clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The All-Too-Radical Existence of the Black Woman Rockstar

HBO’s new Tina Turner documentary explores the life of an icon who never got her due for existing in spaces typically associated with white artists. And the issue still affects new generations of trailblazing women.

Scott Laven/Getty Images

This week’s episode of Black Girl Song Book discusses the struggles and triumphs of singers like Corinne Bailey Rae, Fefe Dobson, and Melanie Fiona, who make music not typically expected of Black women. To hear the episode, click here.


I was born in 1995, which wasn’t that long ago, but in a world of TikTok and instant stardom, sometimes time and our perception of it seem drastically different. When records like Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” return to prominence, it puts things in perspective. Iconic songs should never be missed, nor should the icons who drove them into our musical memory. But beware of the false narratives that can hide the icons.

I vaguely remember listening to Tina Turner’s “Disco Inferno” as a child, but she truly came into my life as a college freshman, as I sat in an old building, middle row, in an uncomfortable plastic chair confining me to the hour and a half of critical listening. The class was designed to build the necessary vocabulary to talk about music critically. From the synthetic harmonica solo to the flute line in the opening intro, I had to listen and dissect every part of “What’s Love Got to Do With It” to the point where, if I hear the song today, it brings back an trace of nausea. Back then, I thought Tina Turner was simply a woman of the ’80s. I knew about her turbulent marriage and musical relationship with Ike Turner, which produced hits like “Proud Mary” and “River Deep, Mountain High,” but that didn’t seem like very long ago. I underestimated Tina’s age—I wrote her off as being in her late 30s. I was mistaken.

HBO’s new documentary Tina puts Turner’s life story into perspective. It details her career, life, hardships, and complex relationships. However, that wasn’t what fascinated me. Sure, the archival footage of Tina playing packed stadiums backed by a young band in form-fitting karate suits was entertaining, but what was more telling was my necessity to grab my phone every few minutes, fact-checking. Did she really reinvent herself in her late 40s? Was she really in her 80s now? There was no way in hell. I felt like everything I knew clearly wasn’t enough. I was blown away at her ability to not only recreate her image, but also at the fact that she considered herself the Queen of Rock. Perhaps I was unaware because she’s never gotten her proper due in that regard.

The inability to properly categorize her dates back to her early career with Ike Turner, when they made music based in soul and blues. U.S. programmers stunted the growth of both Ike and Tina. Not allowing a song like “River Deep, Mountain High” to exist on American radio is exactly what pigeonholed Tina as an R&B or soul artist. In a 1971 issue of Rolling Stone, journalist Ben Fong-Torres quotes Ike Turner as saying the song didn’t get airplay because the soul stations found it too pop and the white stations found it too R&B. “Rather than accept something for its value … America mixes race in it,” he added. Rock is a direct offshoot of soul and blues. Rock ’n’ roll is controversial, bad ass, and tough—perseverance is required. The lifestyle can over-romanticize sex and drugs. A career in music is filled with hardships. Tina, notably, lived a life that required persistence, strength, and the ability to reimagine what she could be in the music industry. In that sense, she’s lived the life of a rockstar.

An icon is a trendsetter. Tina was the first black artist and the first female artist to be given a Rolling Stone cover. Tina is the woman who taught Mick Jagger how to dance. She toured with the Stones and sold out arenas. And the dancing? The showmanship? Her unbelievably beautiful long legs? The image of her drenched in sweat, strutting, and commanding the stage—it’s similar to Freddie Mercury flamboyantly directing the crowd at Live Aid 1985, the audience latching onto every phrase. It’s on par with the spectacle that is Tommy Lee of Mötley Crüe swinging upside down mid-drum solo. Tina is electrifying from the moment she hits the stage, as notably shown in footage from her “Nice ’n’ Rough” tour. She wholeheartedly embodies a rock singer. But her name doesn’t come up in the conversations as much as the usual suspects—do a quick Google search and you’ll see the predictable chatter about white icons Joan Jett, Janis Joplin, and Stevie Nicks. She’s mentioned in the occasional article about “How Do We Define Rock?” but that’s BS.

