The Irrepressible Truth of Black women in music

By: Juan Miguel Martinez

Modern music is an awe-inspiring thing, a being of its own depth. It is directly irresponsible for the way it can either evolve or collapse. It can meld with other styles, be a completely innovative sound or fall into obscurity, only to be discovered in a record store years later like a relic in an archeological site. What happens mostly is that music is marketed on its ability to sell as opposed to the skill it will display and the craft it has mastered. Women are treated as caricatures in the mainstream consciousness and most don’t make it because they are not perceived as sexual enough or will not inject reminders of a man’s prowess in any field, of any kind of universe. Black women are always treated like this, with absolutely no room for growth or space for artistic expression that doesn’t have a dollar value on it. When black women are going to do anything outside of this, they better be at least light skinned, because America will treat a dark-skinned woman as a niche category instead of a person, even if they have something important to say.  There are songs that I have shown people that are completely absent from anyone’s radar, and should be heard.

Geeshie Wiley 

Geeshie Wiley

Not much is known about Geeshie Wiley, and her catalog is limited. She is considered among most blues historians as “quite possibly the greatest blues singer that ever lived.” She is the stuff of legends, with an aura that mirrors the stories of Robert Johnson. She was born somewhere in Louisiana in 1908 and passed away somewhere in Texas in 1950. The songs she sang express a calamitous loss that has not been illustrated before or since with such purity. It is possible she was born Lillie Mae Boone, and no known photographs of her exist. America, particularly the south was not too inclined to help a woman who wanted to sing, so she traveled north to Grafton, Wisconsin, where people like her were allowed to record and purchase vinyl copies of their songs. Yes, Grafton as in “40 minutes from Milwaukee” Grafton. There are many theories about who she was, and what she did throughout her life. It is rumored she “stole” Memphis Minnie’s husband away and was the cause of the divorce between Minnie and him. While It is confirmed she did exist, the idea of Geeshie could not be created.

Recommended Listening – “Last kind word blues”, “Skinny Leg Blues”, “Over to my house

La Chat

La Chat

 I first saw La Chat on MTV. She sat in a caddy, offering rebuttal to Project Pat’s accusations that girls be trippin’ and are nothing but some “chicken-heads”. The song itself was a seeming send up of arguments through song that the south was known for. “Tramp” by Otis Redding and Carla Thomas was released back in 1967 and was an argument between a male and female, the male talking about how he is a dope dude. The female response was that he wasn’t as cool as he thought he was, and it made him insecure as the song progressed. La Chat continued the trend of Carla Thomas, a strong woman who cut men down when trying to flex an undeserved status. Born Chastity Daniels, she made her name in the Three Six Mafia camp. La chat had a full catalog that included collaborations with other female rappers including Gangsta Boo. She never shyed away from talking about her love for drink, sexual needs that she requires in a man, or busting caps. She is truly her own and separated herself from her contemporaries such as Lil’ Kim. When Lil’ Kim came on the scene, she attempted to talk about hardcore street life, but Biggie Smalls steered her in a different direction. He advised her that people want to hear a woman talk about sexy shit when rapping, not a girl “acting like a man”. La Chat didn’t look like any stars of the 90’s, she didn’t dance and she didn’t compromise her lyrics. She is my favorite female rapper ever.

Recommended Listening – “Buss it”, “Slob on my cat”, “Baby Mama

Omara Portuondo

Omara Portuondo

An ex-girlfriend introduced me to the swirling magic that is Omara Portuondo. She is an integral part of the Buena Vista Social Club, a collective of Cuban artists, mostly musicians. An Afrolatina woman, she has remained nonplussed at the pressures of success and always maintained her spirit. She was born in 1930 and at age 90, keeps going in true spirit of a musician’s work ethic. Born in Havana in an economically depressed situation, Omara saw it all. She started as a dancer in the Cabaret Tropicana in 1950, not too long before the fall of the Batista regime where the mob was chased out of Cuba. It was they who owned the Tropicana, and made no effort to hide their illegal activities. She sang in an Orquesta at the beginning of her career. The lush arrangements of big band laid the foundation where her vocal did its pirouettes. There was no better vehicle, though acapella would be a revelation. She revered Ernesto Guevara and the people of Chile for leading an uprising led by Pinochet, making her beliefs known. She never left Cuba and continues to sing to this day.

Recommended Listening – “Donde estabas tu”, “La sitiera”, “Alma de Roca

Elizabeth Cotten

Elizabeth Cotten

Here is a woman who was the child of slaves, born only 5 years after emancipation. Musical instruments were scarce in the south, particularly in North Carolina, where Elizabeth was from. She took what she could get, and took to the guitar naturally. She was a self-taught, left-handed guitar player who learned to play on a right-handed guitar. This caused the position to be upside-down for her, where she played the bass with her fingers and the melody with her thumb. “Libba” created a style that was uniquely hers, and sang with a subdued wail that illustrated themes of love, death, and everything in between. Her catalog is pretty big considering how hard it was to get recorded in rural areas that had limited access, particularly to black women. She worked as a maid for most of her life and didn’t get much recognition until she was in her 60’s. She left behind songs that will sit with you and sing you through your woes with a raspy, sometimes off-key warble. Peter, Paul and Mary and the entire folk scene owe a lot here.

Recommended Listening – “Freight train”, “Vastopol”, “Oh babe it aint no lie”

Did we miss anyone? Let us know, let us know on Facebook or Twitter.

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