As a kid, in the way that other kids love sports or are certain that they’re going to be a movie star someday, I became preoccupied with music that other people made, and how their ideas eventually became a tape in my Walkman. Growing up in a small town in north Florida, I had an acute sense that people lived very differently in other places, and felt that the more I listened, the closer I was to figuring out different ways of living and learning from other people.
My mother would humor me—I remember being very small and us both dancing around the living room to the new Klymaxx and Sheila E. records she’d brought home. Eventually she began to realize that my fascination wasn’t just a passing thing—this was something else entirely, and she left me to it. I spent most of my waking hours listening to the radio, begging someone to drive me to the mall so I could buy music or blank tapes, watching videos, reading books and magazines about music and daydreaming about what it must be like to be a musician. After a while, I didn’t even want to be the musician—I wanted to be the person who helped make the musical idea become a tangible thing that other people could either watch on television, or pick up and listen to.
Two things continually began to stand out to me as I listened and watched: Most of the black women performing who looked like me—had my same complexion, same hair—all seemed to be very glamorous, but singing about love lost or gained. I also heard very few songs that seemed to reflect the lived experiences of the women raising me—Donna Summer came close with “She Works Hard for the Money,” but I needed more. Soon, most of these performers began to represent one big blur; I started losing interest because what I was hearing didn’t speak to anything familiar to me.
I knew that there were other women who were musicians, and they weren’t following this same script. Joan Jett was singing about her bad reputation, Cyndi Lauper focused on the fun girls tend to have among themselves—and Tina Weymouth wasn’t singing at all because she was focused on playing her instrument. These women were adventurous, and they seemed to be in charge in their own way.
I wondered: how come none of the women who looked like me were visibly/audibly doing these same things? Even more importantly, why did it seem as if our contributions were only viewed as important once they’ve made someone else successful? I’d often read articles about Whitney Houston, but Clive Davis was mentioned at every turn. Mentorship and management aside, I kept thinking, “If she’s the one with the voice breaking the records, why do they keep mentioning this guy? Does the business machinery behind the artist have to mean more than the life of the music itself? And do other artists get this same kind of treatment?”
I wondered: how come none of the women who looked like me were visibly/audibly doing these same things? Even more importantly, why did it seem as if our contributions were only viewed as important once they’ve made someone else successful?
Actively thinking about these questions served to be an early lesson for me, helping me to understand that visibility and representation do matter. I started looking for music in other places; while it was clear that none of the indie rock artists I liked shared much in common with me in terms of race, class and sometimes gender, I could still appreciate what I heard because of the validation the music itself continually gave me. While there was a sense of empowerment and agency that came along with listening, I still felt a strong need to see other black people who shared a similar love of music that, culturally speaking, our peers might not necessarily embrace or care for.
How—and where—we see people like ourselves can determine the paths that we choose as individuals. Having one’s work be regarded and respected by people who share their background and experiences is huge, particularly if it’s not readily viewed as being culturally valuable or economically viable. All of these elements can mean the difference between someone taking a chance on a dream or merely settling for what’s expected of them. None of this was lost on me as a kid, and it still rings true now—most specifically as it relates to modern, independent music.
We all know that racism and sexism are prevalent throughout the entertainment world, and can be found in any music scene. Further, there’s a significant amount of aggression brought into spaces where black women are making efforts to be seen and heard; this becomes more pronounced if any degree of weirdness or otherness is perceived. Contextually speaking, in situations where black male musicians have been championed for their weirdness (George Clinton, Jimi Hendrix, Bad Brains), black women have been dismissed out of hand as merely being strange (Grace Jones, Betty Davis)—no matter if our respective creative outputs hold the same weight, and no matter that we too bring the totality of who we are to the work that we do.
Today, women are having conversations with audiences that we haven’t been privy to before. Artists are lyrically and visually seeking inroads toward independence, agency, and their need to address current issues. We’re seeing greater numbers of female artists producing their own beats, writing their own songs, leading their own bands, and even pursuing new directions in terms of performing. Most importantly, these women are directly involved in processes that dictate how they and their work are consumed on a mass scale. Increasingly, the artists at the forefront of these changes are black women—and I’m here for it.
There seems to be more room to do this within the realm of independent music; as such, you have to know where you’ve been in order to get where you’re going. Here are a few prime examples of black women artists who have sidestepped any contextual boundaries that people have attempted to place on their work—and who continue to serve as inspiration to other women who would readily do the same.
They broke the mold the day Poly Styrene was born. An operatically trained Londoner of Somali descent, Poly left home in her early teen years, roaming from one music festival to another. After seeing the Sex Pistols perform on her nineteenth birthday, she felt she could improve upon what she heard and went on to found the band X-Ray Spex. The band’s lyrics held nothing back, taking on everything from anti-capitalism, being stifled by patriarchal society and identity politics. Poly’s provocative lyrics grabbed the imagination of the press, and the band’s energy put their peers on notice. Hearing Poly and her band as a teenager gave me the feeling that maybe my voice counted for something too—and the joy she took in appearing unconventional served as a sort of map. I’m not the only one—artists such as FKA Twigs have cited Poly Styrene as a direct influence on their creativity.
