A Black Woman’s Plight: Our Women’s Struggle In the Music Industry

Black women in music have had a progression through time.  In the early 20th century, Black women created a name for themselves with a brand new genre of black music. The Blues, headed by forerunner Ma Rainey, paved a road for Black women to express themselves on a national level. As time progressed and Jazz music emerged, a new group of amazing and talented women materialized. In the 1980s, hip-hop surfaced and the female rapper was produced.  Through the emergence of rap music, a negative portrayal of Black women began to rear its ugly head.  This paper will examine how Black women in music, starting from Blues, have somehow manifested into a current state of negative portrayal of the black female race.

I became interested in this topic when I was reading an online article about Black women in the music industry. This article’s title read, “Where are the Female Rappers?”  This article went on to argue that all female rappers that WERE NOT feeding into the misogynistic world were non-existent.  This article proclaimed that the music industry had become so sexed up that true Black female talent had become “invisiblized”.

This article made me think about the portrayal of women in today’s society.  I then began wondering about the portrayal of black women in the past.  It became an inquiry as to whether or not these women of our culture’s past were forced into any type of sexual corners in order to succeed.  This thinking led me to locate information about the success of past women in music in order to try and discover the reasons for the issues we face today.

Though this topic has been discussed in classrooms and very briefly on a national level, it is important for a number of reasons.  First, this topic has never been fully resolved, only argued for decades.  This topic serves to help gain an understanding of how Black women have persevered through music. It will also offer a possible explanation as to why things have turned negatively. And most important, contributing to the field, it will serve as a guide to help break the cycle of misogyny taking place in black music and allow a response to the young Black girls who look up to some of today’s negatively portrayed Black female role models.

When researching this topic, my agenda lead me to questions that I had not originally pondered.  Who do black girls relate to/try to mimic more: the images on the television or other women they see in their everyday lives?  How much was it about the music (and not the money) during the time that Blues and Jazz singers were making music?  There are articles and forums about negativity in Black Music toward Black women. Where is all the literature (books based on research) that pushes for a more positive presence?

Though there are a plethora of examples of female Blues, Jazz, and R&B singers, as well as rappers and video vixens, I am limiting this paper to only discuss the names that were most recognized from this time.  Most music scholars would be able to offer an exceptional number of examples to include but, for my research, it is necessary to focus in on a smaller number.

In the later sections of my paper, I choose to make a statement that gives an in-depth analysis of how black women are portrayed in rap music, and, in turn, in the media and in the homes of little black girls.  I purposely leave out the many examples of female rappers, singers, and other artists that are, though talented, not in the public view as often as others.

I will break down the Black female artists of the past, bridge them to the present, and decipher a reason and purpose for the transitions.  I will be using ideas about sexism as it relates to Black music.  I will chiefly be looking at primary texts, but there is a large amount of secondary text to view as well.  YouTube, as well as other video and audio sources, became imperative to examine my thesis.  I have also created a survey that asks Black girls, between the ages of eight and fourteen, “Who do you look up to?”/ “Who is your role model?”  I also interview Black mothers in response to their daughters’ responses. In a hope to celebrate the accomplishments, failings, and trials, as well as the current plight of the Black female artist, this research must start at the beginning.

In the 1900s, Madame Rainey and Pa Rainey, a married musical couple, joined forces with a minstrel show group named the Rabbit Foot Minstrels.  As they toured the South, Madame, “Ma”, was said to come across a women who sang a sad song about a man that had gone away. Ma Rainey took these lyrics, and performed them for a small crowd (Lieb). The reaction from the audience was so overwhelming that she began to write similar songs with the same type of feeling.

Ma Rainey’s success in the music industry was explosive.  As a minstrel show singer, she entered the Blues music into her routine and helped offer audiences a more accurate depiction of black identity.  Her style of lyrics promoted female awareness in issues of men, women, and love (Hine).  Her physical style often revealed little skin, but fashioned necklaces, gold teeth, and feathered hair-do.

