song “Prove It On Me” in light of a recent incident where her home was raided during a sexual encounter with multiple women:

“They say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me
Sure got to prove it on me
I went out last night with a crowd of my friends
It must’ve been women, ’cause I don’t like no men
Wear my clothes just like a fan
Talk to the gals just like any old man.”

In a similar vein, the song discusses dressing in stereotypical men’s clothes, yet she repeats the same sentiment–prove it:
“It’s true I wear a collar and a tie
Makes the wind blow all the while
Don’t you say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me
You sure got to prove it on me.”

Hailed as the “Mother of the Blues”, Rainey was beloved for her authenticity, her sultry voice, and her entracing stage presence. Rainey was first exposed to the Blues in her early teens, when a woman introduced her to a sad song one night while she was performing in Missouri. After traveling with Will “Pa” Rainey for several years, Rainey became a star in her own right. For many of these artists, music was their medicine. Rainey, and the works of Smith, Billie Holliday, Mamie Smith, highlighted the independence and refuge that music gave them around a time when women were not allowed to vote, and most Black people were migrating from state to state to find work. Apart from her vocal prowess, Rainey’s melodramatic lyricism on heartbreak and depression were iconic, and in some respect, inspiring. Her music, primarily from a female perspective, showed that though characters were upset, this did not mean they needed a man, or anyone for that matter. Her lyrics were similarly known for their sensuality, a similar sign of the times for blues.

Though there was a “Mother of the Blues,” there was only one “Empress of the Blues.” Standing six feet tall and two-hundred pounds, Bessie Smith’s physical dominance went in tandem with her rough, booming, yet sweet voice. All who walked into a performance of hers were hypnotized by her self-assured delivery, her charm, her ability to beautifully describe an emotion you couldn’t put a name on. The genesis of Smith’s music came a day after Valentine’s Day, where she recorded “Taint Nobody’s Business If I Do” and “Down Hearted Blues.” Unsatisfied with the previous version, she re-recorded the latter the day after. When the record was released, a kaleidoscope of acclaim and prestige followed Bessie Smith like a hound dog.

Smith had been performing since she was a child with her brother, due to their impoverishment. She sang and danced while he played the guitar, the two attempting to amass a following for themselves for money. Later on, Smith followed Ma Rainey on tours as a dancer, with historians saying that Rainey likely helped Smith form her stage presence. In 1913, she broke off on her own; between 1923 and 1933, she performed a total of 150 songs. She was as prolific as she was beloved;her influence far reaching. Jazz writer Danny Barker once wrote of her, “If you have a church background,” he writes, “like people who came from the South as I did, you would recognize a similarity between what she was doing and what those preachers and evangelists from there did, and how they moved people … Bessie did the same thing on stage.”

Famed playwright August Wilson wrote one of his most memorable plays about Ma Rainey, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, named after perhaps the singer’s most popular songs. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has been adapted into a Netflix movie of the same title. In 2015, Bessie Smith similarly received a movie adaption, titled Bessie.

While blues was a large part of early 20th century music for African-Americans, Black women were quickly creeping into the jazz genre, another form of music typically dominated by men. Of the many, Mary Lou Williams was one of the most influential jazz women. Williams, an innovative pianist, had the opportunity to compose with Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong during her time as an artist. After a long hiatus from music, when Williams returned, she became a force for women’s jazz bands and created the first female-led recording studio, at a time when women in jazz were seen as lesser than. Despite this, artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, and Billie Holiday were able to climb the ranks as some of jazz’s most quintessential figures.

Of the new wave of jazz artists came music made by Billie Holiday. Billie Holiday, born Elinore (Eleanora) Harris on April 7th, 1915, was renowned for her vocal delivery and groundbreaking manipulation of musical phrases. With a tumultuous childhood, Eleanora left behind the jazz-riddled Baltimore at age 13 with her mother to live in Harlem, New York. It was here where the young teenager began performing in nightclubs, lifting the name Billie from her favorite actress, Billie Dove, and Holiday from her father Clarence Holiday. With no formal training and no eye for sheet music, Holiday quickly gained experience in the transitional period of the Harlem Renaissance to the Swing Era. Holiday’s recording history is as rich as it is intense. At 18, producer John Hammond was entranced by Holiday’s voice, recorded two of her first songs, one of which sold 5,000 copies. After teaming up with pianist Teddy Wilson, the two became an unstoppable force in music. It was around this time she was nicknamed by saxophonist Lester Young, who was involved with the two in recording work, nicknamed Holiday, “Lady Day.” It was around 1938 where Holiday became the first to work with an all-white orchestra.

