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VOX 5: Influential Black Women in Rock

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As a fan of rock music and a good amount of its sub-genres, I’ve realized that I don’t really see that many Black women. I’ve seen or heard about many Black men in the genre, like Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry, Bad Brains, etc., but not Black women. I found that to be strange, so I did my research – and man, there are way more amazing Black woman artists who I feel don’t get the spotlight they deserve. There are a lot of talented Black women in the genre, honestly too many for one list. So I decided to just pick five of the most influential Black women rock stars I found from my research along with my favorite songs from them, and compile them into a list for people who aren’t familiar with them to use as a way to check out these talented individuals.

“They Say I’m Different” by Betty Davis

Betty Gray Mabry (more well-known as Betty Davis) was born in Durham, North Carolina, on July 26, 1944. Eventually, her family relocated to Homestead, Pennsylvania where she spent her teen years. As she came of age, she decided to attend The Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, and it was in New York where she would meet notable musicians like Jimi Hendrix (whom she was good friends with) and Sly Stone. Betty’s interest in writing/singing had always been apparent. She even wrote her first song named “I’m Going to Bake a Cake of Love” at just twelve years old. However, she wouldn’t get into music professionally until 1968, when she started working with Hugh Masekela and Columbia Records. But her time at Columbia would be short, and soon after she left Columbia, she met Miles Davis. She and Miles had hit it off, getting married and working together on music frequently. Betty would have a long-lasting effect on Miles’ sound after she introduced him to Jimi Hendrix and psychedelic rock.  During this period is when Betty Davis would craft her sound that wouldn’t be fully realized, until after she left Miles Davis and went on to record her solo albums in the ’70s. One song that captures her new-found style is “They Say I’m Different” off of her second album of the same name.

They Say I’m Different” by Betty Davis is an electric and super funky track! It captures the psyched-out feeling of her overall album the best. Betty’s voice is engaging and makes you pay attention to her expressing how her blues influences make her different from the rest of the pack. The baseline and drums further the track’s grooviness and the keys push the blues elements into the forefront. The guitar riffs bring more rock elements into the track, as they carry a more classic ’70s rock tone. Overall, you can truly see why people consider Betty Davis a funk/rock trailblazer in this song!

“Ground Zero” by Bam Bam (Tina Bell)

Tina Marie Bell, the lead singer of the band Bam Bam, was born on February 5, 1957 in Seattle, Washington. Bell got her start as a singer in church as a child, but wouldn’t pursue it fully until she started her (brief) college journey. While attending Washington State University, Bell joined as part of a production by the Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute (also in Seattle). One of the songs she had to sing was a cover of “C’est Si Bon” by Eartha Kitt, and since the song is in French, she decided to look for a tutor. While looking for tutors, she met Tommy Martin, who co-founded Bam Bam with Bell in 1983. Bam Bam would find local success quickly due to their unique early-grunge sound, and some of these local fans would turn out to be grunge legends like Kurt Cobain, who was a roadie for the band for a short while before forming Nirvana. One song of theirs that makes it easy to understand why they would impact the Seattle underground scene and influence the grunge movement is “Ground Zero,” released in 1984.

Ground Zero” by Bam Bam is a track filled with melancholic instrumentation and vocals. Tina’s vocals are ghostly yet beautiful. Tommy and Scott bring the heavier aspects of the song in their respective guitar and bass performances, and Matt’s drumming, albeit simple, is still effective in pushing along the overall groove. You can vividly hear aspects of what the early ’90s grunge sound would come to be in this song and it is a testament to Tina and the band’s creativity. Sadly, Tina Bell passed away in 2012 due to end-stage liver disease, but her memory and influence live on through the music that she made and inspired!

“Obsessed With You” by X-Ray Spex (Poly Styrene) 

Marianne Joan Elliot-Said (aka Poly Styrene) was born on July 3, 1957 in Bromley, England. Styrene was raised by her mom in Brixton, where she would spend most of her life until her teen years. At 15, Styrene decided to run away and live the hippie lifestyle, traveling all around Britain with little-to-no money. Styrene initially dreamed of becoming a reggae artist and even released a reggae/ska-influenced single, but that wouldn’t be the avenue she went toward in the long run. While traveling, she caught an early Sex Pistols show, and their sound spoke to her so much that she put out an ad looking for other people to join her band, X-Ray Spex. After finding some band members, they quickly worked on crafting their debut album. One song from their debut album, “Germ-Free Adolescents,” that I feel embodies that classic punk sound is “Obsessed With You.”

