Rhythms of Liberation: Black Female Emancipation from Gospel to Trap Music

Edited by Naomi Kelechi Di Meo, Laetitia Leunkeu, Maguette Fall, Selam Tesfai

In tracing the journey of Black women in the music industry, it becomes evident that their narrative is one of revolution, innovation, and emancipation. Through the trials and triumphs of their careers, Black women artists have not only paved a path for themselves but have also illuminated a way forward for women of color across the United States. In celebrating the legacy of Black women in music, we honor not only their artistic achievements but also their profound impact on the struggle for equality and justice.

1. Intro: Resonating rhythms of liberation

by Naomi Kelechi Di Meo

Written listening to Four Women by Nina Simone

7min circa

My departure from church occurred around the age of 14 or 15. Surprisingly, my mother chose the silent treatment as punishment, sparing me a lecture on family embarrassment. Nevertheless, church and faith found alternative paths to reach me, and one of these avenues was through music. My Sundays took on a new guise: no longer seated among congregants listening to a preacher's sermon, but instead, engaged in household chores while the strains of gospel filled the air. My earliest memories consist of my mother belting out worship tunes, off-key yet heartfelt, as we spun records from the States. Though my faith wavered with time, I remain puzzled by the emotional pull gospel music exerts on me. It's not solely about the ethereal voices; it's the prominence of women in these soul-stirring melodies that captivates me. Hailing from a family deeply entrenched in musical passion and diverse genres, I found myself pondering the lives behind the musicians my parents revered—Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, to name a few—all formidable female voices who began their musical journey in the church.

It's no surprise that the church, past and present, holds significant social importance for the Black community. Serving as a central institution, it played a pivotal role in the Black emancipation movement in the United States, offering a space for organization, mobilization, and resistance against oppression. For Black women, in particular, the church provided a vital platform for visibility and voice in a world pitted against them. While acknowledging the flaws and taboos entrenched within the institution, it's imperative to recognize its role as a cornerstone for a community navigating shared experiences and seeking solace and resilience in collective belief. Failing to acknowledge the pivotal role of Black women in shaping this entity would be a grievous oversight.

The intrinsic link between Black women and the church underscores their ability to express thoughts and emotions through music, find mentorship from choir directors, assert cultural heritage, and challenge injustices. Gospel music served as a conduit for these expressions, laying the groundwork for subsequent emancipation movements. With the advent of the civil rights era, Black women seamlessly transitioned their mobilization efforts into existing political structures, fostering a collective consciousness around gender, race, and class struggles pivotal to the evolution of Black Feminist Thought. Music, inherently political, serves as a vehicle for expressing grievances and denouncing systemic injustices.

«Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees»

Strange Fruit originated as a protest poem against lynchings. In the poem, Meeropol expressed his horror at lynchings of African Americans. In the photo, the lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith. 7th August 1930. Marion, Indiana. (Lawrence Beitler / Wikimedia Commons)

From Billie Holiday's haunting rendition of Strange Fruit in 1939, later covered by Nina Simone in 1965, which poignantly depicted the brutality of racial violence and lynching, to the emergence of blues as a means of vocalizing anguish and emotional catharsis, Black women musicians have consistently amplified the voices of the oppressed. If Gospel was a plea for divine strength, blues became the anthem of resistance, echoing the shackles of slavery into ancestral melodies. Female blues artists like Etta James, Gertrude Ma Rainey (the mother of blues), and Sister Rosetta Tharpe advocated for social justice and racial equality alongside themes of love and sorrow. These pioneers laid the foundation for other subsequent musical genres. Rhythm and blues emerged from the blues tradition in the 1940s and 1950s, combining elements of blues, jazz, and gospel music. Soul developed in the 1950s and 1960s, blending elements of R'n'B, gospel, and blues. Funk music originated in the late 1960s and early 1970s, drawing inspiration from R'n'B, soul, and jazz, rock and roll, and lastly hip hop. This genre is primarily associated with urban culture and electronic music production; it has roots in African American musical traditions, including Blues. Hip hop artists often sample blues recordings and incorporate blues themes into their lyrics, reflecting the ongoing influence of the genre.