Making way for Bessie Smith and Mamie Smith, who went on to be the most successful Black female Blues singers, the issue of sexuality was never a physical characteristic of their music.  Photos and detailed descriptions of these women often proved that their garments included what we may now call “fully clothed” attire.  The most sexual context involved in Blues music that ever came about includes connotations that Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith had something more than a professional relationship.  In Ma Rainey’s song, “Prove it On Me Blues”, Rainey alludes “Went out last night with a crowd of my friends, they must have been women, ’cause I don’t like no men. Wear my clothes just like a fan, Talk to gals just like any old man…”  Though this may have been sexual content, it was not exploited or over exaggerated, and was never used as a way to create more revenue.  These Black female Blues artists were not misrepresenting themselves while still maintaining in the music industry.

One of the most successful Jazz singers of the 20th century was none other than Ella Fitzgerald.  Her abilities as a singer with a large vocal range soared her to heights previously unsurpassed.  Fitzgerald went on to sell many records, and accumulate thirteen Grammy Awards.  Her success eventually included the National Medal of Art from President Ronald Reagan and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George Bush (Hine).

Through all of Fitzgerald’s success, she gave the nation access to view and listen to Black female artists.  Like, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and others, Ella Fitzgerald did not involve sexuality in her routines.  Her performances and song lyrics were anything but sexual (YouTube).  In clips, audio, and text, it is evident that Fitzgerald did not explicitly speak about women’s sexuality or reveal herself personally.  Her caporal presence was often long gowns accented with large pearl earrings and necklaces.  Her clothing was never too short or skimpy and her lyrics were as conservative as any.

Like many other jazz singers of her time such as Sarah Vaughn and Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald possessed a type of individualism about her; strong, resilient, and exuding a sense of purpose and self worth.  Through these jazz artists, and on to Rhythm and Blues singers such as Aretha Franklin, Black women positioned themselves as a strong force in the music industry and an essential element of the make-up of our nation’s popular culture. With these women, transitioning from Blues to Jazz to Rhythm and Blues, a legacy was set in place.  But with a new culture about to emerge, this legacy’s shine began a slow fade under the shadow of a new culture.

In the early eighties, the emergence of hip-hop brought black culture to the forefront of America’s media stations.  Hip-hop music was being heard on every music channel, every radio station, and was being emulated in every commercial that looked to capture the hip new culture with catchy tunes.  As hip-hop became the nation’s most announced (and misunderstood) force in American culture, it went unnoticed that the female MC was nowhere to be found.  In the patriarchal society that has been forming since the earliest of times, and still exists today, women weren’t asked, wanted, or expected to contribute anything to hip-hop music, except maybe as a source of inspiration for lyrics.  These lyrics were rarely misogynistic, and were more often party anthems, dance music, and conscious poetry.  With the laid back, fun loving, and usually intelligent culture that was exemplified in hip-hop music, black women, though few, eventually began finding a place in the music that represented a culture of an oppressed people looking for an outlet in which their voices could be heard.

In the land of testosterone, artists such as MC Lyte and Queen Latifah were ladies that exemplified powerful, intelligent, and yes, beautiful, black women.  With a sense of poise and heartfelt, conscious lyrics, these ladies were (mostly) accepted by hip-hop culture because their talent spoke for itself.  Queen Latifah stomped onto the hip-hop scene with her first single titled “U.N.I.T.Y” in which, she begins the song screaming, “Who you callin’ a Bitch?”, delivering lyrics such as “Grab the mic’, look into the crowd and see smiles, cause they see a woman standing up on her own two… Ladies first, I’m divine and my mind expands throughout the universe” on her song “Ladies First”.  These uplifting lyrics were the voice for the otherwise unheard soul of the black woman.  It expressed an inner cry for help and a need to represent for one’s self because no one else was.