Tina, the documentary, does a wonderful job of taking the audience through her story, particularly her origins as a child who picked cotton in Tennessee and how she convinced Ike Turner to give her a place in his band. However, toward the middle of the film, we rush past what might have been the most interesting part: Labels wanted nothing to do with Tina Turner, especially the version of Tina Turner that dreamed of selling out arenas and being a rock vocalist. How is that possible?

Tina is a natural frontwoman. She owns the band, demands power, and leads an energetic, dynamic show. So when we drop names like David Bowie, Jagger, and Steven Tyler as iconic rock figures, why don’t we include hers? Listening to 1984’s Private Dancer today, tracks like “Show Some Respect” and “Steel Claw” feel like obvious, no-brainers for rock radio. The guitar solos alone are serious business. Turner is in a lane of her own, but associating her with Joan Jett, Debbie Harry, or Nancy and Ann Wilson of Heart wouldn’t seem unusual. Yet many, myself included, have become accustomed to viewing her as an R&B or pop singer. Perhaps this is because songs like “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and “The Best” are the most notable, award-winning tracks in her solo discography. The world is tightly attached to the idea of categorizing everything—from skin color to orientation to sex. In music, Black is synonymous with R&B. Whiteness in rock is captured by the image of Elvis Presley or the Beatles. People wrongfully assume in looking at Tina that perhaps she is an R&B singer. Maybe the gravitas of her voice, deep and powerful, alludes to that as well. Truthfully, I think this has more to do with the color of her skin. Tina does too. As she told Rolling Stone in 1986:

“It hurts to be a minority. I am looked down upon because I’m Black. It’s forever. It’s like a curse on you. … We can stand now, but it’s still there—it’s a memory, because you are branded. It’s wishing that we, as a Black people, had had a chance to be as fantastic as we were before being knocked down and made slaves.”

This year could be a significant one for Tina. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees will be announced in May, and Tina—who entered the Hall in 1991 for her work with Ike—is nominated as a solo artist. If anyone deserves to join, it is a solo Tina.

Tina isn’t alone in experiencing this kind of genre racism from the music industry and the listening public. The issue was deftly captured in Tyler, the Creator’s post-Grammy press conference in 2020. He had just won Best Rap Album at the ceremony for his fifth LP, IGOR. But in his view, it wasn’t a rap album—he sang most of it. It was a pop album. “It sucks that whenever we—and I mean guys that look like me—do anything that’s genre-bending, they always put it in a ‘rap’ or ‘urban’ category,” he said.

Tyler was right, but he neglected to acknowledge that this happens to women too—maybe even more so than men. Black artists live in the confines of R&B, soul, hip-hop, gospel, and blues. Anything that diverts from this typically doesn’t make sense to the listening public. Black women like Nicki Minaj or Lil’ Kim are allowed to be hard and angry, but why can’t others channel their anger outside of rap or hip-hop? What about rock? Genres that were started by Black folks are suddenly deemed spaces that we cannot thrive in.


As a musician and young actress, I went into audition rooms and labels and sat with executives. The one thing that was repeated was some sentiment of we just don’t know where to put you. My ideal music career would easily consist of touring the world, playing guitar and being in a band like Alabama Shakes. Dare I even mention Greta Van Fleet. I love roots rock, I love the blues. I love guitar-driven hooks and the freedom of expression, to wear James Bay wide-brimmed fedoras. My first EP, Sophomore Season (which is floating somewhere on the internet), was closer to the music I wanted to make. Nobody cared about it or received it in the first place, but that was the music that felt right to make to me. Alabama Shakes’ 2015 Coachella blew my mind. Brittany Howard was my everything. She still is. But what made sense to me was a Black woman on stage, gutterly singing and I wanted that.

