It all started with me looking around the room while playing a bill on a particularly white lineup. Because I work as a booker and curator as well, I had been designing my own diverse lineups, playing with artists of all races, creeds and genders, making it a point to create a comfortable environment for a diverse urban music community.
I had accepted an invitation to play a rock show, always delighted to be noticed. But once my bandmate (a cis white male who's very conscious of his privilege and one of my best friends) and I were sitting at the bar and the room began to fill up, I felt that slight pinch in my gut. It was a trigger telling me I was the only black person in the room.
I leaned over to my bandmate and said, “No more white lineups.” He calmly said, “OK.”
This particular story is not necessarily about racism, but more an observation of how it makes black female and queer artists feel when shows are not curated with diversity in mind.
I wondered if other black female guitarists and instrumentalists felt this way at certain shows, so I reached out to some. In doing so, I asked both broader questions as well as direct queries about sexism and racism.
Black women guitarists are beginning to be recognized more in the press, which is great. But too often they’re squeezed into lists like “10 Black Female Guitarists You Should Know,” each receiving their respective 125-word blurb. But I want to know, who are these women? What do they have to say about how the critics and the music industry treat them?
I addressed four main questions to black women guitarists and black female critics who specialize in writing about black women in alternative music, along with some follow-ups. Here are some highlights from what they had to say.
Do you think a black woman being a multi-instrumentalist alienates her even more from success in mainstream music?
Chelsea Monae, guitarist and singer-songwriter: Yes, I do think a black woman being a multi-instrumentalist alienates her from success in current mainstream music. However, I think it strengthens her as an independent artist. And to be honest, independent artistry is where it's at.
To become successful in mainstream music as a multi-instrumentalist would simply require an unmatched level of dedication for black women. While the “angry black woman” stereotype is annoying, when you consider the trauma that black women face on the day-to-day, it makes sense that we may create art that makes industry execs uncomfortable. Solange's recently released project is a perfect example of some well-overdue content that speaks with black women across the country. She was able to release that because she owns her own record label.
I think the move, now, is really just creating our own mainstream. Succeeding in that realm would be much more fulfilling as a black multi-instrumentalist.
Why do you think black women who do not sexualize themselves don't get as much attention in the music industry and media?
Laina Dawes, author of What Are You Doing Here?: A Black Woman's Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal: They do not want to adhere to racialized gendered stereotypes. However, I do think that black women who present themselves as more of a masculine/androgynous look could gain attention, as long as they do not mention anything political or be too “black.” Depending on the genre, women can receive the same respect as a male musician but they have to present an image that is devoid of femininity and/or sexuality. Pop music culture in general is about sexual desirability, regardless of ethnicity. If you do not have the attributes of the westernized notion of beauty, good luck. The mammy image of being nonthreatening to white men and women has always done well in mainstream media, but that means that you have to sacrifice presenting your own identity.
How do feel music critics treat your music and art?
Ladan Hussein, solo artist, Cold Specks: People may not know that they do it, but there’s a certain [stereotyping of] my voice. Because I’m a black woman with a raspy voice, I must make soul music. My last album was totally weird, and it threw publications off. There were a lot of reviews that didn’t quite understand. I find that the main people who review my records are old white men.
Do you have any black female guitar influences?
Jackie Venson, guitarist, independent artist: I love Rosetta Tharpe, I love Barbara Lynn, I also love Brittany Howard and I would love to learn about any more that I do not know.
If you had your way, how would you create a more inclusive media and music industry?
Cervante Pope, associate editor, The Deli magazine: Inclusivity involves changing perception. To have to do that on such a large scale would be nearly impossible, but if it's at all feasible to place creative output above any biases, then I don't see why both media and music can't be more of an open playground for everyone.