Black women in the music industry  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Black American women in the music industry have made significant contributions over the years. Music has historically been a medium of expression for the African American community. The community's traditional music was carried to the United States via the slave trade and adapted while they worked on plantations, eventually developing into various genres such as the blues, rock, gospel music, Jazz, bluegrass, and many more popular genres we know today.

This legacy starts in the 1870s with the Fisk Jubilee singers, who toured with traditional spirituals, and continues with the blues, to classic jazz, and rhythm and blues.The Fisk Jubilee Singers were a mixed group who became popular throughout the world for singing traditional spirituals and touring both the United States and England. Sexist attitudes during the early 20th century made it difficult for African-American women to have a strong presence in mainstream music but despite this, many were still extremely influential in the genres of blues, jazz, and R&B.


Early Music and The Harlem Renaissance


The return of African American soldiers from World War I and the movement North of the Great Migration, both contributed to Harlem's rise as a hive of cultural and artistic activity known as the Harlem Renaissance, which is known as the flowering of music, poetry, and art in the Black community. Jazz was many African American artists way of expressing their feelings of pain, joy, and freedom. Jazz came to Chicago from New Orleans through southern migrants looking for work in the Northern Region, and by the end of the 1920's Chicago had become the major center of the jazz population. Jazz was a genre strongly dominated by men. Although female artists held a strong presence, their achievements were less celebrated. African-American women were not only jazz singers, but also instrumentalists. The piano was one of the first instruments that women played in jazz music, and this ability granted women a great degree of acceptance in the industry. Mary Lou Williams (1910 - 1981), was a popular Pianist, and she is sometimes known as one of America's best known and revered jazz women. Williams gained her first spot light in her home town, Kansas City, where she developed into one of the most "sought after pianists in Kansas City" sound, through her composition. It was because of her innovative writing techniques that Williams gained the opportunity to compose for many well known Jazz innovators such as Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington. Surprisingly Williams did not move into the New York Area until the early 1940's, it was during this time that a new style "bebop" was emerging, and she easily transitioned into composing music for this sub-genre of Jazz. She later went on to lead various women's music groups, and even founded one of the first Female - owned recording companies.

Due to unfair treatment of women, most could not make it in the industry as individual performers, but all women jazz bands and family-based jazz groups were popular. During World War II, many male jazz musicians were drafted to fight in the war, so all female bands had the opportunity to gain popularity. Some of these bands included Darlings of Rhythm and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

In later years, African-American women were able to succeed as individual singers. Some of the most successful including Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Lena Horne, and Billie Holiday. Ella Fitzgerald, known as “The First Lady of Song”, sold over 40 million records and won 13 Grammy Awards.


The blues came to the North as newly freed African Americans began to migrate from the areas surrounding Mississippi toward the bustling cities for work. Although no specific date is provided for the origin of the Blues, many believe that the roots of the blues generated from the songs of working Black slaves and life on the plantation.. The earliest instances of Blues performances were presented by songsters that would travel throughout the South, but there had yet to be any record presence for Black artists. The 1920s blues, known as the classic blues, was a genre largely popularized by the African-American women. Singers such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, and Ethel Waters were the most popular, each bringing something new and unique to the stage of American music.[2] Ma Rainey, referred to as the "Mother of the Blues", became popular in the early 1900s. Rainey was the first popular black female stage entertainer to incorporate authentic blues into her song selection. She is known for the “Jump Blues” which incorporated a racy and theatrical style, whereas Bessie Smith, who was known as the "empress of the blues” showcased the classic blues.

Unfortunately, as the male-dominated country blues grew in popularity, women fell out of the spotlight. During the blues revival, about 30 years later, Mamie Smith became the first black female vocalist to record a blues song. While “Crazy Blues” is cited as the first blues recording, it also represents the emergence of black female singers into popular music culture. Both black and white consumers purchased the record, and record company executives recognised it as a lucrative marketing segment.

