In appreciation of Black Music Month, we are celebrating phenomenal female pioneers in music. Women of color have been blazing trails in the music industry for over a century. The women highlighted in this article are barrier breakers and innovators each in their own right, never to be forgotten.
1. Giving rise to rhythm and blues and rock and roll, blues is an African-American genre of music born in the south that encompasses a wide range of emotions and musical style. Known as the ‘Mother of Blues’,Gertrude Pridgett (Ma Rainey) was born in Columbus, Georgia on April 26, 1886. Ma Rainy began her career on the theater circuit in 1900. First recording for the Paramount label in 1923, Rainey was known as a confident, mature entertainer. Rainey’s music covered diverse topics, sharing the daily experiences of African-Americans in the south laced with varying relevant, real-time emotions. A vision that commanded attention, Ma Rainey wore long gowns, diamonds and gold. Former tour director and manager, Thomas A. Dorsey, described Ma Rainey as the spotlight. Ma Rainey was known for capturing her listeners undivided attention and having them feel the blues with her. Ma Rainey was a true entertainer, that inspired creatives beyond the music industry. In Black Pearls, Daphne Duval Harrison crowns Ma Rainey as the first great blues performer. To pay tribute to the great entertainer, Langston Hughes wrote (Ma Rainey) which was a part of his collection Southern Road and Alice Walker in her creation of (The Color Purple) was influenced by Rainey’s music. Most recently, August Wilson’s Ma Rainey Black Bottom made its way to the big screen on November 20, 2020. Viola Davis gave an electrifying performance owning the role of Ma Rainey. One of her most famous hits is “See See Rider”. It became one of the most famous and recorded of all blues songs, according to Arnold Shaw, American music writer, music publishing executive, teacher and songwriter. Rainey died on December 22, 1939, yet her legacy lives on.
2. Deeply rooted in African-American culture, Jazz still greatly influences the music listened to today, across multiple genres. Shining a light on the ‘Mother of Jazz’, Elinore (Eleanora was her preferred spelling) Fagan Gough, is a must. Given the name Lady Day by saxophonist Lester Young she later adopted the stage name, Billie Holiday. Holiday is noted as one of the best jazz vocalist of all time. Born April 7, 1915, growing up in Baltimore, a town rich with jazz culture,and parents already immersed in music, Holiday got her start as a teen. She moved with her mother to New York city and eventually began singing in a Harlem nightclub. With no professional musical training, Holiday used her wealth of personal experience gifted by her parents and surroundings, and natural talent to develop an unforgettable unique style. Holiday made her first recordings in 1933. Her work in the years following, recording with other jazz greats, launched her career as the leading jazz singer of her time. Her peak was between 1936-1942. Having struggled at times with her mother and dealing with truancy issues, Holiday was placed in a home for troubled African-American children (The House of Good Shepard) in her early years. She returned home only to be sent back a year later after suffering the trauma of sexual assault. Music through the years became Holiday’s safe place. In 1939 after singing “Strange Fruit” an emotionally driven song about lynching,Holiday received a warning from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics which lasted until 1968. To the then leader of the FBN, Harry Anslinger, Holiday was a symbol everyone had to be afraid of. Holiday battled substance abuse and addiction, but definitely wasn’t someone everyone needed to be afraid of. John Harry, author of Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs said, “She had a heroin addiction because she had been chronically raped as a child and she was trying to deal with the grief and pain of that. And also, she was resisting white supremacy. When she insisted on continuing her right as an American citizen to sing ‘Strange Fruit’, Anslinger resolves to destroy her.” In 1947 Holiday was arrested for a narcotics violation. She spent one year in a rehabilitation center. Her cabaret license got revoked in New York City, yet just ten days after her release, Holiday was able to pack Carnegie Hall. She continued to perform outside of New York City and tour in her later years. Some of Holiday’s notable hits are “Fine and Mellow”, “Billie’s Blues” and “God Bless the Child”. In 1956 she published her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues. It was made into a motion picture in 1972, starring Diana Ross. Despite the personal struggles Billie Holiday battled, her music penetrated the hearts of many and her legacy will live on for centuries to come.