Holiday became a trendsetter for protest songs during the civil rights movement, with one of her most popular songs, “Strange Fruit.” Later on, she recorded “God Bless the Child” with Arthur Herzog Jr., a cultural reset in the jazz world. A few years later, she created 100 songs with the Clef/Verve Label. Throughout her career, Holiday was struggling with substance abuse, as well as being in several abusive relationships. She wrote her biography Lady Sings the Blues, which later on became a movie starring Diana Ross. Holiday died in 1959 due to cirrhosis. Holiday is often hailed in queer circles for her openness about her bisexuality in her later years. Though many of her songs focused on heterosexual romance, she did have a fair amount of relationships with women, including actress Tallulah Bankhead. The two had a back and forth after Holiday wrote poorly about Bankhead in her memoir, with Holiday responding “And if you want to get s– we can make it a big s– party. We can all get funky together!”

Though jazz was becoming more and more popular, there came a new form of music throughout the mid-20th century known as rock’n’roll. Known for its combination of jazz and rhythm and blues — R&B — came rock’n’roll. With its catchy melodies, dynamic and powerful lyrics, as well as its engaging performances and memorable guitar riffs, the rock’n’roll wave gripped the hearts and minds of many across the nation. Though most remember and love Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley, fewer still remember some of the original rock’n’roll queens.

Take the “Godmother of Rock & Roll” for example, Sister Rosetta Tharpe. A master of the guitar at the tender age of six, Tharpe began singing and recording in church choirs, where she traveled with her mother. It’s no secret that the exposure helped influence her incredible cohesion of pop gospel. Her first gospel records, such as “Rock Me”, “That’s All”, “My Man and I,” shook the music world, quickly becoming viral. Though her performances were initially restricted to nightclubs, she grew to become more and more popular, packing stadiums and having 25,000 people attending her wedding. Around the 40s, she began touring with Marie Knight, recording hits such as “Up Above My Head” and “You Gotta Move.” Tharpe is also regarded as a queer icon due to the open secret of her relationship with Knight. The two split due to a fire near Knight’s hometown, though they would reunite from time to time.

In one interview, keyboardist Lonnie Liston Smith said, “She was playing rock’n’roll way before anyone else.” Indeed, Tharpe’s sound, crafted in the 30s and 40s, had been inaugurated far before the rock’n’roll wave in the 50s. Her prowess on the guitar earned her a myriad of compliments — which, at the time, were often limited to saying she could “play like a man,” the defining factor of guitarist virtuosity. Yet, Tharpe would follow up with her own rebuttals: “can’t no man play like me. I play better than a man,” she proclaimed in one interview— to most, she could. Her art influenced many greats in the music industry, from Elvis, to Chuck Berry, to the Beatles, to Johnny Cash, to Brittany Howard, to Little Richard, to Bob Dylan, and many, many more. Howard paid tribute to the late starlet during her induction into the rock and roll hall of fame in 2018, an award which she called “long overdue.”

But there was another artist throughout the 60s who lit the music world on fire. Odetta Holmes, the “Voice of the Civil Rights Movement,” was an Alabama-born powerhouse of a folk singer. Holmes began training her voice at the age of thirteen; just three years prior, a teacher recognized her vocal talents, saying she “had a voice.” Though Odetta doubted she could make it into the opera, she began studying music at the Los Angeles City College. The genesis of her music career came in the form of a tour of the musical Finian’s Rainbow in 1947. A few years later, Holmes began her folk singing career. Around 1959, her name was promoted across the nation in the form of a television special with Belafonte. Two years later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr would crown Odetta as the “Queen of American Folk Music.”

What cemented Odetta’s role as an activist singer was her performance with MLK during the March on Washington in ‘63. A little while later, she had dinner with John F. Kennedy during the TV special, Dinner with the President. From here, Odetta’s influence only grew and grew. Perhaps one of the most popular folk singers of the entire revolution, Bob Dylan, once said “The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta,” said Dylan, following with, “Right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustic guitar.” Following King’s assassination, much of Odetta’s popularity began to fade due to the challenging hurdle that the civil rights movement faced following King’s death. However, Odetta proceeded to receive many accolades post-civil rights movement. the National Medal of Arts & Humanities award from Bill Clinton in 1999; a “Living Legend” tribute from the Library of Congress in 2003; a National Visionary Award in 2003; and an induction into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame in 2018.

In the midst of the blues revival throughout the 60s and in tandem with the rock & roll wave, there came a new form of music grown from the backbone of the civil rights movement that had been slowly brewing since the 1940s — rhythm and blues, also known as R&B. Indeed, with “blues” in the name, R&B was a hodgepodge between jazz, folk, and blues. Like blues, most of the artists throughout this time came from the South, with the genre often deriving from gospel, being frequently sung in church arenas. Later on, R&B grew to become more close to hip-hop than to rock & roll. Throughout this time, artists such as Mahalia Jackson were soaring the ranks as some of the most influential artists of the time.