Obsessed With You” by X-Ray Spex is a rowdy song with lyrical content tackling the idea of being the new “fad” that everyone is obsessed with, and pushing against the very concept of that. Styrene’s vocal delivery is tenacious and energetic, and it grabs you immediately. The instrumentation is fast and brash and honestly makes you want to wild out. Overall, this track is a great example of that mid-to-late ’70s British punk wave energy and is just awesome. However, Styrene wouldn’t stay in the punk lane for too long as the band would break up after their debut album, and she would go in a new direction during her solo stint. Nonetheless, her punk days are great and are an important part of her career!

“Rock Me” by Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Rosetta Nubin (aka Sister Rosetta Tharpe) was born on March 20, 1915 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. Often heralded as the “Godmother of Rock” and the “Original Soul Sister,” Tharpe’s inclination to the musical arts stems from her childhood days singing in an traveling evangelical group alongside her mother. From the ages of six to ten, Tharpe was playing the guitar and singing gospel all across the South, gaining experience and infamy. In the mid-1920s Tharpe and her mother would end up moving to Chicago, occasionally performing Gospel around the city, but they would slowly stop performing. However, this would not be the end of Tharpe’s musical journey as she started to craft a unique style inspired by New Orleans Jazz, Delta Blues, and the Gospel music she grew up on. In the 1930s, Tharpe would also start recording solo music with her signature sound, and one of those premiere “proto-rock” songs is “Rock Me.”

Rock Me” by Sister Rosetta Tharpe would come in 1938 and is one of the first rock songs to exist. While the song may sound like your typical blues song, its high tempo blues-esque guitar playing along with Tharpe’s vocals establish new grounds that wouldn’t be reached until the likes of Chuck Berry came around. Tharpe’s vocals steal the show, as she gives a strong and captivating performance. Her guitar playing ability is also top notch as well. Overall, this song is ahead of its time as it mixes the essence of Blues and Jazz into the earliest example of the classic rock sound documented. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was truly a legend!

“Stupid Little Love Song” by Fefe Dobson

Felicia Lily Dobson (better known as Fefe Dobson) was born on February 28, 1985 in Toronto, Ontario. Dobson had a love of music from an early age, taking singing lessons at the New Conservatory of Music in Agincourt. Dobson even recorded a few demos at the age of 11 and sent them off to record labels in the United States. However, before she was signed, she would be pushed into the R&B lane due to her being a Black girl, even though that wasn’t the type of music she wanted to make.  She even had Jive Records (now defunct) offer to make her into a pop/R&B star (which she denied). Soon after all of that occurred, Dobson happened to meet Chris Smith, who was Nelly Furtado’s manager at the time. Smith would end up helping Dobson showcase her talents to multiple labels around Canada, but the main label who’s attention she caught was Island/Def Jam. The song Dobson ended up choosing to showcase was “Stupid Little Love Song” off of her self-titled debut album and within about 30 seconds, she was officially signed to the label.

Stupid Little Love Song” (2003) by Fefe Dobson is a high energy punk track that is the complete opposite of what record labels originally envisioned for her. Dobson’s vocals are angsty and vibrant, yet smooth at the same time which match the vibe of the track. While the lyrical topics are the same as well… any stupid little love song you’d hear in the 2000s. Dobson’s vocal performance, the hook’s catchyness, and the instrumentation are able to gel together and create an enjoyable listening experience. This song is very 2000s, but it still manages to hold up well the more it ages. While this era was very successful for her hit-wise, she would go on to have more success in the industry as a songwriter, writing for pop stars like Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, and Jordin Sparks. Dobson is solidified in the industry and deserves her respect!

As I mentioned in the opening, these are only five artists and there are so many other Black women who have killed or are killing it in rock. However, these five women truly do stand out for me and I wanted to share a little bit of their stories, and my personal favorite songs from them. I hope I put y’all on to some new music or a new genre that you enjoy, and I strongly encourage y’all to keep looking into their catalogs and check out other Black rock musicians. Thank you for reading!

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