10 Black Female Rock Singers That Changed the Game
If you have a love for rock music, then you’re in luck, as we’re going to be counting down our favorite black female rock singers that changed the landscape in the music industry forever. So let’s get started!
Black Female Rock Singers You Will Love
Let’s first begin by discussing some of the pioneers in rock that paved the way for those that came after them.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Our origin story begins with Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Born 1915, she made her mark on rock music between the 1940s and the 1960s with her first-of-its-kind gospel sound. Tharpe took the traditional sound of Gospel and gave it an energetic electric guitar twist using her Gibson Les Paul.
Rosetta paved the rock and roll way by incorporating the proficiency of electric guitar into the spiritual compositions she performed. Despite the impressive feat of being a self-taught, unquestionably talented black musician in a segregated country, Rosetta’s talent was instead compared to that of male musicians of the time, stating that she “played as well as a man” (and yes, men actually thought this was a compliment).
The opinions of other did not slow this musical mastermind down. In 1944, Rosetta recorded her hit song “Strange Things Happen Every Day” which would turn out to be one of the most influential records in rock and roll history. Her hit single would start by hitting number two on Billboard’s “Race Record Charts” (charts designated for black-only music at that time), but it wouldn’t stop there.
One year later, that record would move on to be considered a foundational predecessor to rock and roll music, eventually coming to completion as rock and roll’s very first record ever. A huge moment in history for both the music industry and the black community alike, and yet, not many people know this.
To say that Rosetta was ahead of her time would be a sincere understatement to her natural genius and drive. Many famous artists have given influential recognition to Rosetta’s groundwork; Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Johnny Cash, to name a few. However, the men that followed in Rosetta’s footsteps preceded her with inductions into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, despite Rosetta’s original influence on their music.
Rosetta was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018: 32 years after Little Richard and Elvis Presley, 26 years after Johnny Cash, and 45 years after her death. A clear demonstration that race and gender play a role in the success of black female singers, particularly in the rock industry.
This monumental woman was a gift to the rock music industry and deserves recognition for her contributions. For a distinct example of her musical ability in both vocals and guitar, check out her song “Savior Don’t Pass Me By” and enjoy getting lost in recorded rock history.
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Another huge name in the development of rock and roll is LaVern Baker. Her bold attitude, commanding presence, rich and addicting vocal range, and slightly taboo song lyrics, made LaVern a name in rock music you won’t want to miss out on.
LaVern’s distinct vocals are hard to miss. Her vocal style ranges from grating, low, and abrasive, with the adaptability to transition into a smooth, soothing vibrato in her slower songs.
LaVern’s influential presence became insatiably attractive to hungry rising stars in rock and roll such as Elvis Presley, whose career was built upon the creativity of black artists. Elvis went on to cover 8 songs in Baker’s repertoire, making the King’s success a clear derivative from under recognized Queens like LaVern Baker.
While Elvis Presley was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, LaVern wouldn’t see her induction until 1991. LaVern was the second woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, preceding the incredible Aretha Franklin.
LaVern’s domineering personality, strength, and pure musical expertise is evident in every song she recorded. I highly recommend checking out her historically controversial song “Think Twice.” This song would never make the radio at the time it was released due to its explicit and raunchy lyrics. However, you can now find it playing, in all its unedited glory, on music streaming apps.
If raunchy is not your taste, you can also check out LaVern Baker’s song “Empty Bed Blues,” which is a great song for those slow drag, smokey whiskey bar feels.
With a firm foundation in gospel music, Aretha’s musical career started in Tennessee at just 12 years old, the same age she birthed her first child. This active year of her life would kickstart her career, shaping genres throughout the industry.
The career of Aretha Franklin would earn her an abundance of awards and recognitions including, but not limited to, a Lifetime Achievement Award, a Legend Award, and a Pulitzer Prize Special Citation. In addition, Aretha Franklin is the first women inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Aside from becoming a mother to a child when she was just a child herself, Aretha endured many personal hardships throughout her career, but she never let it show in the public eye. Aretha was made from the salt of the earth, taking her experiences of loss and abuse, and transcending them into musical jet fuel.
Her 1967 number one hit single “Respect” embodies the demand for basic human decency and caught fire amongst civil rights and feminist movements. Originally written as a patriarchal anthem by Otis Redding, Aretha took the song and reworked it almost from the ground up, shaping it as a female empowerment theme song. Just another way Aretha demonstrates intelligence and poise in the face of adversity.
