Musical Matriarchs: Black Women Leading Industry

Silhouetted figure recording vocals in a dimly lit studio.


In honor of Women's History Month, join us as we spotlight the unmistakable influence of three women who have shaped the music landscape throughout history. From Martha Wash's defining gospel vocals in dance music to Sister Rosetta Tharpe's groundbreaking contributions to rock & roll, these women have shattered barriers and left an enduring legacy. Beyoncé's recent rise in country music and her project to reclaim Black music underscores the interconnectedness of genres and the ongoing fight for recognition across genres.

Join us as we spotlight the unmistakable influence of women who have shaped the music landscape throughout history. Dance, rock & roll, and country all have origins within our community, inspiring legacies of innovation and disruption!

To Black women, revolution in music is only to be expected. Our queens capture culture and preserve it in musical melodies. Far before anyone catches on, Black women have mastered and manufactured lyrics, compositions, and emotional expressions that define the times.

The echoes of our lives can be heard in rock & roll, funk, jazz, R&B, country, soul, blues, hip hop, techno, house, samba, salsa, reggae, and more. Our musical imprint is vast, and we continue to flex!

Through a much needed renaissance around genres mistakenly thought to have originated outside of Blackness, we continue to learn more about the groundbreaking women who define music.

Martha Walsh speaking into a mic.

“File:Martha Wash.jpg.” Wikimedia Commons, 2 Oct 2023, 18:27 UTC, Accessed 20 Mar 2024, 17:01.

Dance Music

Martha Wash – The Unsung Mother of the ‘90s

If you have heard the lines “It’s raining men. Hallеlujah, it’s raining men!” or “Everybody dance now!”, you know exactly who Martha Wash is.

Appearing on some of the most iconic dance tracks like C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat” and Italian house group Black Box’s “Everybody Everybody,” Martha’s gospel sound defined the rise of dance music across the world. From mainstream TV to queer clubs, her voice pierced through all levels of society, recognizable and distinct.

Referring to Martha, RuPaul said, “The timbre of her voice is so distinctive and beautiful. A lot of gospel-based singers have come and gone in dance music, but she is the one.”

In the 90’s her voice was well known, however, she was not.

Martha, who is heavier set, was snubbed by an industry that privileged a narrow picture of beauty over vocal talent. Martha often watched, astonished, as other music groups or models would lip-sync her vocals on music videos. Due to common practices of “ghost singing” or “vocal dubbing” in the industry, she would provide vocal tracks and wouldn’t be credited or compensated appropriately.

Martha not only commanded the most powerful voice of the decade, but she also acted as a catalyst for artists’ rights! Following the singer’s initiation of multiple lawsuits against producers and record labels to ensure appropriate acknowledgment and payment, federal legislation was established requiring vocal credit to be included on all albums and music videos.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe in an elegant dress holding a guitar, ready to perform rock & roll.

“File:Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1938 publicity photo with guitar).jpg.” Wikimedia Commons, 23 Apr 2023, 08:59 UTC, Accessed 20 Mar 2024, 17:05.

Rock & Roll Music

Sister Rosetta Tharpe – Grandmother of Rock & Roll

Just as with dance and country, there seems to be a misconception about the origins of the youthful and rebellious rock & roll. The genre takes root in R&B, gospel, jazz, and country—historically Black genres.

Though Elvis is wildly regarded as the “King of Rock & Roll,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe is considered the “Godmother of Rock & Roll.” When she first went to town on the electric guitar while playing gospel music, rock & roll as a genre was set alight. During a time before the Civil Rights Movement, when Blackness was being policed, Rosetta’s bright flame was met with equal heat from a society weaponizing respectability politics to thwart Black freedoms.

Known for challenging social norms and cultural boundaries, the genre, however, has all but erased the names of Black women from its honorable halls. For Rosetta to break from the pious approach to religious music, to challenge limited expression during a time when Blackness and humanness were not seen as compatible, was for her to usher forth the very promise of rock & roll.

Rosetta reached, as many Black women do, into the sorrows of our past, into the blues and spirituals documenting a painful history, and brought forward a spark of rebellion. Through the many Black rock & roll artists to follow, we see a powerful contrast to the status quo and a rallying cry to claim humanity.

Country Music

A female performer singing into a microphone on stage, wearing a blue bodysuit with sheer accents for Women’s History Month.

“File:Beyoncé – Tottenham Hotspur Stadium – 1st June 2023 (10 of 118) (52946364598) (best crop).jpg.” Wikimedia Commons, 16 Feb 2024, 21:24 UTC, Accessed 20 Mar 2024, 17:12.

Beyonce – The Reference and Renaissance Queen

Controversy has stirred in country music for many years, most recently Beyonce’s country renaissance entrance with “Texas Hold ‘Em” as the first Black woman to top the genre’s charts in history.

The banjo, an instrument that derives from West African lutes and arrived in the Americas on slave ships, opens “Texas Hold ‘Em.” An instrument that underwent appropriation and blackface, went on to aid the rise of white hillbilly music, which would later become renamed as country music.

From the instruments to the assortment of vocal techniques, the DNA of slave spirituals, field songs, and religious hymnals ring clearly in country music. During segregation in the ‘20s and ‘30s, when southern music was ironically multicultural between white and Black artists on commercial hillbilly records, record labels started to divide releases into “race records” for African-American music and “hillbilly records” for white rural music.

A formula took place where Black musicians went on to mentor white musicians who would then dominate commercially. Whether Arnold Schultz with Bill Monroe or DeFord Bailey with Grand Ole Opry, the industry shadowed the seminal work of Black musicians and intentionally fed the rise of white country music.

In Act II, or Cowboy Carter, Beyonce looks to build on a mounting tidal wave of Black country artists who have been present in the genre since its origin by releasing her country album.

— —

These three women show us not just how history is made but how ancestry and community are defended. Whether thwarting societal limitations, spearheading artists’ rights, or creating a resurgence of rightful recognition, Black women rise.

Who runs the world? Girls! Happy Women’s History Month.

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