But of course, a list of black female music stars would not be complete without Aretha Franklin, the “Queen of Soul.” Another star who was not classically trained, Franklin began her singing career in her father’s church, recording songs whilst learning how to play piano by ear. Around 12, her father began managing her, and two years later, she began recording her own songs. With a break, Franklin dived back into the music industry following giants such as Sam Cooke and Dinah Washington. Prior to that period, she met and toured with MLK Jr., before ultimately moving to New York with Cooke after a plethora of record label offers. Eventually, she decided on Columbia Records, where she released her debut album Aretha. Soon, Franklin was recording hit after hit: “I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)” became a Top 10 hit, with the album of the same name containing star-studded hits from “Respect,” “Baby I Love You,” “Think,” “Chain of Fools,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “(Sweet Sweet Baby) Since You’ve Been Gone,” and “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”

One of the defining factors of Aretha’s sound was her supremely powerful voice, her “magical” piano skills, and her musical intelligence. The legendary artist continued performing, most notably during Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 and for her performance of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” for the Kennedy Center Honors. The accolades she received were numerous; of the many, she was the first woman inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and listed ninth twice in Times’ “100 Greatest Singers of All Time.”

Presently, black women are becoming more pervasive in the rap industry, with artists such as Nicki Minaj, Megan Thee Stallion, Doja Cat, Rico Nasty, Tierra Whack, Queen Latifah, and Missy Elliot taking the mantle. Of these excellent artists, one who has been regarded as one of the most influential is Lauryn Hill. Hill, a high achiever from a young age, contributed her lyrical prowess and MC-ability to the band The Fugees. The timing of their musical creation was perfect for their 1996 sophomore album The Score circled the Billboard Top 10 for a little over a year, reaching number 1 for a stretch. From the album, Hill’s rendition of ‘Killing Me Softly with His Song” was an instant hit. After disbandment, Hill released The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill two years following The Score. The record highlighted her rapping brilliance, her lyrical skills, and her larger-than-life persona. Songs such as “Doo Wop (That Thing)” reached number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Though she dropped out of the public eye and stopped recording for a long period of time, she did record some songs for the documentary What Happened, Miss Simone? Time described Hill as the “Queen of Hip-Hop” with Beyoncé calling her one of “the best hip-hop rappers ever.”

Misogyny across the board

In the wake of the rise of black female singers and songwriters came some important questions. For instance, if blues singers such as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey were so lauded at the time, why are they often forgotten today? Following World War II came the birth of a more elitist crowd of Blues record collectionists known as the “Blues Mafia.” Primarily white men, these audiophiles sought to erase the pioneers of an already dying field. Classic blues had already been dying for economic reasons; the Great Depression killed record sales, forcing many blues artists to find new lines of work. In tandem with the new wave of jazz and different kinds of blues, the older artists were starting to fade away.

Yet, the final nail in the coffin was the erasure of these women in the blues industry to make room for electric blues and country blues. By the 1960s, artists, such as the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, had all usurped the public’s desire for blues. Though many artists, such as Janis Joplin, credit their style to classic blues, for the most part, classic blues had died. It was also around the time of the rise of the Blues Mafia where statements of men’s voices being more iconic, authentic, and skilled drowned out women, despite their success up to that point. Sales for male singers were reaching a peak, while women in the industry were often shunned or degraded.

This erasure occurred almost one hundred years ago, but erasure of black female voices in the music industry occurs even today. Take for example, Beyoncé’s cult classics in 2014, songs like “***Flawless,” and “ Run the World (Girls.)” In both songs, Beyoncé sings about liberating women–in the former song, black women– in recognizing their worth and talents apart from societal expectations or sexual appeal. This snippet from “***Flawless” says it all:

“I took some time to live my life
But don’t think I’m just his little wife
Don’t get it twisted, get it twisted
This my s–, bow down, b–”

In the music industry, and in the world at large, Black women have been repeatedly vying for control against stereotypes about their worth, their sexual appeal, and the expectations of the music they’re supposed to make, such as hypersexuality. In addition to the stereotypes they face in the music industry, there are stereotypes we face outside of the music industry. Stereotypes such as the angry black woman, and the general idea that black women are supposed to be tougher, thereby allowing others to treat us any way they please, have been transmitted into many aspects of the black female experience. In tandem, many black girls have experienced the phenomenon of being expected to be more grown up or responsible than they are, known as being “fast.” As such, this leads to an environment where some black girls are not expected to deal with their feelings in the way they are supposed to: crying is to be replaced with a stone-faced affect, anger is to be replaced with control. As such, much of black music now is being aimed at showing vulnerability, allowing black women to be empowered in both sexuality and emotionality.