The question that comes to mind is, “Why were black female MCs rapping about uplifting black women and denouncing negative terminology if hip-hop artists were rarely using these terms?”  It is sometimes assumed that Queen Latifah and others were making these songs in response to sexist rap songs that were being broadcasted at the time.   This is mostly incorrect.  In actuality, it wasn’t the music on which female artists were responding.  It was their surroundings in the black community, in the streets, in the classrooms, and in the workplace.  Black female artists were responding to the sexism that they experienced on a day-to-day basis.  Black women were being called whore, bitch, and slut so often that black women began getting complacent with these terms, often shrugging them off with “ya’ll know how men are”.  But the female hip-hop MC was willing to take a stand to denounce those negative references, taking a stand for a lost voice.

With hip-hop culture finally getting respect and exposure, a new breed of artists emerged with a more edgy, street, and misogynistic content. This culture, eventually deemed “gangster rap”, expressed the views of oppression from a different vantage point than that of the hip-hop artist. This gangster rap culture saw little reservation for preaching hope when their individual struggles were so heavy that they weighed in heavily on their spirits, pouring over into their lyrics. And it was in this cold world of gangster rap that the beautiful and intelligent female MC became lost, seemingly forever.

In an era of bitches and hoes, tricks and tramps, the proverbial “T&A” became all that black women were useful for. Showing their lustful big lips, wide hips, plump rear-end, and sensual skin tone, black men (in fact ALL MEN) decided that black women were better suited in the music industry as sex symbols.  Rap lyrics, lending no help to reverse these misogynistic stereotypes, fueled the black woman’s plight with songs such as “Bitches Ain’t Shit”, “Captain Save a Hoe”, and “Bitch Betta Have My Money”.  Black women, still beautiful and intelligent, were the unheard voice for change and soon became dissolved by black women who decided that they would make it in the industry at any cost. Using their street savvy and sexy display, black women such as Lil’ Kim and Foxy Brown stepped into the spotlight with raw, dirty, and demeaning lyrics that exploited themselves and their gender.  Being the lucrative business it was, it became a futile task to tell these women and young girls alike, that this was not a glorious road to ride.

Blinded by their Versace shades and weighed down by their diamond necklaces, black women in the music industry began to assimilate with what men wanted to see and hear; and what men wanted was sex, sex, and more sex.  Sexual content is exactly what they gave.  In one of Lil’ Kim’s songs, “Queen Bitch”, it becomes obvious, if not easily by the title, that the female had become lost in the stereotypes that gangster rap helped portray. Spewing lyrics like, “Nigga’s wanna run up in my pussy like a Pap smear… Nigga’s ain’t stickin’ unless they lick the kitten… Too many bitches just be licking the dick, and I’m a picky one I like my dicks rock hard, Not the sticky ones that taste like slaw,” Lil’ Kim made it cool for little black girls to call themselves bitches and explain how they were the best sexual objects for men, better than their black female peers.  The misogyny sold, and before black people knew it, the black woman was in more trouble than she had been since the slave trade.  Why?  Because, instead of being oppressed and held down by the “White man”, it was now the black man and black woman doing the destruction.  With gangster rap on the center stage of America’s television screen, the act of self mutilation within the black culture was tearing black unity apart and creating a green light for the rest of the nation to continue its sexist and racist views.

In this era of gangster rap, the vision that was depicted to describe a black woman was emitted through all types of music.  Whether it was rap, r&b, pop, or rock, the black woman was being used a sexual object to excite the eyes and rev the minds of this patriarchal nation.  Sex sells; and money seems to make the world go round.  This held true in this regard because, the sexier the music videos and the hotter the lyrics, the more the money kept raking in.  As artists careers were being born, or were at risk of ending, big business asked one question: Can you make it sexier?  This was a question that wasn’t really asked as a question, more as a suggestion, maybe even a demand.  As the black women in music, such as Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Mary J. Blige, and Beyonce, were making strides to become world renowned artists, the “sexy” question dangled over their heads.  And it was at this point in time that the “transitional woman” arose.

