Female artists are able to reach high levels of success as more than simple sex objects with catchy choruses. Stories from women across the spectrum are being told in increasingly unique ways, continuing to clear the path for this next generation of musically-inclined women to express themselves as they see fit.
From the negro spirituals of the 18th century to today’s conscious hip-hop voices, black artists have continually used music as a way to express their personal woes and the hardships and realities of those around them. Moving past an era of a super whitewashed music industry, with artists creating prosperous careers by leaching and remarketing musical styles created by their black counterparts (sound familiar?), seeing the genuine success of a black artist of any gender and in any genre is a win.
But as it is with most aspects of life, the battle black women go through is not the same as that of our men. While the age-old erasure and narrow marketing mold for black men in music is something to be discussed, the women also suffered from these phenomena plus other forces of discrimination.
Of the many contributions that the world attributes — mentally, if not vocally — to black culture, music is arguably one of the oldest and most notable pastimes we have. From hip-hop and rap, to rock & roll and jazz, music across the spectrum has roots in Africa and its diaspora. During the times of enslavement, freedoms that we had were very limited. Most forms of entertainment we have at our disposal today were not accessible, but something we did have was music. One of the few permitted forms of expression, it provided a sense of community and even just a slice of joy and hope during our lowest points. For many, music serves the same purpose today. All songs are therapeutic to each individual involved in the cycle of its life, from the lyricist and composers, to the listeners. We are able to express and relate to the most complex of emotions, honor various people and places, and raise awareness for less prevalent causes, all through a series of words, rhythms, and musical notes.
In 2009, former President Barack Obama proclaimed June African-American Music Appreciation Month in the U.S. (originally pioneered as Black Music Month by former President Jimmy Carter in 1979), in order to honor and appreciate the artists creating the fruits that have been a national staple since the beginning of time.
As in many industries, some of the biggest trailblazers in black music have been women. When on the topic of jazz and blues, for example, names like Bessie Smith, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday are all present in conversations and played large roles in popularizing these genres, as well as paving a way for women to be increasingly recognized and seriously regarded as singers, songwriters, and instrumentalists.
The R&B genre is a broad one; many artists and sub-genres fall under its umbrella, but the sonic and lyrical differences make for unique listening experiences with every artist. Neo-soul is one of my favorite sub-genres, and it’s characterized by a blend of — primarily — contemporary R&B and soul, as well as deeper lyrical content; one of its pioneers is Erykah Badu. Putting a more conscious spin on typical R&B ballads and releasing work of more afrocentric and sociopolitical subject matters, Badu gave mainstream birth to this style with her 1997 release of her debut album, Baduizm. As a lover of “vibe-y” beats coupled with thought-provoking lyrics, many of my favorite female artists make music that fits the neo-soul description, with SZA, Syd, Janelle Monae, and Alicia Keys to name a few.
From her first project up to her most current one, SZA’s sound has set her apart from other singers in her lane. Her recent project CTRL, which was released in 2017, earned her many nominations for awards such as best new artist, best album, and more from shows and groups like MTV, the NAACP, and the Grammys. However, I think many of her gems are housed in the projects released prior to the album. Her music blends elements of many different alternative genres that most wouldn’t think to combine with R&B or hip-hop sounds, and it makes for an airy, astral sound that is most prominent in her earlier works like See.SZA.Run (2012), S (2013), and Z (2014). This unique sound is the backdrop to stories about love, nostalgia, adulthood, and self-reflection.
Today, it seems if you aren’t Nicki or Cardi, you don’t get much of the spotlight as a female rapper. A couple of my favorites are Rapsody and Noname. Both more underground names, these two women are talented wordsmiths who provide deep insight on topics both personal and universal. While Rapsody has more of a “classic hip-hop” vibe, along with a broader discography, Noname’s raps — coming from only one mixtape, a few singles, and a multitude of featured verses — have a brighter, more soulful and jazzy sound attached.
All varying opinions aside, it’s just about impossible to talk about music in general without mentioning the multifaceted talent that is Beyoncé Knowles. After 20 years in the music business, she is just as, if not more, relevant than she was when she debuted. The numbers alone speak for themselves: Overall, she’s one of the best-selling artists in the world, regardless of race or gender. To name a couple specific accolades, in 2014, she was named the highest earning black artist of all time, and she has ranked high on various achievement lists from respected publications like Time and Billboard. Beyoncé has given us a wide variety of hits over the years, showing her vocal and artistic range, especially in her more recent projects like Lemonade (2016) and Everything is Love (2018), a joint project with her husband, Jay-Z.
It hasn’t been very long since we, as black women, have been able to share our happiness, pain, and passion-filled songs with the world. In 1920, not even a hundred years ago, Mamie Smith was credited as being the first black artist to sing on a blues record. Compared to the handful of classical female singers mentioned, how many men are credited with being 20th century greats? Because of the vast amount, the commercial successes of black women projects are so much more important than a superficial chart ranking or an award. It’s a nod to how far we’ve come (or are coming) in terms of making indelible marks in art and its history.
Even in an industry that is still so male-dominated, black women are continue to find routes to make waves both at the forefront and behind the scenes. Personally, I make it a point to seek out female artists when looking for something new, knowing that they don’t make it into the musical spotlight and distribution as often as males do, especially in the urban lanes. In the words of President Obama, black women in music have been “animating our bodies, stimulating our imaginations, and nourishing our souls” for years, and will continue to do so for years to come. In return, it’s our job as consumers and appreciators to support them and their crafts to fuel this ecosystem of shared experiences and creativity.
To listen to some of Fatou’s faves for black music month, click here.