Despite historical narratives often overshadowing female contributions to these genres, women played a pivotal role in shaping their evolution. Sampling, a prevalent practice in hip hop and other contemporary genres, owes much of its inspiration to the voices of Black women. As musical genres evolved, so too did the role of Black women within them, epitomizing a perpetual metamorphosis across time and space. While feminism and emancipation are often associated with white Western culture, the indispensable role of Black female emancipation cannot be overlooked in understanding contemporary feminist movements worldwide. From clandestine gospel singers to outspoken rap icons, Black women have redefined societal norms and expectations, transcending from Billie Holiday to modern-day sensations like Sexyy Red. These women, the backbone and blueprint of American society, have not only nurtured generations but also challenged societal conventions, from labor to beauty standards, leaving an indelible mark on culture and fashion.

Billie Holiday records her penultimate album Lady in Satin at the Columbia Records studio. December 1957. New York City, New York. (Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

With the advent of disco and funk, Black women started embracing their female energy and bodies allowing themselves to cross lines of fashion and body exposure that were usually only reserved for white women. Donna Summer, Tina Turner, Diana Ross, and Chaka Khan are some of the most iconic names that are praised among fans. They challenged the sexualization and objectification that women of color have been subjected to by the hands of white supremacy and colonization, by embodying topics around sex, pleasure, and amusement. As previously mentioned, many of the music legends we know come from a strong relationship with the church, yet they challenged stereotypes and boundaries by embarking on a journey outside of lyrics, costumes, and sounds that stemmed away from a holy point of view. 

This inevitably allowed women in other genres such as R'n'B and hip hop to fully embrace self-expression, not just through lyrics but also through fashion, as more skin is revealed, different hairstyles are used, and accessories become centerpieces of the look. The 90s allowed us to witness the peak of Black Female expression both in the conscious and gangster sounds. From Queen Latifah to Lil Kim, Black female emancipation is what was served in every rhyme, tackling issues of sisterhood, liberation, abuse, and class struggles.

In our contemporary times, we have the possibility to engage with various feminist theorists, different from the white scholars who have shaped the feminist discourses both inside and outside of academia. hooks, Davis, Crenshaw, Lorde, Morrison are just some of the extraordinary names that are found on bookshelves or cited in the most important papers on feminism. All of this was made possible also through music, and the relation between gender struggle and emancipation through art forms such as music. Angela Davis's book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude 'Ma' Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday explores the intersection of blues music, black feminism, and social justice through the lives and legacies of three influential blues singers: Gertrude 'Ma' Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday.

Angela Davis pumps her fist in solidarity during a protest against police brutality as longshoremen shut down the Port of Oakland and 28 other ports along the west coast. 19 June 2020. Oakland, California. (Yalonda M. James / The San Francisco Chronicle)

In the book, Davis delves into the cultural and historical contexts in which these women lived and performed, highlighting their contributions not only to music but also to the broader struggle for civil rights and gender equality. She examines how their music served as a form of resistance against racial and gender oppression, providing a platform for expressing their experiences and challenging societal norms. Davis emphasizes the agency and autonomy of these women, portraying them as active participants in shaping their own narratives and identities. She argues that their music not only reflected their personal struggles but also spoke to larger social issues, such as racism, sexism, and economic exploitation. Through detailed analysis of their lyrics, performances, and personal biographies, Davis offers insights into the ways in which blues music served as a means of empowerment and liberation for black women, paving the way for future generations of artists and activists.

Sexyy Red's single cover “Free My N***a”. November 2023. Los Angeles, California.

