Black Women’s Voices Are the Sound of Rock ’n’ Roll

Unending love and appreciation is the least we can offer pioneers like Big Mama Thornton and Tina Turner.

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Feb 16 2017, 4:30pm

Illustration by Brooklyn White

Of all the musical genres, rock 'n' roll has remained the most defiant and experimental. Infused with blues, gospel, jazz, and country, at the very root of its inception is the sound and rhythms of the black female voice. With an impact not recognized by history, black women's spines hold stories that books have never had the strength to carry. And within the pages of these encyclopedias is a narrative that pays homage to the foundational legacy of the black women who crafted the rock 'n' roll force.

The legacy of black women in rock when dutifully researched and studied is omnipresent. Their names, however, are erased from the forefront because sexism and anti-black racism would have you believe that rock 'n' roll was created by a down-on-his-luck, raspy-voiced white man. Elvis is largely regarded as the "King of Rock 'n' Roll," Eric Clapton has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame three times and Queen's Freddie Mercury is the name many throw into the ring when discussing unparalleled vocal pitch, control, and skill, paired with an unmatched stage presence. Yet before these men, at least two decades earlier, there was Big Mama Thornton on the harmonica, Sister Rosetta Tharpe jamming on the electric guitar and Bessie Smith channeling the blues that would become one of the pillars of rock. These black women were making waves when the world would have rather seen them drown.

As the lovechild of an innovative mix of African-American musical styles, rock 'n' roll is made up of many genres. Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88" is widely considered to be the "first" rock 'n' roll record, but it wasn't until Sister Rosetta Tharpe began playing gospel on an electric guitar that people were both scandalized and excited at the same damn time. She left the American population wholly unprepared to handle a creation whose reach would have a seismic impact on racial, gender, religious and cultural norms. The powerful, vibrating strokes of her electric guitar were a sinful hedonism, seen as a vulgar addition to the somber organ and the mellow piano notes of respectable Christian worship. Pre-Civil Rights America was also deeply entrenched in the respectability politics which African-Americans consciously and unconsciously imposed upon themselves as evidence of their human-ness. In the 50s, being an educated Negro wasn't enough to give your humanity value. One had to have a strong morality, bordering on pious. A suit and tie for the men and knee-length dresses, gloves and hats for the ladies. You had to have a political awareness that embraced the fallacy of the American dream and a patriotism that forgot the settler crimes of native genocide and slavery. To be an American Negro you had to be the perfect Negro, just to attain a fraction of the respect promised in an imperfect constitution.

Rock 'n' roll was the oil to the suffocating waters of that respectability. It was a startling and unwanted contrast to the blues notes and the gospel verses drenched in perpetual martyrdom and despair. It was a political statement that relied on dissonance to create conversations on the politics of space. Specifically, which and how much space can be claimed by African-Americans and through this a revolution was spearheaded by black women. Through rock 'n' roll, the world heard echoes of Negro spirituals, taking one back to the antebellum South as a reminder of the pain and strife black women had lived. When black women sang they became the guardians of their own autonomy and threw respectability to the wind, refusing to have their bodies and voices censored in any manner.  

Such were the actions of Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton, the first to record and release "Hound Dog," which has been credited as having a seminal impact on rhythm and blues. Prior to its release, R&B had been dominated by black, male blues artists namely T-Bone Walker, Louis Jordan aka "King of the Jukebox," and Charles Brown. Their songs talked about love, hearts broken by callous women and an acceptance of unrequited affections. Thornton delivered "Hound Dog" as an unforgettable hit that didn't speak about love, but instead called it out. She saw it as a tool used by unrepentant rolling stones posing as sincere lovers, but were actually up to no good.

You ain't nothing but a hound dog
Been snoopin' round the door
You ain't nothing but a hound dog
Been snoopin' round my door
You can wag your tail
But I ain't gonna feed you no more

"Hound Dog" was literally "boy bye," years before people started sipping lemonade and scalding their tongues with hot tea. Thornton made room for attitude in R&B, and her commanding vocals were comparable to those of blues legend Big Joe Turner, with both being powerful and rounded. As a woman, such vocal strength and clarity was unexpected, and it placed her at the upper echelons of rock royalty to be admired and serve as inspiration to Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. She used rock 'n' roll to show her spiritual fervour ("Sing out for Jesus") and simultaneously make us aware of her sexual prowess ("I want you to rock 'n' roll me, like my back ain't got no bone"). Rockin and rollin' for the Lord and rockin' and rollin' in the sack. A black woman did that and audaciously owned her narrative. Choosing to be both androgynous and feminine, Big Mama Thornton laid the groundwork for artists who would follow and engineer their own understanding of gender and sexuality in motion.