The “transitional woman” in the music business is a term I developed to describe the black female artists want or need to convert into a sexier image in order to start or continue to sell more records.  I felt it was necessary to create a formal term for this type of changeover because it has become a trend in the music business with black women.  In the past decade, examples of the transitional woman are plenty, in all genres of the music industry.  To take one of many examples from the bunch, Mary J. Blige was a singer that started her career in the early nineties when gangster rap’s sexist lyrics first began plaguing the air waves.  But it wasn’t until the late nineties and the twenty-first century that the spill over began to affect change in other areas of music. Mary J. Blige, formerly seen on album covers and music videos in hoop earrings, New York Yankees caps, and baggy, hooded sweatshirts, was being shown wearing nothing other than short shorts, high heels, and bikini tops (without a beach or swimming pool anywhere in sight).  And it was a funny sight to me, because I remember asking myself, “What happened to Mary?”  That question was only pondered because she, an extremely talented vocalist, had disappeared from the music scene, only to return with a new album and sexed-up image.

Let us not forget about the pop culture icon, Beyonce.  Few may even remember the persona that Beyonce portrayed when she entered the music business.  A young girl out of Texas on the road to stardom with her now former group “Destiny’s Child” was often dressed in full length shirts, loose-fitting jeans, and a smile.  But we mainly recognize Beyonce as the fierce, hot-bodied vocalist with skin-tight leather pants, cleavage and midriff revealing tops, and a sexy “I know you think I’m sexy, I know you want me,” facial expression, reeling in the horny teenagers (and grown men for that matter).  This image that Beyonce now resembles is an image that she may have metaphorically spat on when she entered the music business, likely proclaiming it to be demeaning to women and “not her style”.  But the transformation did happen, and it was successful.  Beyonce is here today, wearing the clothes, looking the look, and singing songs like, “Naughty Girl” where she explains, “I’m feelin’ kind of n-a-s-t-y, I might just take you home with me.”

Is it Beyonce’s fault?  Or maybe the plight of the black woman is Mary J. Blige’s fault.  It would almost be too easy to point at these ladies and accuse them of selling out or “whoring themselves” for the music business.  But black women are put in strange positions when trying to provide for themselves and their families, as well as following their dreams.  Often, the White man at the top of the food chain sees this vulnerability and will undeniably exploit it for a paycheck. The black woman, often not to blame, will assimilate to the mode that pays the bills.

But what would happen if they didn’t assimilate?  What would happen if they stood up proud and announced their disapproval of using their bodies as a means of selling records?  Well, do you remember hearing any new Erykah Badu songs lately?  Les Nubians?  Or maybe that new, chart topping hit that Lauryn Hill had?  Think as hard as you want. But unless your memory bank goes as far back as eight years ago, you won’t come up with anything.  And once again, the simple question: Why?  And this time, the answer couldn’t be simpler; these women didn’t “sexy it up” enough for the music industry, resulting in the diminishing record sales, and eventually the end of a talented career.

Thus, the “non-transitional women”, or a black female artist who doesn’t conform to a sexier display in order to sell more records, becomes lost and quickly forgotten.  This makes it harder for young black girls to truly see themselves in their favorite artists and even harder for parents and teachers to be heard, both in respects to self-worth as well as being a role model.  It is the parents and teachers who should have control over these young minds; but a disassociation from their parents and teachers evolves because the children think that they “just don’t understand”.  They think they don’t understand how, when the little black girls can’t see themselves in the successful and beautiful black women on the television screen and in the magazine, an obsession is created to become something that is a facade.  This is the worst type of hero or role model, someone who has changed into a sex symbol in order to make more money.  Because when little Natasha goes to school and isn’t getting the attention she wants, she doesn’t choose to follow her dream of being a track and field star or a lawyer or the world’s first black female president, she begins to fixate on her hair, nails, body shape, and sexual draw.

But the black woman’s plight doesn’t stop at the transitional woman.  After the bodies of black women became so necessary in music, the need for black women to actually be an artist became less necessary.  With that idea streaming through the minds of the music business, the “video vixen” was born. What is a video vixen?  First, it is appropriate to give the most unbiased definition of a video vixen and what they do.  Simply, a video vixen is usually a female model that appears in music videos.  But the stigma stamped on these models is often much more than that.  These women are often considered the “ass shakers” and video “whores” of the music world, the female prostitutes of the music video.  Accused of serving no other purpose than to sell sex, the video vixen is often chastised in the conversations of intellectuals, and imitated by ignorant minds.