Back in the day, Beyoncé received much criticism for her empowerment anthems on songs like “***Flawless.” These same people, who impose a stereotype that black women are more sexual than their white counterparts, were, at their worst, insinuating that Beyoncé had a hand in teen pregnancy rates among Black women (which were, by the way, pulled from shaky statistics.) Even today, black female artists are criticized for their sexuality: Nicki Minaj is an important name to come to mind. In many spaces, it’s a half-deal for black artists: wanting the talent, but not the stories that come from the color of their skin. Music about experiences in the ghetto are brushed off as inciting violence or disarray among Black youth. So, how can the artist remain authentic; should the artist attempt to break a barrier?

Rap music is perhaps the most infamous of all music genres for holding misogynistic views against all women. Historically, women have been underrepresented in the rap game. In a study of 700 artists who landed a spot on the Billboard Hot 100, about 21.7% of the artists were female, and 2 percent of producers from 400 of the songs were female. The latter statistic is emblematic of the lack of creativity to be explored by Black female artists, stunting much of the growth of their art. Though this statistic is changing, women in the rap industry often do not get nominated for as many awards as men. In such a male-dominated industry, women are often objectified and portrayed as usable and abusable. Rappers rattle off a number of disparaging comments against women in any number of songs: “b–” “slut” “hoe” “thot” “females,” portraying women as users and gold diggers, and in some cases, rationalizing abuse and violence against women.

This misogyny towards women can pool to outside of the music itself. For instance, when rapper Megan Thee Stallion was shot by Tory Lanez, Megan had to endure two harsh situations: the shooting itself, and the jokes online made at her expense. Though many came to her support after her post, artists such as Drake added fuel to the fire on his collaboration album with 21 Savage, Her Loss, on the song “Circo Loco”:

“This b— lie ’bout getting shots, but she still a stallion
She don’t even get the joke, but she still smiling”

Lyrics such as this, insinuating that Megan lied, combined with the ridicule on social media, highlights that lack of regard that many in and outside the industry have when it comes to black womens’ pain and struggles inside and outside of the music industry. Despite attempted progress to change things in the industry, between feminist anthems and empowerment of women, there are still fallbacks and difficult conversations that need to be held about misogyny inside and outside of the rap industry. Rap is a genre in which a principal aspect is the disses against other MCs. But at what point does it become too far, when we injure women who have been wronged? To many, the game has gone too far into this rabbit hole, but to others, if a song is good, it doesn’t necessarily erase the harmful things it is saying, but it does make them easier to deal with. In actuality, misogyny exists in every genre of music. Rock music, for instance, has a long history of male musicians manipulating female fans, belittling female vocalists and instrumentalists, and the like. But for many, this doesn’t excuse how far it’s gone in rap.

Racism against even the biggest stars across time has been prevalent (i.e. Billie Holiday). Holiday, a mixed woman, was at some points told she was too light skinned for a band. At other points, the effects of Jim Crow Laws and segregation were exposed during her trips and tours. To avoid any aggression or hostility towards patrons of a hotel, Holiday was at some points asked to use separate methods to find her ways around–a separate way to get on stage, a separate way to get to her room, a separate way to go anywhere. Though through this, Holiday challenged racial violence at the time: her civil rights anthem, “Strange Fruit” received wide praise. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a queer black woman, is often snubbed from the history books despite many of the rock greats being inspired by her. Tharpe was not even given a proper memorial until 2009 and was not awarded her induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame until four decades after her passing. Throughout history, even the greats have been minimized and, at worst, forgotten, with their memories only dug back up just shy of half a century later.

Artists often double as activists for this reason. Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin for instance, were often known for their songs aimed towards the civil rights movement. Though important and popular anthems, there is still progress to be made in the music industry with their treatment of Black women.

These days, there are artists who are fighting back against misogynistic views, such as music by Yaya Bey. Bey, who released her funky, smooth R&B and jazz album Remember Your North Star, sings about romance and heartache with such a colorful and groovy manner, the conversationality, collision of thoughts, and creativity all coalesce into a calm, dazzling record. But, the record doubles as a countenance of heartbreak and candid conversations about love to recognizing a Black woman’s worth outside of misogynistic ideals. The album dances through delicate topics with a sparkling touch, singing about working through trauma and depression with the principal notion that, though the emotions of love and heartache are messy, so is the experience of being alive and being able to give love to others. The song “alright” for example, highlights her positive affirmations for Black women:

“Don’t it feel like love is on the way
Like love is on the way
If we just give it to the sky, I bet it might just be
Alright, alright, alright.”

With a lofty, calm voice, the assurance that everything will be alright frees the minds and emotions of all who listen.


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