Today, the scene is set with new powerhouses like Sexyy Red, Cardi B, Meghan Thee Stallion, Latto, Doja Cat, SZA, Victoria Monet, Janelle Monae, and many more. They're not just telling stories of struggle—they're flipping the script, embodying the spirit of winners not sitting on the sidelines but being at the top of it. Today, as we navigate a world fraught with inequality and injustice, the voices of Black women continue to lead the charge for liberation and equality. Understanding their struggles and triumphs is not only a testament to their resilience but also a roadmap for a more equitable future—one where every road leads to liberation.

2. Verse: Nina Simone's ode to Black Womanhood

by Laetitia Ingrid M. Leunkeu

Written listening to Work Song by Nina Simone

7min circa

«My skin is black» the first woman’s story begins, «my arms are long». «My hair is woolly», she whispers, «but my back is strong». Singing in a club in the Netherlands, in 1965, Nina Simone introduced a song she had written about what she called «four Negro women». «And one of the women’s hair», she says while brushing her hand across her own, «is like mine». Aunt Sarah is old, yes, but her strong back has allowed her «to take the pain inflicted again and again». Then comes Saffronia, whose yellow skin and long hair are the result of her rich white father having violence against her mother— «Between two worlds I do belong». Sweet Thing, playfully talks about her tanned skin and her inviting hips. Who(se) is she? «Yours if you have enough money». «My skin is brown», Peaches growl, «my manner is tough. I’ll kill the first mother I see. ’Cause my life has been rough».

And through these words, she expressed all the love she had grown for black womanhood. A “love song” - it was - that meant to undercover the wounds of being a black - ed woman within a society where - «The women in the song are black, but their skin tones range from light to dark and their ideas of beauty and their own importance are deeply influenced by that. All the song did was to tell what entered the minds of most black women in America when they thought about themselves: their complexions, their hair – straight, kinky, natural, which? – and what other women thought of them. Black women didn’t know what the hell they wanted because they were defined by things they didn’t control, and until they had the confidence to define themselves they’d be stuck in the same mess forever – that was the point the song made.»

Simone's lyrics in Four Women resonate deeply with black women's experiences and struggles. From Aunt Sarah's resilience in the face of repeated pain to Peaches' defiant declaration of strength, each of the woman in the song represents a different facet of black femininity, in a way that would «both critique and integrate ideals of personal beauty and desirability informed by racist standards» and puts into place «a system of valuation that would embrace a diversity of black looks» (bell hooks).

Through these narratives, Simone emphasizes the interconnectedness of black women's experiences by using skin color as a vehicle to explore the multifaceted nature of black identity and solidarity, challenging the narrow confines of societal norms and beauty standards imposed by racism.

However, the meaning of Four Women goes beyond the lyrics. It serves as a form of communion for black women, addressing societal issues that have long been ignored by the mainstream. Simone provides space for black women to assert their agency and reclaim their narratives, confronting stereotypes and historicizing them, in a world that seeks to suppress black female subjectivity. In this context the anger she performs in the last part of the song is merely a placid response to a culture that obscures black women through stereotypical portrayals: they are nameless, invisible, and if so, even the tragedy of their death risks being silenced.

Nina Simone. (Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

In this sense, the song embodies a critical feminist anthem that defies historical limitations. It sheds light on the complexities within the Black women’s experience, often overlooked by both society and mainstream feminism. Aunt Sarah, for instance, is not only a "slave" to her masters, but also to a husband, a father, a brother, black like her, who may even fight for their - black males - rights forgetting those of women. Similarly Saffronia, is derogatorily referred to as "yellow" and is especially alienating to the black community. Just as Sweet Thing’s customers are black, so are those who want to possess that "thing", that must have hair like white women. Peaches' anger is mainly against them, against their hypocrisy, their arrogance, and their violence.

Those words resonate within a context where gendered politics were often silenced, even within the civil rights movement:

«Oh daughter, dear daughter 

Take warning from me

And don’t you go marching

With the N-A-A-C-P

For they’ll rock you and roll you

And shove you into bed

And if they steal your nuclear secrets 

You’ll wish you were dead»

She was denouncing in Go Limp, impersonating the fear of a black mother:

«Oh mother, dear mother 

No, I’m not afraid

For I’ll go on that march 

And return a virgin maid.