Betty Davis wrote songs that made her toughest male peers cower, caused religious groups and political organizations to boycott her, and made other women—namely myself—want to prowl like her. Having written songs with titles like “Game Is My Middle Name” and “If I’m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up,” her independent streak was clear from the beginning. She moved to New York City as a teenager, studying at the Fashion Institute of Technology and modeling. While the latter career proved to be successful, she began songwriting for such acts as The Chambers Brothers. She soon found herself leading her own band, recording three albums that eventually reached cult status – unapologetically owning the way she presented herself and her music, her right to sexual expression and personal agency in the process. A documentary is currently being filmed about her life and work.
Seeing Neneh Cherry appear on my television in 1989 was a shock. Who was this tough lady taking some guy to task through a catchy rhyme? Why did I want her clothes? How was she from England, but managed to kinda sound like my cousins? I don’t know—but the more I heard, the more I wanted to learn. She took the totality of her life experiences and made musicianship look FUN, like a walking, rhyming party. She even formed a band with her husband and daughter, and they tour as a family. Recent years have seen her continue to expand her sound by collaborating with artists like Four Tet and Rocket Number 9. Seeing her create in ways that worked for her showed me that work doesn’t have to stop just because your life keeps changing shape—I don’t think that artists like M.I.A. or Santigold would argue.
When I first encountered FKA Twigs’ clip for “Papi Pacify”, I wasn’t really sure what to think—but by the time I finished EP 1, I was the one who was thirsty for more. I kept listening and following her work, and was surprised to find that most of the music she created was rooted in her love of choreography and dance. Because very little music fit the choreography work that she wanted to do, she began collaborating with producers, and eventually producing music on her own. For me, this was revelatory in the sense that it drove home the idea of being able to be and create what you need to see in your own life.
Last year, she told Rookie:
“I feel like I know exactly what I want, and no one can tell me to do anything I don’t want to do or pose in a way I don’t like or make a song or write something I don’t want to. I guess I got to the point where it’s all me, and only I am to blame, and that feels really great. And if something goes wrong, I am to blame as well—it was my stupid decision, you know what I mean? It feels great! To know that everything is of yourself. Every single decision that I’ve made to become the artist that I’ve become is because I really know what I want, I’m really ambitious, and I really want to be in charge of everything creatively.”
Big Freedia, along with collaborators Katy Red and Sissy Knobby, took a regional form of rap and dance specific to New Orleans—bounce—and gave it a global presence, simultaneously celebrating queerness, wholly controlling how their identities were presented throughout the process and rightly calling into question how we define who, exactly, is identified as a black woman. As someone who grew up in this same part of the world, I have a keen awareness of just how hyper-communal Southern black life can be, and having the courage to assert your right to be who you are within that space takes a hell of a whole lot of bravery.
Jerilynn Patton, who records as JLin, spends her days working at a steel mill and producing complex electronic music during her off hours. Initially influenced by Chicago’s footwork scene, her work changed completely when her mother questioned the need to rely on the use of samples in her music. She quickly forged her own way forward, subverting conventional ideas about what worked musically. As a result, her sound boldly stood out in a genre of music largely assumed to be created by men—and inspired the likes of Rick Owens. Earlier this year, she spoke with FACT Magazine about her process, and perception of her work:
“A person delivers what they can, regardless of gender. Most people assume I’m a guy when they hear my music. When they find out I’m a girl they’re surprised. That’s the most common thing I get, this shock response. I guess my music has a boldness that’s very male, but there’s still a feminine essence in there, too…those two things work together to make the sound that I want. As far as me being a woman, it’s just something people have to accept or not. If it can help the next one behind me, or even in front of me, that’s great. The more women come out and get involved, the less it’ll become awkward and uncomfortable to talk about it.”
JLin’s points here spoke to me on a lot of levels, but primarily put me in a space of wanting to ask: Can we create, innovate and inspire one another first, and then worry about placing things in a context that other people find relatable?
Have you ever heard an artist whose voice taps into something so visceral that it moves you to consider doing things you wouldn’t ever think about doing, to forget time, place, manners and all the menial bullshit? Every now and again you come across music that seems to be made purely for the joy of creating it, without care for whether anybody else can relate. If you listen to either of Brittany Howard’s bands—Alabama Shakes or Thunderbitch—you will likely find yourself in such a state, as I did. Through her musicianship, Howard effortlessly channels Saturday night’s sins, managing to turn them into Sunday morning’s salvation as she performs. It is a mix of unbridled debauchery, adoration and redemption all at once. Listening to both projects left me with a strong understanding of the need we have to sometimes let joy and desire rule relentlessly – and how rarely we as black women let ourselves do that.
In hearing Valerie June’s voice for the first time, it felt like I was hearing someone channel ages of what black women have experienced. Here is someone taking traditional forms of music that you aren’t ever going to hear on urban radio, bending them to fit her voice and her will, all while reflecting our lived history back at us. Simply put, hers is a rich voice that tells of enduring, persevering and winning. I feel like that’s our lived experience – and I listen to her work when I need a reminder that all three of those things are possible.
It’d be easy for me to issue a challenge to everyone listening, but I’m saving this song request for all the weird black girls across the diaspora. Show up. Show out. Make your voice heard at every opportunity because it may be the one thing that makes a difference in how we all are perceived—and subsequently paid for the things we love, the things that speak loudest to us. Black girls weird, normal, and in-between—I see you. I know that you’re listening, and I know that you’re watching. We all need to hear you in stereo.