6 Black Queer Women Who Made Waves in Music

By: Haillie M.

Ma Rainey

Ma Rainey around 1923 from the New York Times.
Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

If this name sounds familiar to you, it may be because Viola Davis recently portrayed her in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a critically acclaimed film that also starred the late Chadwick Boseman. Rainey performed with other musical powerhouses like Louis Armstrong and Thomas Dorsey, and went on to influence well-known artist Janis Joplin, as well as Black female political theory and art. She was written about by American political activist Angela Davis, and author Alice Walker drew on her life and her music for inspiration when writing The Color Purple. Musically, she perfected a vocal style that deeply moved audiences and spoke to elements of Black Southern life in the Post-Reconstruction period. As a performer, she took existing vaudeville elements and combined them with blues music tradition from the South to create music that resonated with a wider audience. This earned her the title “Mother of the Blues”.

Part of what made her music so powerful was her refusal to shy away from boundary-pushing topics like alcohol, life as a member of the working class, love, loss, and female sexuality. She dismissed heteronormative standards with notable swagger. She was an unmistakable presence on stage, dressing in expensive, elaborate clothing, wearing lots of jewelry and flashing gold teeth as she performed. She posed in a three piece suit for the cover art of “Prove It On Me” (1928), in which she sang, “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends / They must have been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men”. It’s clear the Mother of the Blues made waves and paved paths for many musical trailblazers that followed her. You can find some further reading here.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Sister Rosetta Tharpe performing from Rolling Stone.
Tony Evans/Getty

Tharpe is credited with pioneering the distorted electric guitar sound we all associate with rock and roll, and she had a huge outreach. Johnny Cash cited Tharpe as his favourite singer. Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Eric Clapton (three-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee), and Keith Richards (of the Rolling Stones) also list her as influences. She began singing in church, and later went on to do performances with prominent jazz and swing performer Cab Calloway. All of these influences were incorporated into her sound.

Her work in pioneering the distinctive rock-n-roll guitar technique led to her being regarded as the “Godmother of Rock and Roll”. Many LGBTQ+ figures prior to and in the 20th century didn’t go on record talking about their relationships and identities due to concerns about their safety. Tharpe already dealt with controversy in the gospel community due to her usage of secular-sounding music, and for the fact that she played guitar in the first place, which was considered masculine behaviour. In 1946, Tharpe met Marie Knight and began recording songs with her. Rumours circulated that the two were in a relationship, although neither ever confirmed it.

In 2018, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for being an Early Influence. More information about the Sister can be found here.

Alberta Hunter

Alberta Hunter, American singer from Britannica.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Alberta Hunter was a blues musician. She moved to Chicago at age 11, hearing that paid singers earned $10 a week. At first, she had to get a job at a boarding house where she earned $6 a week, as well as room and board. While employed there, she began to perform in small venues and eventually achieved great success, working her way up to performing in the Dreamland Ballroom, one of the most prestigious venues for Black entertainers at that time. Hunter was able to draw diverse crowds – both white and black people came to watch her perform. Hunter herself attributed this to a unique skill she had – she was able to make up lyrics on the spot that would appeal to her audience. In the late 1910s, Hunter toured in Europe, and had such a good experience there that she would later return with her partner Lottie Tyler. The two remained together until Tyler’s death.

Hunter continued to sing and record until her mother’s death in 1957, at which point she took a 20 year long break in her career to work as a practical nurse. After retiring, she returned to music at the age of 82 in the 60s, to bigger acclaim than she’d experienced in prior years! Hunter released four successful albums during this period, and continued to perform until shortly before her death. She was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2011. 

Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith poses for a portrait circa 1925 from NPR.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Bessie Smith is another woman on this list with quite the moniker – she is sometimes referred to as the “Empress of the Blues”. During the beginning of her career, she toured in a group with Ma Rainey, although as the latter was already a vocalist, Smith was more of a dancer. She had already developed vocal techniques of her own, but Rainey likely taught Smith a lot about crafting a stage presence. In 1913, she began a solo career with a two-sided record (One side, “Downhearted Blues”, was co-written by Alberta Hunter!). By the 20s, Smith had become the highest-paid Black entertainer and was touring in her own railroad car.

Smith’s honest depictions of Black working-class female sexuality, poverty, drinking, and racial tension often elicited discomfort from listeners. Even some Black audiences that felt her lyrics were not a “true representation” of the Black experience. According to Wikipedia, she was considered by many to be a “rough woman”. Her marriage was troubled due to infidelity, and Smith was known for cheating on her husband with female partners. These scandals inhibited her from acceptance in every circle, but Smith’s reach was still far. Rock star Janis Joplin made a contribution to pay for Smith’s tombstone almost 40 years after her passing. Ultimately, the Empress of the Blues’ musical talent and ability to ensnare an audience couldn’t be overshadowed.

Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday, 1939 from Vogue.
Getty Images

Holiday is known widely as one of the best jazz performers of all time, and earned a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for her influence in the genre. As a child, Holiday listened to recordings from musicians like Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, and began developing her own unique style over the course of her career, such as having gardenias in her hair. The most iconographic song of her career is the highly controversial “Strange Fruit”, a deeply moving song based on a poem about the lynching of Black men in the South. Holiday had an affair with actress Tallulah Bankhead in the late 40s.

Unfortunately, over the course of her life, Holiday suffered a number of personal tragedies, including relationships with abusive men and substance abuse. After the release of the “Strange Fruit”, Holiday became a target of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) which was then headed by a known racist. Over the years, the FBN persecuted Holiday and did their best to suppress her career, but her impact on the industry is undeniable. Frank Sinatra said it best when he called her “unquestionably the most important influence on popular American singing in the last twenty years”.

Gladys Bentley

Gladys Bentley: America’s Greatest Sepia Player—The Brown Bomber of Sophisticated Songs by an unidentified photographer, 1946-1949 (NMAAHC) from Smithsonian Magazine.

During the Harlem Renaissance, Gladys Bentley was a remarkable figure, a cross-dressing Black lesbian entertainer who sung the blues and played piano while wearing a tail coat and a top hat. Her bold performances included flirting with women in the audience, singing about “sissies” and “bulldaggers”, performing with a chorus of drag queens, and blending different genres of music to elevate her comedic, raunchy performances. Unlike similar performances of the time, Bentley did not bill herself as a “male impersonator”, she fully embraced female masculinity on stage and lived her life as an open lesbian, enjoying a fair amount of success.

Unfortunately, as the years went on, persecution and laws against LGBTQ+ people and queer expression grew stricter. Bentley began to have to carry a license to perform in male clothing to counter the “three-piece rule” (in which women had to wear three articles of ‘female attire’ or else be arrested for cross-dressing). Near the end of her career, when the McCarthy era struck and fears of socialism, communism, homosexuality, and general social ‘Others’ were in full force, Bentley claimed to have been “cured“, but not before shaking the waters, inspiring and empowering generations of LGBTQ+ people, and making quite the impact on the Harlem Renaissance.

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