R&B and It's Descendants


Soul and R&B have their roots in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. These genres focused on breaking down the barriers between black and white Americans. Most of the singers in this genre had Southern roots and sang in their churches. Artists in this genre include Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Bessie Smith, with the most well-known being Aretha Franklin. Aretha Franklin gained prominence in the 1960s. Franklin signed her record deal at the age of eighteen after singing at her church in Detroit. She was most successful working with artists whose background stemmed from gospel music. She chose to follow this path and reinvented herself landing five number one hits and a Grammy. In 1967 and 1968, Franklin reached commercial success recording more than a dozen million-selling singles.

Despite its role in popularising black culture, few black women participated in the rap and hip-hop culture of the 1980s.

Gangsta' Rap

A version of hip-hop emerged in the 1990s that transformed the upbeat music of earlier decades into a genre that glorified the violent lifestyle of America's inner cities, often romanticising poverty, drug use and drug dealing. This genre of music has been criticised for sexually objectifying black women. “Hip-hop scholars have argued that the sexual stereotypes of African American women found in music videos such as The Diva, Gold Digger, Freak, and Baby Mama-inform and reflect broader beliefs about black women’s sexuality”. The language used in modern rap music has been criticised for being demeaning to women, in particular for the prevalence of slang terms such as “bitch”, “hoe”, or “thot”.

Hip-hop feminism

Hip-Hop Feminism” has its roots in attempts to reclaim the positive position of black women in the music industry. It is concerned with how the conservative backlash of the 1980s and 1990s, deindustrialisation, the slashing of the welfare state, and the attendant gutting of social programs and affirmative action along with the increasing racial wealth gap, have affected the lived worlds and worldviews of the hip-hop generation.

Hip-hop feminism also aimed at reclaiming the sexualisation of black women as pleasurable and consensual. An example of hip-hop feminism that rose to fame through YouTube is the “Boss Ass Bitch” Rap, written by P.T.A.F. The message of “Boss Ass Bitch” is dynamic in its demonstration of the girls’ commitment to ingenuity. The rappers Kandi, K'Duce, and Alizé claim that by rapping they are redeeming the title of “bitch” and their sexualities. “Jillian and Anya did not aim to uphold Minaj and P.T.A.F. as the standard bearers of girl/woman of colour feminism, but as examples of practiced feminism, among many others, that should be engaged with complexity because they produce forms of pleasure that are so often vilified.”

Hip-hop feminism has had a political impacts with regards to the rights of women, African Americans, and the LGBT community. Because of this, hip-hop feminism has been largely shaped by a sociopolitical agenda. This has created a second and third wave of black American feminist artist, both of whom share a different argument through their songs. However, there are theoretical and practical linkages between the generations and their music.

One aspect of hip-hop feminism is its use of “the politics of respectability”, a term coined by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, which describes several strategies for progressive black female artists to more effectively promote a message of racial uplift and women's rights to a bigger audience. These methods largely regard notions of self-respect, honour, piety, and propriety. Respectability politics has been a useful way for improving conditions for African-Americans, by providing black female artist with a platform to talk about the de jure and de facto racist and misogynistic practices they experience.

More recently there has been an emergence of queer feminists of colour in hip-hop. One example of this is Me’Shell Ndegeocello, who made her debut in 1993. In her lyrics, Ndegeocello brings to the forefront the realities that the black community faces, such as abortion, low-income housing, and unfair US beauty standards. She begins by talking about her own black, queer experiences in her song, “Leviticus Faggot”, where she targets homophobia in her lyrics by directing the audience's attention to the misogynist and sexist violence that black men are subject to because of their sexual identity. You see this especially in the lyrics, “Cause the man kicked the faggot out the house at 16, Amen mother let it be, Before long he was crowned queen for all the world to see.” Ndegeocello's lyrics further explore her queer identity in desires in songs like “Mary Magdalene” and “Pocketbook”.

