The black female rock singer is invisible. By rock, I don’t mean popular music, as the two terms are often injudiciously interchanged, but the loud, guitar and drum-driven energy of the actual genre. Though black music—rhythm and blues—is essentially the DNA of rock music, social and industry barriers confront black female artists who embody the aural and visual aesthetics of the rock idiom.
What leads to this invisibility is the way black female vocalists in pop are consistently relegated to specific genre categories created by the music industry and the media that exclude them from rock music. In the post-Woodstock landscape of popular music, these categories essentially consist of soul (Aretha Franklin), pop (Dionne Warwick), dance (Donna Summer), R&B (Anita Baker), hip-hop (Lauryn Hill) and rap (Missy Elliot). Because of these rigid parameters, black female singers who pursue rock are often met with opposition, confusion and commercial disappointment. Nona Hendryx, for example, is essentially a rock singer whose palette is diversified—not determined—by R&B and dance music. Her first solo album rocked as hard as any record released in 1977, but radio (and Epic Records) was puzzled by the supposed incongruity of her racial identity to the music. Donna Summer, who fronted a rock band in the late 1960s (The Crow), has often stated that were it not for disco, she would have steered towards a career in rock music. As disco retreated to the underground in the early 1980s, Summer released a rock-oriented album, The Wanderer. Rock-formatted radio was hesitant to embrace Summer, even though her songs were not stylistically dissimilar to the songs of white female rockers like Pat Benatar.
So black women in rock have existed, but have been by and large invisible, with the exception of the anomalous Tina Turner. Her indisputable talent notwithstanding, the support of British male rock artists such as Rod Stewart and David Bowie were still necessary to facilitate her comeback in the mid-1980s and reintroduce her to rock audiences. A rare combination of forces enabled Turner, a middle-aged black woman, to achieve mainstream success with rock music—a unique combination ultimately impossible for her black female peers to replicate. But that doesn’t mean they are not out there. The galvanizing voices of Betty Davis, Joyce Kennedy, and Sandra St. Victor are but a few who have electrified rock music over the last four decades, but remain relatively obscure to mainstream audiences.
What follows is a chronologically ordered sampler of songs by artists who have challenged the music industry’s attitudes towards black female singers since the 1960s. Their forays into rock music are cool and cathartic, sassy and sardonic, fierce and ferocious. They are the anti-divas: women who, in a rock context, obscure gender and racial lines but remain true to their artistry. (A disclaimer: The list is by no means exhaustive. It is best understood as a catalyst to open a larger discussion about the complex dynamic between race, gender, and popular music.)
“Steppin’ in Her I.Miller Shoes”, Betty Davis
(Betty Davis, 1973)
Black rock can be defined by the voice of Betty Davis—gritty, soulful and searing. Counting Jimi Hendrix among her closest friends, Betty Davis symbolized an artistically, racially, and sexually liberated artist whose work—like Hendrix’s—would not be boxed in by skin color. The former Mrs. Miles Davis even inspired her husband to fuse the language of jazz with the spirit of the avant-garde. Written and arranged by Davis herself, Betty Davis was a stunning debut that showcased her deftness for storytelling over an incessant drumbeat and roaring guitar licks.
“Fire”, Mother’s Finest
(Mother’s Finest, 1976)
Joyce Kennedy fronted the hard-rock collective known as Mother’s Finest. Were it not for the narrow mentality of radio programmers—“too R&B” for rock radio and “too rock” for R&B radio—the band’s debut would not be the forgotten album (and coveted collector’s item) that it is today. Nonetheless, Mother’s Finest holds up 30 years later. “Fire” burns on all cylinders, and Kennedy’s voice is a match for Gary “Moses Mo” Moore’s fret-shredding guitar work. The response of “you can’t hide” to Kennedy’s “You can run to the jungle / Run to the mountain” cannily folds gospel into a monstrous rock arrangement.
“Tax Exile”, Nona Hendryx
(Nona Hendryx, 1977)
As one third of Labelle, Nona Hendryx penned politically charged material amidst the trio’s space-age funk, including “Somebody Somewhere” (Nightbirds, 1974) and “Who’s Watching the Watcher” (Chameleon, 1976). When Labelle disbanded in 1976, Hendryx recorded a solo album with the fully realized rock sound that Labelle only flirted with on its records. The edginess of Hendryx’s material also translated to her image: the back cover photo depicted Hendryx in denim jeans and jacket mischievously swinging a guitar. Her rhythm section makes Foreigner sound like folk rock, particularly on “Tax Exile”, a song about the manipulation of artists in the music industry. Nona Hendryx is extremely difficult to find and in urgent need of a 21st century re-evaluation.