No genre was off-limits to this music powerhouse. Breaking barriers of racism and sexism, Ms. Franklin took the grace of gospel and paired it with a diverse vocal range, and changed the shape of rock music for years to come.
I highly recommend Aretha’s song “Spanish Harlem” for a beautiful lyrical depiction of her highly inclusive, loving disposition. This song also demonstrates Aretha’s wide range of vocal abilities.
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Born Jamesetta Hawkins, Etta James’ life did not pan out to be an easy one. A child to the foster care system, Etta faced abuse beginning as early as 5 years old, which continued into adulthood alongside addiction and incarceration.
After starting her career in 1955, Etta proved her musical versatility by producing music in the form of doo-wop and R&B, pop and gospel, then soul, jazz, and finally rock and roll. Her deep, coarse voice along with her shamelessly sexual lyrics makes Etta an icon for both music and feminism. In terms of music, she bridged the gap between R&B and rock and roll with her deep, earthy contralto pipes, and simultaneously used her public platform to sing about men and sex in a favorable light.
Etta James did so much for the rock music industry, and yet she is considered the most overlooked R&B and blues musician in US music history. Credit was not given until the early 1990s, despite being a major influence on popular artists in both the US and Britain.
Etta has since been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993, the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999, and the Blues Hall of Fame in 2001.
Of her vast repertoire, two of my personal favorites are “Watch Dog” and “Ain’t No Pity in the Naked City.”
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Tina Turner demonstrates a take-no-prisoners music style with her deep, raspy vocals, and her timeless rockstar hairstyles. What better name for a woman of her caliber than The Queen of Rock and Roll.
Tina’s success is a direct reflection of her fearlessness and persistence. She takes the genre head on with flare and confidence, regardless of the rough road that led her to stardom.
In the beginning of her career, she performed in the group Ike & Tina Turner with her then husband and music partner, Ike Turner. During that chapter in her career, she gained recognition for her music, but endured abuse and jealous rage from her husband behind the scenes. After finally escaping the toxic marriage, she was left with nothing but her name and her talents, surviving on performances at Las Vegas nightclubs.
Tina restarted her career at age 40—and boy did it take off! Her debut album Private Dancer showcased her Grammy award winning song “What’s Love Got to Do with It” kickstarting a long-term successful career as a solo rock-style singer. Tina’s grating, powerful vocals shine through in true rock fashion throughout her career, making the massive accomplishment of female rock stardom appear effortless.
Growing her career to the best-selling recording artist of all time is no small feat, but no challenge is too great for the queen. Tina also landed the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, making her not only the first black artist to do so, but also the first female to do so. As if that’s not impressive enough, Tina broke the Guinness Book of World Records for having the largest paying audience for a solo performer, as well as becoming a two-time inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Tina Turner deserves a massive amount of respect and is someone we can all look up to. I highly recommend her song “Rock Me Baby” to hear that timeless bluesy beat.
You know you’re listening to one of the more unique black female rock artists ever when she begins a song by screeching at the top of her lungs, “he was a biiiiiig freak!”
That energy and passion describes some the amazing music produced by Betty Davis. A woman who not only held her own in rock music, but blended funk and a variety of other genres into her repertoire, Davis no doubt left the world of music in a better shape than she found it.
Davis’ album titles were just as unique as her artistry and wardrobe. Song titles like “He Was a Big Freak” or “Your Mama Wants Ya Back” or “Don’t Call Her No Tramp” are eye catching and evocative.
One of the best things about Betty Davis’ vocal performance is that, well, you just never knew what you were going to get. She could hit you with high intensity on one song, and the very next track be completely laid back and super mellow. That kind of versatility made Davis a standout.
A former wife of jazz musician Miles Davis, there’s no doubt that a modern day artist like Janelle Monae feels like spiritual successor to the great Ms. Davis.
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The Daughters of Rock
Multiple black female rock singers can be found in the music scene today, demonstrating their abilities within modern rock sub-genres of metal, punk, alternative, and nu-metal despite the still common challenges of being black and female.
There’s rock music, and then there’s punk rock music; and no one does punk rock better than UK star Poly Styrene.
Poly demonstrates clear punk rock talent, all while avoiding the typical male-approving sex appeal expected of female musicians in the 70s. In fact, Poly’s music is credited as being a major influence on the Riot Grrl Movement, a 90s founded underground feminist movement addressing rape, domestic violence, racism, and patriarchy.