When searching the definition of such a term, since it isn’t a formal definition that could be found in a Webster, the online Urban Dictionary gave its own description: “Not to be confused with the video ho, the video vixen is a woman of a different and astonishing nature. A video vixen is not thought to be easily attainable even though her skin bearing appearance may lead one to assume otherwise.”  This definition is often negated by female models that do much more than stand as a pretty face on a scene.  Women like Karrine Steffans, better known to the music industry as Superhead, who wrote a book titled, “Confessions of a Video Vixen”, making it hard to deny the allegations that video vixens are nothing more than the music video prostitute.  In this book she explicitly describes the sexual acts she performed for male rappers on video shoot sets in order to please them or to get ahead in the industry.  It is with women like Ms. Steffans that these video vixens get a bad rap. But the question is its justification.  These women are all somebody’s daughter.  So is it the parent’s fault that these women are nothing more than sexual deviants? Or are these women simply models on a scene?

There are women who prove this negative image of a video vixen to be false.  Women like Tae Heckard, a video vixen turned actress who modeled in videos for 50 cent and Kanye West.  Heckard is actually a former army reservist who fought in the War on Terrorism after the 9/11 attacks.  This “sex symbol” can actually be seen more often in sweats, a hair wrap, and reading glasses (yes, for reading) when she is not on the set of a music video.  Candice Stevenson, who starred in Nelly’s music video, is actually a successful Realtor when she’s not posing in music videos.  Joyce and Debra Glenn, better know in the music industry as “The Glenn Twins”, are often used as sex symbols  in music videos from Soulja Boy to Lil’ Wayne.  But these girls have actually accomplished goals that the common person would only wish to accomplish in their life, both sister graduating Magna Cum Laude and Suma Cum Laude from Savannah University with matching bachelor’s degrees in accounting, as well as becoming member of the business honor society.

So are these girls being exploited for their bodies, or are they actually using their minds to create opportunities that are afforded to few and accomplished by even fewer?  The answer isn’t a simple yes or no because each of these women are different.  Each of these women are held by their own personal standards, morals, guidelines, backgrounds, and dreams.  But it’s these women that the guys want, and these women that the girls have to imitate to get the guys attention, right?  Wrong, these women are not role models for kids, nor do they try to be.  The argument is that, when a young girl turns on the television, she sees herself in the images and tries to portray them, not understanding what she is doing.  But the television doesn’t images don’t get seen without get the purchase of a television. Images aren’t imitated without clothes, jewelry, and make-up to do it with. It’s the parents who have the ability to buy or not buy these things. But more importantly, it is the parents’ duty to monitor a child’s influences, and most imputatively, speak to the child in a manner that allows the child to step back and comprehend what the images she sees represent and where to stand morally.  Do not turn away from black women in the music industry as a source of leadership.  But it is extremely necessary that we enforce the positives, and fully explain the negatives.

In a survey taken by sixty-seven young black girls ages 8-14 years, this “talk” between parent doesn’t seem to be happening.  This survey that asked, “Who is your role model?”, was taken by Black girls in Boys and Girls Clubs, Daycare centers, elementary schools, and middle schools.  Sadly, only thirteen results showed a Black girl looking up to someone in her family.  Five nine little girls looked up to their big sisters, and two looked up to their mothers, as one looked up to her grandmother.  The other fifty-four results, or 81%, looked up to someone in the music industry.  Answers included (but were certainly not limited to) Beyonce, Alicia Keys, Lady Gaga, Kesha, Rihanna, Fergie, and Ciara. The most shocking results about this survey was that twenty-three (34%) of these Black girls didn’t even pick a Black female.

In an effort to understand this, I spoke to a few of the parents about their daughters’ choices.  One woman, thirty-two year old LaShanda Price, was surprised and embarrassed at her eleven year old daughter eleven Neisha’s pick.

“Did you know that your daughter looked up to Lady Gaga more than any other woman figure before this survey?” I asked.