3. Ramona Parker (Ms. Melodie), was born on March 21, 1969 in Flatbush, Brooklyn. She is known as one of the first female emcees and was a founding member of the hip-hop group Boogie Down Productionsalongside ex-husband, Kris Parker (KRS-one). She began to get even more notoriety with the release of “Hype According to Ms. Melodie,” and the release of her debut album, “Diva.” Ms. Melodie notably contributed to “Self Destruction” as a member of the collective Stop the Violence Movement in 1989, and “Heal Yourself” as a member of the collective H.E.A.L. (Human Education Against Lies). Ms. Melodie graced us with her presence on the big screen with a small roll in Keenan Ivory Wayans’ movie, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka. She is crowned as a trailblazer in hip-hop music. She focused on rhyme and how to hang lyrically with the boys. She wasn’t interested in gimmicks, only memorable lyricism. She challenged what was becoming an increasing trend of violence in urban communities through her words.
I’m Ms. Melodie and I’m a born again rebel
The violence in rap must cease and settle if we want to develop and grow to another level
We can’t be guinea pigs for the devil
The enemy knows, they’re no fools
Because everyone knows that hip-hop rules
So we gotta get a grip and grab what’s wrong
The opposition is weak and rap is strong …
Ms. Melodie died at the age of forty-three on July 17, 2012. Like Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, Salt-N-Pepa, Roxane Shanté, Nikki D. and Bo$$ to name a handful, Ms. Melodie will always be remembered for opening the doors for so many other female emcees that followed.
4. Sheila Escovedo (Sheila E) was born on December 12, 1957 in Oakland, California. Rightfully named the Queen of Percussion, Sheila E learned to play instruments at a young age with percussion being her favorite. She comes from a family of musicians, her father, jazz percussionist Pete Escovedo and uncles influenced her love for music heavily. In her memoir, The Beat of my Own Drum she explained, “Nobody cared as long as you could keep time (or have a good time).” Stage fright was not a problem for Sheila E. Her first public performance was at the young age of five. With her father at her side, she performed in front of 3,000 people. During that drum solo on stage she decided she would be a percussionist. Sheila E became a world renowned successful musician early on recording with George Duke and touring with Marvin Gaye. She was later seen as Prince’s brightest protégé, rocking in the post-Revolution tours. He wrote and co-produced her breakthrough record “The Glamorous Life.” A star in her own right, we celebrate her for being a pioneer in music paving the way for other female percussionist to rise in the industry. Sheila E has made a name for herself as one of the most talented musical icons over the decades. Still touring, Sheila E. gives an exhilarating performance every time she steps on the stage.
5. Mickey Guyton, born June 17, 1983 in Arlington Texas, is now a well-known country music star. Musically she was influenced in her early years by Dolly Parton and Whitney Houston. She is the first black female country music artist signed to a major record label, Capital Records Nashville. Her road to success as a women of color in country music has not been easy, but well worth the perseverance. Mickey’s versatility moves between country, pop and gospel. In a predominately white industry, she committed herself to her craft. She has emerged as a poised and trailblazing country-pop artist. “Black Like Me” was ready to be released just prior to COVID, but with that, Mickey felt it wasn’t the right time. She changed her mind however after witnessing one murder after another of young black men and women in America. Without promotion or permissions, it was released on her Instagram, because she felt people needed to hear the words. Spotify later picked it up. In an interview with NPR Mickey shares, “I did Nashville the Nashville way for so long, and I had seen so many women do Nashville the Nashville way, with very little results, and that’s kind of how I felt within my own life as being a black woman.” Singing about her truth falls in line with country greats such as Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash. Mickey penned “Black Like Me”with the same truth-telling authenticity. We look forward to more to come from music sensation, Mickey Guyton.
These women and countless other women of color such as Betty Wright, Gladys Night, Shirley Murdock, Patti LaBelle, Mary J. Blige, Alicia Keys, Lauryn Hill, India Irie, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Macy Gray and Beyoncé through the decades have challenged the ‘norm’ and dominated in their respective creative lanes paving the way for generations to come.