Labels, on the other hand, didn’t. Blogs wouldn’t write about the EP. In one instance, a publication rejected a premiere of my single because it was “too classic rock,” as they put it. So I labeled myself as “alternative.” I shifted gears, partly because I knew that meant my music would be better received. That same publication that had passed three years prior gave me a huge write-up with a single that leaned a bit more indie pop. I found more success with my new music, but I was disappointed about “selling out.” Even though I produced and wrote the music myself, the new songs felt like a departure from the girl I had always dreamed of being. Regardless of the talent or quality of the work, it was the look that needed to make sense, and a mixed-race girl singing alt-rock or going out for a role in Thirteen just didn’t “look” right.

I found a lot of solace in an artist named Fefe Dobson. She broke onto the scene with “Bye Bye Boyfriend,” a guitar-heavy, power-punk anthem that features Fefe roaring the lyrics. Black eyeliner, the popped collared shirts, the weird wristband obsession that came with the early 2000s—she would’ve fit perfectly on a tour with fellow Canadian singer, Avril Lavigne. Most everyone knows “Sk8er Boi” and “Complicated,” and we know and still love Hayley Williams of Paramore. But why can’t we allow Black rockers to succeed just as much as we celebrate, champion, and ride for white rock musicians? I could shed tears for the amount of times I felt seen by an artist like Fefe Dobson.

Growing up a tomboy and queer, I was hardly celebrated for my differences. People often joked that getting into college would be an ease—I could check off all the boxes. I was a multiracial woman, queer, and middle class. I was a shoo-in. Looking back, it’s not so much of a compliment. In fact, I was always othered. I was never white enough or Black enough while growing up in predominantly white private school areas. I remember my older sister playing people like Pink and Fefe. They made sense to me. The distressed jeans, the spaghetti-strap shirts. The lack of makeup or sometimes, the unnecessary amount. I wore ripped jeans and band T-shirts, I finally let my hair loose after my mother begged me to keep it in a pristine ballerina bun, I put on vibrant colors and suspenders. I desperately wanted to play with guitars and shred like the older men suffocating the aisles of the Sunset Strip Guitar Center. I wanted to jump on stage and scream and allow myself to be angry for the boys (and the girls to come) who broke my heart.

Fefe’s career, while successful, still feels undervalued and underrated. If you go to any of her music videos, the comment section starts to look the same. “She should’ve been bigger.” “She was ahead of her time.” But it’s the comments like “It was nice to see a black girl singer who wasn’t doing the typical R&B Destiny’s Child, TLC–type music” or “I was so excited to see a black girl make punk rock music- it was so exciting and refreshing I never thought it was possible” that feel bittersweet. The sentiments are true. She was exciting and refreshing, but the possibilities and visibility still feel bleak even in 2021, 11 years removed from her last album, Joy.

Corinne Bailey Rae is another artist who, despite the recognition, the Grammy wins, and the widespread success, is still not viewed like a Norah Jones, as she rightfully should be. “Put Your Records On” has the same energy as “Don’t Know Why.” Both are soft, pop-like records that evoke a freeness among women. Corinne feels like the type of bait that Americans would love. She’s a mixed British woman who comes across as delicate and soft, wearing flowy skirts and ballet flats. If a Black woman in rock is typically considered “threatening,” then Corinne is the polar opposite. She spoke about Black joy before Black joy was even seen as something worth celebrating. And I think for many Black people, the way “Put Your Records On” reemerged was confusing.

Ritt Momney is the stage name of 21-year-old Utah native Jack Rutter. He had made music for years, but it wasn’t until a cover of “Put Your Records On” blew up on TikTok that he found success. According to Billboard, the cover has been used in more than 1.4 million videos on the platform. This put Rutter on a fast track to becoming a star—he signed with Columbia/Disruptor Records in September, just as his cover landed on the Hot 100 chart.

It’s conflicting. Corinne gave the cover her blessing, and monetarily, it never hurts to be covered (let alone 15 years removed from the track’s initial release). But dissecting the fact that he is a white man covering a Black woman’s song about Black joy and freedom is bizarre and has led to a larger discussion online about whether or not Rutter should have released the song in the first place. Rutter is a white man who will never have to endure half of the cultural conversations Corinne Bailey Rae is breaking down on the track—and Rutter is aware of this now, even if he wasn’t when he recorded his version. “I think it was stupid of me to cover a song by a black woman, especially one that mentions aspects of black life that I obviously have no experience with,” he tweeted: “If I could go back and simply cover another song by someone else I would.”