With a brick in my handbag

And a smile on my face

And barbed wire in my underwear

To shed off disgrace»

Is the reassuring response of the daughter. But then:

«One day they were marching

A young man came by

With a beard on his cheek

And a gleam in his eye

And before she had time

To remember her brick…

They were holding a sit-down 

On a nearby hay rig

[...]

One day at the briefing

She’d heard a man say,

‘Go perfectly limp,

And be carried away’

So when this young man suggested

It was time she was kissed,

She remembered her brief

And did not resist»

Non-violent civil rights protesters were advised to “go limp” if they happened to be arrested by the police, to stress their non-violent stance in opposition to the police aggression and abuse of power during protests.

But what would happen to the young black women if they did “go limp” when participating in these protests?

Simone's appeal to black women lies in her ability to speak directly to them about a contagious societal disease for which no cure has yet been found, but which they could collectively confine in a space where they could be fought. She informed of her own experiences with sexual and gender-based violence, vividly portraying the stories of Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing, and Peaches, breathing life into their narratives. Her personal struggle with internalized oppression moved her from a profound sense of alienation to a place of collective solidarity with Black women - a transformative journey marked by communion.

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Eunice Kathleen Waymon - this was her birth name - faced formidable challenges throughout her life. Despite demonstrating exceptional talent as a pianist from a tender age, the segregational America did not spare her from the exclusion and discrimination that went hand in hand with her 'garb' as a black woman in that historical and social context. Simone grappled with persistent feelings of self-doubt and internalized oppression, navigating a society that consistently diminished her value based on race and gender. Her path to self-acceptance was tumultuous, punctuated by moments of profound estrangement and disillusionment. Nevertheless, through her music and activism, she was able to metamorphose those personal adversities, channeling her own experiences of marginalization into art that would have facilitated a collective journey of healing and resistance, paving the way for increased visibility and recognition for Black women within the broader struggle for civil rights.

Nina Simone at the Meltdown Festival. 1 July 1999. London, UK. (Bleddyn Butcher)

Simone issued a call for an exclusive solidarity among black women, whose uprising had largely been ignored by the Black liberation movement. She bravely broke silence, sharing her struggles with self-image and self-love with a community of Black women who have continually dealt with the double bind of being born black and female. While her popular mantra, «To be young, gifted and black» was an inspiration to the black masses, Four Women was an assertion of agency «in a world that has no interest in radical black female subjectivity» but would rather seek to «repress, contain, and annihilate it» (bell hooks).

bell hooks. 1999. (Margaret Thomas / The Washington Post)

Simone’s song lyrics reflect this collective identity, as she addressed issues of racial subjugation and the crisis of black womanhood in both socioeconomic and political power, and the spheres of art and aesthetics. She is part of that collective of women who questioned and reshaped the ideological program of 1960s black cultural nationalism creating their own visions of identity, community, and historical change.

Black artists such as Audre Lorde, Nina Simone, and Aretha Franklin draw energy from the movement of the spiritual into the secular to create exceptionally, inclusive, and transformative forms of survivorship. Radical Black women like Nina Simone, both inside and outside of the black liberation struggle, fought against patriarchal norms that would have kept them confined to private, non-confrontational spaces. In this way, these women «promoted and translated the emancipatory energies of a folk consciousness to the realm of art and aesthetics. Equally important, they implemented strategies to transform the material and expressive forms of folklore from sites of oppression to spaces of intervention and resistance». Folklore became a cultural realm that offered Black women a space for both artistic freedom and uplift for a greater cause. 

3. Chorus: Power and legacy of "Black Womanhood" and "Queen Mothers"

by Maguette Fall

Written listening to the 1993 feminist anthem U.N.I.T.Y. by Queen Latifah

7min circa

«Come here loverboy!»: so began Sylvia Robinson, alongside MacHouston "Mickey" Baker, as she kicked off with Love is Strange her legendary performance on The Steve Allen Show, aired on the NBC network on April 21st, 1957. At the time, the young Robinson was making her way through a music scene that saw African American women as conscious protagonists of all artistic backgrounds, within a world fully monopolized by white bourgeois American men or black men from their own African American communities.