Alongside Etta James, Thornton personified the hard drinking, wild living, sexually liberated mantra of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle and as black women, such a ready embrace of unhindered freedom was revolutionary. Thornton's 1971 live performance of "Rock Me Baby," where she screams, shrieks, growls and howls to be loved more, to be loved harder, and to be loved all night, is liberation at its most potent.

The late American soul singer Jackie Wilson once said that "A lot of people have accused Elvis of stealing the black man's music when in fact, almost every black solo entertainer copied his stage mannerisms from Elvis." With this statement, Wilson fails twice; by not including the black women in music whose art was appropriated by white artists and by also stating that black artists copied Elvis. One of Presley's greatest hits was a cover of a Big Mama Thornton song. The 'King'  would have been quite mediocre were it not for the black women who pushed the boundaries that made space for him to be recognized as great.

There is a certain amount of rage in rock 'n' roll that white men have never been able to grasp in comparison to the many plights of women of color. That rage stems from the seemingly insurmountable hurdles cleared by black women who have been America's unappreciated caregivers for centuries. Thornton said, "My singing comes from my experience. My own experience. I never had no one teach me nothin'. I never went to school for music or nothin'. I taught myself to sing and to blow harmonica and even to play drums by watchin' other people! I can't read music, but I know what I'm singing! I don't sing like nobody but myself."
To be a "self" and not an extension of racist misconceptions is the comfort that was found by black female rockers. Chaka Khan boldly stated that she was "every woman," and Erma Franklin selflessly offered a piece of her heart to be broken and wrecked by an undeserving lover. Masochism at its most tender by women who knew how to be loved, bruised and ultimately survive.

Three decades after Thornton dazzled with "Hound Dog," another Southern diva by the name of Tina Turner released the critically acclaimed, quadruple Grammy-winning album Private Dancer. With a voice that still sounds like she swallowed shards of glass then washed them down with whiskey for a smooth but explosive finish, Turner was already a much loved and respected artist. But she hit her solo peak at a time when rock was now saturated with white male voices and sanitized of that roughness and grit that had characterized Big Mama Thornton and Tharpe's pioneering vocals. In the 80s, black female voices were being pigeon-holed into the pop category and only marketed as such. But the rock elements of Turner's vocals and performances were undeniable on hits such as "Proud Mary," "What's Love Got to Do With It," "Better be Good to Me" and "Let's Stay Together." Turner's concerts have also been digitally immortalized as musical Edens; glorious spaces of blissful nirvana. Her sets are renowned for their electrifying guitar and saxophone solos, razzle upon dazzle of outfits; dripping in sweat, sex and glamour, dance moves choreographed on the spot and a hairstyle that on its own is a moment.

Only a Jackson would once again bring black women to the pinnacle of rock, as Janet combined the genre with the soul, funk, and pop in her discography. "Pleasure Principle,"  "Rhythm Nation," "Together Again," and "All for You" are standout tracks from four of Jackson's albums that rejuvenated rock 'n' roll. Many of her songs were censored for their explicit lyrics which were deemed vulgar enough to warrant a Parental Advisory warning, with "Would You Mind" being banned in Singapore for its sexual content. Both Turner and Jackson subverted the expectations placed on feminine black bodies, capitalizing off their sex appeal without shame and dancing without inhibitions. Turner and Jackson's crossover success as both pop stars and rock gods also ensured that critics would always stumble and fail to categorize them as only one singular type of artist. That is as radical as rock has ever been.

To paraphrase journalist Doreen St. Felix, black women whose artistic inventiveness outpaces their peers and music executives by what feels like whole years will always be perpetually owed. To that end, rock 'n' roll owes a great debt to the genius works that came courtesy of black women: The creators, the movers and shakers, and the heart and soul of a genre that became one magnificent invention, from the liberal mixture of all things strong, black and beautiful. You are all deeply loved.

"What's love got to do with it?" Tina asked. Everything. Because unending love and appreciation is the least we can offer the black women who shrieked, screamed, growled and howled as they rolled while they rocked.

Tari Ngangura is a writer from Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.