I agree—it was stupid on principle. But he’s continued to benefit from the success of the release. It’s not that you can’t sing songs that aren’t by your race, but it’s a song that is very specifically not about his experience. Stating “if I could go back and simply cover another song by someone else I would’’ isn’t productive. It’s empty.

I think the success of “Put Your Records On” stems from many white listeners not realizing it is about Black people, which might also translate into why his cover is so popular. It’s obvious, though: Corinne paints the attitude perfectly with lines like, “Got to love that Afro hairdo” and “Just go ahead let your hair down.” Commenting on the song’s lyrics on Genius, Rae wrote:

I’ve had a few experiences of wearing my hair out and natural for the first time. I used to just tie it back and have it permed and then I’ve had relaxed super straight, probably short and straight hair.

I remember when I first started wearing it out and feeling self conscious and people were making fun of me as well because it’s so different, and living in England, it was against what was considered to be a nice way to have your hair.

A “nice way” to have your hair. Smh. Something that’s pleasing to the eye and not untamed or wild. Why can’t untamed or wild be fun? Hell, Mel B of Spice Girls was the “scary” one, in part because she had a gorgeous head of curls. The obsession to demonize what doesn’t make sense is toxic, a destructive social habit that has persisted for far too long. And it’s also another example of how the music industry doesn’t know how to treat Black women who don’t fit into preordained roles.

Black folks rightfully take up space in a multitude of areas, whether that be music, sports, or film and TV. Yet white people often overlook their accomplishments and triumphs. They undermine them with diminishing statements. They never hesitate to make us question why we are there in the first place. We’ve seen this firsthand with heavy hitters like Serena Williams—the greatest tennis player of all time who, still, when outraged at a call during the 2018 U.S. Open final, was made out to be an angry Black woman and fined for her outburst toward the umpire. As Rebecca Traister wrote for The Cut at the time: “Until Williams and her sister came along, [tennis] was dominated by white players, a sport in which white men have violated those rules in frequently spectacular fashion and rarely faced the kind of repercussions that Williams—and Osaka—did on Saturday night.”

Viola Davis explained the problem perfectly during a Woman in the World discussion in 2018. Her résumé is on par with white colleagues Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver but she is never recognized in the same vein. When Black women challenge ideas, emote, or even try to live peacefully, it comes with challenges that are set to defeat us before we even begin.

Rock music, tennis, playing an instrument, or even directing or acting on screen—they aren’t seen as being for us Black folks. They especially aren’t for Black women. Why? Who sets these standards? And who says we can’t defy or define them for ourselves? It’s not a simple question of why these women aren’t more famous than their white counterparts. Truthfully, it’s bigger than segregation in the music industry. We need to allow more room for softness, ease, and femininity for Black women. We need more freedom of expression, and we need more people, within music, to allow this and finally make sense of it. It’s not the job of Black women to now convince you that they deserve a place in spaces they created or helped create. We need to uplift and encourage them to be outside the box and we must stop othering based on stereotypes.

I’m grateful to these women for the visibility they built that continues to allow me and so many others to break free from the confines that we were given and were chosen for us. I hope that the generation behind me will question the barriers and unabashedly break them. Truthfully, I think they are already confident in how they identify, whether that be artistically or in their fashion. They are unique in how they choose to reexamine the world surrounding them. They’ve flipped it on its axis and reimagined the technology they were given, and are using it to create communities, trends, and new careers. They show up in life authentically. While we politely asked for permission, they push boundaries and then go one step beyond that. They bluntly show up just the way they are. It’s not a question. We’re not to be primed or patiently given the time to understand. They expect it, and those who don’t understand it are allowed to fuck off. We owe more to Fefe, Corinne, and Tina for trailblazing when it didn’t make sense, but in 2021, more than ever—the search for freedom and power seems perfect.