“You Rope You Tie Me”, Joan Armatrading
(To the Limit, 1978)
Often pigeonholed as a folk singer-songwriter, Joan Armatrading deftly melded rock, jazz, blues, and reggae. Critics and listeners alike are advised to seek out Love and Affection: The Classics to know the complete story and to hear Armatrading rock out with abandon. “You Rope You Tie Me”, from To the Limit (1978), is a rousing kiss-off to an obsessive lover. Armatrading uses rock for her catharsis—“You get too jealous / I need to be free / Let me get away”, she demands. Heed the organ solo in the instrumental break, which is anything but roped and tied.
”(She’s Got) The Fever”, Pointer Sisters
Before their lightweight 1980s hits, the Pointer Sisters appeared on records by Elvin Bishop and Alice Cooper in the early 1970s, representing the prevalent use of black female singers as background vocalists for rock bands (also see Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, and Claudia Lennear). Richard Perry produced an entire album for the trio that immersed Ruth, Anita, and June Pointer in a completely rock milieu. Priority featured “(She’s Got) The Fever”, a sexy, slow-burning chunk of blues rock written by Bruce Springsteen. Radio was at a loss for what to do with this track or with the Pointers’ versions of Rolling Stones, the Band, Bob Seger, and Fleetwood Mac songs.
“Running for Cover”, Donna Summer
(The Wanderer, 1980)
Yes, the same Donna Summer who, a year before this recording, rode the crest of the disco wave with Bad Girls. Behind her carefully created façade, Summer was as much a rocker as a disco queen. She was also the first woman to win a Grammy for Best Rock Performance, Female in 1980 (“Hot Stuff”). On her first release for Geffen, Summer covertly expressed her spiritual rebirth through rock on a number of tracks. When she growls, “The promise in the dark / Is that the devil’s in the park” on the self-penned “Running for Cover”, the Grammy for “Hot Stuff”, and her two subsequent nominations in the rock category, is validated.
Donna Summer—“Hot Stuff”
“I Wrote a Letter”, Tina Turner
(“Let’s Stay Together” B-side, 1983)
In the late 1960s, Ike and Tina Turner successfully imbued songs by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones with horn-driven rhythm and blues. Years after Tina fled Ike, Rod Stewart, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, and Keith Richards flocked to her side, helping plant the seeds for her explosive comeback. Predating Private Dancer, Turner assaulted live audiences with her theatrical interpretations of Stewart’s “Kill His Wife” and Bowie’s “Cat People”. “I Wrote a Letter”, written by German rocker Inga Rumpf, simulates the full-tilt rock of Turner’s concert appearances in the early 1980s. (Once a b-side, it is now available on the remastered CD edition of Private Dancer..)
Tina Turner—“Cat People”
“Shades of Blue”, The Family Stand
(Moon in Scorpio, 1991)
Like Joyce Kennedy before her with Mother’s Finest, Sandra St. Victor fronted the Family Stand with a voice as powerful as any electric, six-stringed axe. The success of Living Color helped create a short-lived environment in the late 1980s when (some) major record companies signed black bands whose sensibilities were not exclusively R&B. Family Stand’s Moon in Scorpio album remains a high point in the band’s discography. “Shades of Blue” features St. Victor singing with a fierceness that only hints at the voracity of her live performances. As of this writing, the Family Stand is preparing Super Sol Nova, the first album to feature Sandra St. Victor since Moon in Scorpio.
The Family Stand—“Education of Jamie”
“Yes It’s Fucking Political”, Skunk Anansie
Skunk Anansie rose from the grunge-infested musical landscape of the early 1990s with an armor of heavy metal. The band’s blend of metal and black feminism could be considered a prototype for the burgeoning AfroPunk musical movement (captured in James Spooner’s incisive documentary of the same name). Songs like “Yes It’s Fucking Political” exemplify what lead singer Skin calls clit rock. Skin does not hedge around the message; she delivers the lyrics with a stentorian petulance. Though the band disbanded in 2001, Skin remains a prolific recording artist, most recently with Fake Chemical State released in 2006.
Skunk Anansie—“Selling Jesus”
“Say It Anyway”, Res
(How I Do, 2001)
Hopefully the Res story is not over. She appeared at the turn of the millennium with a genre-defying debut that probably caused radio programmers to nit their brows, though “They-Say Vision” garnered a respectable amount of attention. “Say It Anyway”, a no-holds barred hidden track that closes How I Do, is Res’s propulsive declaration of independence. Counting off “one, two, three, four”, “Say It Anyway” launches into a decibel-bursting rocker, carried by Res’s raspy voice. It’s about time for a follow-up album, and hopefully Res’s impressive rock stylings will not be “hidden” this time around.
“Joy”, Bettye LaVette
(I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise, 2005)
In 2005 Bettye LaVette received critical acclaim and commercial success after 40 years of industry neglect. A cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Joy” from the sublime I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise is a personal testament to LaVette’s indomitable spirit. Produced by Joe Henry, “Joy” recalls late 1960s blues rock, which LaVette tackles with the authenticity of one who’s been through the fire and remains unscathed. LaVette’s interpretation proves that rhythm and blues and rock are not mutually exclusive. Together, they are a potent combination that, regrettably, is becoming an endangered species.