Being a Black, female music journalist, I have to admit that I've only written and published one article about a Black female musician in my entire career. Being an American journalist in general, it's very hard to be able to cover Black musicians that are not huge pop stars like Rihanna and Beyonce. I don't want to write about Rihanna and Beyonce! I want to write about women who paved the way for today's biggest African American female musicians.
Black female jazz and soul musicians have been composing and writing their own lyrics right along the best musicians, to have their songs covered by white male, British super groups, and becoming overlooked and unrecognized for their genius—except through royalties. Well, I'm excited to share a little about the Black female musicians from past and present who have had a huge impact on my life, and on American and European music culture. I put together a list of five female musicians who opened the doors for Black girls like me to become whatever we want. There are women in every generation who show us how to carry ourselves, and how to find and maintain self-worth in our art, careers, and lives. Black women rule! Black women are intelligent. Black women are leaders. Black women are artists, and Black women have had a hand in molding our musical culture to what it is today.
Here are five brilliant Black female musicians I love.
BETTY CARTER (May 16, 1929 – September 26, 1998):
I have a deep, bellowing, borderline obsession with Betty Carter. Betty was one of the best jazz improvisers and composers of the 20th century. She was a small-framed beauty whose musical legacy is larger than life. She's one of relatively few Black female jazz composers and had a fearless knack for musical experimentation. Artists like Billie Holiday and Etta James did not write their own songs, but Ms. Betty Carter not only wrote her own lyrics, but she also hand picked her all male bands, trained them, taught them her music, and lead them through her live performances.
She was so amazing at composing contemporary jazz music that she started a comprehensive jazz residency program for promising jazz students at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. The program is called Betty Carter Jazz Ahead and still exists today.
ABBEY LINCOLN (August 6, 1930 – August 14, 2010):
Abbey Lincoln is classy lady. She played in the 1956 film The Girl Can't Help It along side Sidney Poitier, wearing a dress Marilyn Monroe wore in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She won a Golden Globe and experienced great accolades, but I know Abbey mostly from albums recorded in the last years of her life. In the 1990s, Abbey had a 10-album contract with Verve Records and fulfilled the contract in her last days. The sensual, emotional and tantalizing songs that she released from the 1990s – 2010 are said to be her best work, even though she's been recording since 1957.
Abbey's voice had a softness and sensuality that had a touch of tomboy NYC style—it's unforgettable. Her music reflected wisdom, emotional complexity and a peacefulness that cannot be duplicated. Abbey is one of a kind.
BARBARA LYNN (January 16, 1942—):
Barbara Lynn (pictured at the top of this post) is the quintessential feminist queen of soul. Not only did she experience success with her debut 1968 single, You'll Lose A Good Thing", which is an amazing anthem of self esteem, but her music has been covered by Aretha Franklin and the Rolling Stones!
In the 1960s, most female blues artists were not writing their own music. Barbara wrote most of her music and played a badass Stratocaster electric guitar in a time where women when mainly female country stars were only playing acoustic guitars and banjos if they were playing their own instruments at all. Barbara Lynn was saucy, with a natural self-confidence that never came off as cocky. She was a self assured and beautiful musician who never complained about being different or held back.
SKIN (August 3, 1967-):
I learned about Skin while I was in a high school all girls choir called The Cantadoras. I was singing next to a bleach blond skater girl who looked over at me, and said, "You sing link Skunk Anansie!" Being a 16-year-old Black American girl, I had no idea who the female-fronted British metal band Skunk Anansie was. The second I got home from school, I jumped on Napster and listened to Skunk Anansie's songs, falling in love with the voice of lead singer Skin. Her voice is gorgeous, full, powerful, and painfully authentic. First, it was an honor to be compared to her, but it was her beauty and style that truly struck me.
Skin is also a brave and candid musical artist who has opened up about her journey of coming out as bi sexual woman. She is an amazing role model for strength and gives a touching and realistic tone to the realities of bisexuality.
KANDI BURRUSS (May 17, 1976 - ):
I know I'm going to get hell for this one—lots of people probably only know Kandi from her part on the reality TV series Real Housewife of Atlanta. But don't judge too harshly! She's single, raising a child on her own, and is an independently wealthy music industry powerhouse. Kandi was the first African American woman to win ASCAP's songwriter of the year. She wrote TLC's urban feminist hit, "No Scrubs" and the other famous urban feminist hit song, Destiny Child's "Bill Bill Bills." She's also worked with top country artist Martina McBride, showing her ability to write for and with women from different creeds and musical genres.
Kandi has been an amazing influence on me. While she's on a show that praises gold diggers, she's always maintained her independence in her music and in her personal life.
Read Bitch's related articles White Washed: Black Women in Rock and They Say I'm Different: Black Women Rockers Rev their Engines in Motor City.