In her “DayGlo” wardrobe style, Poly broke the mold of punk rock in 1976, becoming the first of her kind as a biracial female punk singer in a male dominated industry. Noted as folk music of her own creation, Poly started her career at 19 with her Sex Pistols inspired band, X Ray Spex. The band broke up around 1979, leading Poly to her own solo career between the 80s to early 2000s.
Poly passed in 2011, and is succeeded by her daughter Celeste Bell, who went on to co-write and direct a documentary on her punk rock mother called Poly Stryene: I Am A Cliché.
When listening to Poly’s punk rock songs, it’s hard to deny her feminist against-the-grain attitude. Check out her song “Code Pink Dub” for an example of Poly’s progressive, anti-government style.
Alexis Brown rocks the metal scene in her band Straight Line Stitch.
In an industry already hard up for female vocalists, Alexis claims her spot in the metal scene with her combination of angelic singing and rageful screaming in 2003.
Brown’s raw talent isn’t the only reason she deserves your respect. As a kid, Alexis grew up playing the cello and violin, with hopes of one day making it as an R&B singer. Her background in music spans genres and sub-genres, but as a child she believed her musical options were limited due to her gender and skin color. Thanks to the introduction of heavy metal music by her stepfather and brother, Alexis decided to take her talent beyond the limitations of the dominating gender and expand into metal music.
Unfortunately, Straight Line Stich has not released any new music in a handful of years, but you can still hear Brown’s impressive vocal talents in her older stuff. I highly recommend her song “Black Veil” for a truly metal experience.
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Originally known for her lead vocals in the Alabama Shakes, Brittany Howard went on to pioneer her own rock sound as a solo artist in 2019.
Born in Athens, Alabama, Brittany learned how to play piano and write poetry at a very young age, thanks to her older sister Jaime (who would later inspire the title of Brittany’s first album). This impressive creative groundwork would lead her to pick up a guitar at age 13.
Brittany has made quite a statement in the rock world, encompassing the ways of her foremothers, Sister Rosetta and Queen Tina, as she spans the depths of her vocal range and instrumental abilities. Howard’s solo music is truly poetic.
Brittany’s first solo album took the familiar sound of alternative/indie music, and infused it with hints of soul, R&B, and gospel. Throughout the album, your ears are met with truly unique rock sounds, making you feel energized and relaxed all at once. The lyrics maintain a spoken word type style that will have you nodding along in agreement as she sings.
The blended, transitional sounds of Jaime are a true reflection of Howard’s authenticity. During her writing process, Brittany admits her struggles with indecision towards the overall album vibe, making it a product of real life, in-the-moment organic feelings.
One of my personal favorite songs by Brittany is her song “Georgia” for its smooth jazzy vibes and incorporation of classic gospel organ around the two-minute mark.
Brand new to the rock scene is Nu-Metal singer Stormi Maya, lead vocalist of the group Cinnamon Babe.
While she mostly performed rap and hip hop in the beginning stages of her music career, Stormi recently made massive social media waves in the rock scene. With the release of “Rock and Roll is Black,” Stormi lit up forums across the internet, including platforms like TikTok.
Commentary from the rock community was instantaneous, bringing to light that the dominating stance within rock music culture is still quite racist, and quite sexist. Many keyboard warriors attempted to argue that rock music is the “most inclusive genre in the music world” which could have worked, if they weren’t simultaneously denying that it came from African American history. Arguments such as this led me to wonder if they had any knowledge regarding the ladies at the beginning of this article.
In addition to the lyrical backlash, Stormi has faced criticism for her outward appearance as well. Starting her career as a model and actress, her body positive and fashion forward clothing is far from the cliché antichrist attire seen on most rock artists. This visual contradiction to her rock sound seemingly confuses residents of the rock community into pure frustration. A fact I find odd considering the ears do not need the eyes to hear.
It’s funny (and downright sad) to see how a black female singing rock music about her history and culture makes people so disturbed, uncomfortable, and angry. Stormi’s repertoire of songs is limited, but I highly recommend checking out her song “Rock and Roll is Black” and hearing the power and truth that resonates in her vocals.
As we’ve seen throughout this article, history is no stranger to discrediting black female rock singers and putting their acknowledgements on the back-burner. While there is still a long way to go, the black female rockers of today continue to challenge the systemic oppressive mentality that continues within the rock music system; and they do so by staying true to themselves while playing the music they love.
As the journey continues, I look forward to seeing more black lady rockers make history and take up the much deserved space of the rock music airwaves.
This article was written by Paige, with one addition by Michael (Betty Davis).
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