“I surely didn’t.  I figured she would say her grandma or maybe even her Auntie Carol.”

“Is there any reason that you don’t think she picked you?” I questioned.  And as Ms. Price pondered an answer, here eyes became teary.  I asked her what was wrong and she replied.

“I work so hard to provide for this child.  I’m always on top of her to be the best she can be and I don’t think she really sees what it is that I do.  She only sees what I do for her.  She probably just don’t see me in that way because I don’t talk to her about a lot of stuff.”

Her answer, to paraphrase (because she continued to ramble), was that she never really showed Neisha that her mother was a strong and forceful Black woman that was worth following after.  She felt that she had not spoke with her daughter enough and that she may want to take the time to show her the accomplishments of Black women, not only in history, but in everyday life.

But this case just one of the many that happen in the Black community. Our daughters are not told enough by their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, teachers, and friends about the beauty of just being Black.  And in turn, they search the television screen for a façade of fame and money to strive for.

In the entire scheme of black women’s evolution through music, it’s everybody’s fault. As such, it’s everybody’s duty to correct the mistakes.  Whether it be less booty shaking in the music videos, less play of the music videos with the booty shaking, or parents and teachers effectively talking to kids about the do’s and don’ts of self-portrayal. Whether it be less transitional women maneuvering their moral guidelines to make the extra dollar or the decrease of black woman shouting self-mutilating, oppressive, misogynistic lyrics; or it’s the black man who needs to do a better job of uplifting his black woman; or the job of white America to stop stereotyping every black women they see.  It’s not somebody’s issue, it’s everybody’s issue. And this issue will not get fixed with a BET special on black women once every year, or a “stop the sexism” t-shirt.  The evolution of Black women being brought back into an acceptable characterization will be a long and hard task that everyone must take part in, not one day of the week, but every day of the week, one day at a time, by any means necessary.

Black women

Works Cited

  1. “African American Women in Music and Dance.” The College of New Jersey Home. Web. 10 Dec. 2009. <http://www.tcnj.edu/~bosco3/aas%20final%20group%20project.htm&gt;.
  2. Belge, Kathy. “Gertrude “Ma” Rainey: Mother of the Blues.” Lesbian Life: For Better Lesbian Sex, Relationships and Life. Web. 05 May 2010. <http://lesbianlife.about.com/od/herstory/p/MaRainey.htm&gt;.
  3. Burnim, Mellonee V. African American Music an Introduction. New York, NY [u.a.: Routledge, 2006. Print.
  4. Hine, Darlene Clark., and Kathleen Thompson. Facts on File Encyclopedia of Black Women in America: Music. Vol. 5. New York: Facts on File, 1998. Print.
  5. “Ladies First lyrics by Queen Latifah – Filestube Lyrics.” Lyrics Search Engine – Filestube.com. Web. 10 Dec. 2009. <http://lyrics.filestube.com/song/f8d24887fa99a2f803e9,Ladies-First.html&gt;.
  6. Lieb, Sandra R. Mother of the Blues: a Study of Ma Rainey. [Amherst]: University of Massachusetts, 1981. Print.
  7. “Urban Dictionary: video vixen.” Urban Dictionary, December 10: Wiper Beat. Web. 10 Dec. 2009. <http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=video+vixen&gt;.
  8. “YouTube – mc lyte.” YouTube – Broadcast Yourself. Web. 10 Dec. 2009. <http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=mc+lyte&search_type=&aq=f&gt;.
  9. “YouTube – Queen Latifah – Ladies First feat. Monie Love.” YouTube – Broadcast Yourself. Web. 10 Dec. 2009. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BeMWCVjco78&gt;.
  10. “YouTube – Queen Latifah – U.N.I.T.Y.” YouTube – Broadcast Yourself. Web. 10 Dec. 2009. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f8cHxydDb7o&gt;.
  1. Rose, Tricia. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Hanover, NH: University of New England, 1994. Print.
  2. Sharpley-Whiting, T. Denean. Pimps Up, Ho’s Down: Hip Hop’s Hold on Young Black Women. New York: New York UP, 2008. Print.

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