Angie Stone’s song “My People” sought to express that African Americans can be and are successful in American society. Not only is Angie Stone highlighting the potentially political nature of soul music, she also defies the most common notion of soul female singers adhering to lyrics regarding men and past relationships. Hip Hop soul allowed women to create an aesthetic that represented and engaged politics of sexuality and gender in working-class black communities. By allowing women in hip-hop soul to offer narratives that highlighted their multidimensional nature, they offered other black women experiences to relate to. Hip-hop soul initially limited the black female voice to that of relationships with men and what that impact has on them. The shift from women-centered hip-hop to women-centered as well as women-told hip-hop soul highlights the shift in previous perceptions of women within hip-hop culture.

Contemporary music industry

Today, female rappers are challenging male rappers' sexist lyrics and using rap lyrics to define an independent black female identity. Examples include Queen Latifah, Salt 'N' Pepa, MC Lyte and Eve, who criticise men who abuse and manipulate women. Even more women ( Beyoncé, Lauryn Hill, Rihanna, Alicia Keys, Kehlani, Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson and Zap Mama) use hip-hop as a platform to empower black women and other minorities around the world. Black women positioned themselves as an influential force in the music industry and an essential element within our nation’s popular culture.

Queen Latifah is one of the biggest influences in the music industry mainly because she came in at such a young age and has since transformed herself and is successful. She released her album, All Hail the Queen at a young age. The album had feminist themes and attracted a wide audience. She was the first female MC to ever go gold which paved the way for other women rappers. Black Reign was her most popular album and included her biggest single, U.N.I.T.Y, which won a Grammy for Best Solo Rap Performance.

Another independent contemporary music artist is Rihanna. She has won six Grammy Awards, eight American Music Awards, and twenty-two Billboard Music Awards. She’s the youngest solo artist to have 13 number one singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Rihanna created a foundation to help terminally ill children. She has also supported charities and foundations to help build a breast cancer screen and treatment centre. Rihanna was named 2017 Harvard University Humanitarian of the year.

Alicia Keys has been called a modern Renaissance woman. She has won 14 Grammy awards and has co-founded the Keep a Child Alive foundation. She started the foundation to make treatment available to people in Africa and to focus on children by supporting clinics that provided this treatment.

Kehlani who comes from the Bay was influenced by growing up in "the hood". She is openly bisexual and her music is about both male and female significant others. She is also multiracial.

Beyoncé Knowles has won 20 Grammys, and is the only artist in history to have all of her first six studio albums reach the top of Billboard's album charts. Knowles most recent work, Lemonade, contends with the issues black women face while living in America. For example, the song “Freedom” "which talks about blackness in America, includes amazing visuals of various fierce black women who proudly rock picked-out afros and other dynamic hairstyles in scenes that reflect and reaffirm black beauty”. The visual for “Freedom” contains powerful, moving images of black women who have lost black men in their lives, including Gwen Carr, Sybrina Fulton, and Lezley McSpadden, who are the mothers of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown, respectively.

Influence of music videos

Black women are both under-represented and discriminated against in music videos. The typical trends seen in current music videos are biased towards women, and especially women in colour. When comparing the most popular music videos, various studies have concluded that men are more likely to be the main character and background characters than women. In addition to this, white women are more often included as background characters over women of colour. When black females do perform in music videos, they are typically seen in the Eurocentric form of beauty: lighter skinned and thin. This specific image is what rap and R&B music videos are looking for, including those that portray black females as main or background characters.

Women of both white and black race are objectified as being the object of the male gaze: an object of sexuality for the pleasure of both the viewer and the male character or artist. The female’s sexuality is explicit through both their actions and style of dress; women are seen in revealing, tight clothing and most often performing sexual dance moves. Black women are seen as being more “open and free” with their sexuality, going along with the stereotype of hypersexuality of black females over white females, who are seen as being “civilized” and restrained with their bodies and sexuality.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Black women in the music industry" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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