Artists like Sylvia Robinson were the outstanding example of how often the creative minds behind great artists were black women who, in most cases, weren’t acknowledged for their productions, as their social class condition and status represented the first intersectional barrier to their opportunities and careers. Yet, one of the earliest landmark figures called out in Ladies First: A Story of Women in Hip-Hop, a Netflix documentary from 2023, is Sylvia Robinson herself, as she is considered one of the first and most influential music producers in history and the mother of the first record empire focused on rap performance and Hip Hop music. In fact, Sylvia was the creator and producer of the first 'certified' rap group in history, The Sugar Hill Gang, for whom she conceived and produced the first successful mainstream rap record, Rapper's Delight, released in summer 1979, which 'transformed the street culture of hip-hop into a commercially viable art form' (Charnas, 2019). Despite the critics for allegedly creating an “artificial” rap group that had nothing to do with real street culture, what is crucial to grasp from groundbreaking figures like Robinson is the power and legacy left by women like her, not only within the investments and dynamics of the US music industry, but also - and especially - within black feminist culture and critical thinking from the 1980s to the present day.

Back cover of Sylvia Robinson’s Pillow Talk single. 1973. New York City, New York. (Vibration)

To better understand the point, some background is needed: since the dawn of time, the interpretation of lived experiences and social phenomena through music has always been at the foundation of the expressive culture of black communities worldwide. Therefore, the advent of rap performance on the US music scene from the late 1970s onwards simply constituted a revolutionary new means of observing, critiquing and sharing these phenomena, which were deeply entangled with economics, welfare, rights, status and culture. Nothing that existed (and exists) at an academic level in terms of black activism, grassroots revolution and sociological studies could be divorced from the existence and influence of rap and street culture, while rap and street culture existed (and exist) apart from any academic paper or journal that might deal with the subject.

Sylvia Robinson. 12 July 1973. New York City, New York. (Don Paulsen / Michael Ochs Archives)

It was on this basis then, that Hip Hop culture became inextricably intertwined with black feminism, through the emergence of black feminist figures in rap that turned the tables. When searching for narratives and information about Sylvia Robinson's legacy, these often deal with her great entrepreneurial flair; even more frequently, though, the narrative focuses on her financial struggles or disputes with ruthless male competitors within the music industry of the 1980s-1990s (Charnes, 2019). Yet, the most important legacy was the one left to black women, who subsequently began their own rise in the rap scene and music industry: namely, the courage to embark on a journey in the midst of an entire society rowing against you and to take the space and credit that are rightfully yours. A journey, for the most part, without any instruction booklet.

«They say 'how is it being in the music industry as a woman?' 'I don't know. I am a woman. I don't know any other way. I can just tell you my story» - Mc Lyte,  from Ladies First: A story of Women in Hip-hop (Netflix, 2023)

MC Lyte (aka Lana Moorer). 5 May 1989. New York City, New York. (Al Pereira / Michael Ochs Archives)

Robinson left behind not only a way of doing business, but also a form of black female agency and identity, characterized by a constant struggle for affirmation and independence within a landscape of fierce competition and male domination. The effectiveness of this legacy became palpable the moment four women, who had already written the history of Hip Hop, were seated in a television lounge in 1999. A talk show called The Queen Latifah Show, where behind the host's main chair there was not the typical bespectacled middle-aged white man asking awkward questions, but instead a proud, fearless, full-figured Black Queen Mother, who, just a few years earlier, had ruled the Billboard charts with U.N.I.T.Y. (1993), one of the most powerful feminist tracks ever produced in music history.  Chatting with her about philanthropy, their musical, but also life, sisterhood and mutual gratitude and admiration, Lauryn Hill, Mary J. Blige and Missy Elliott sat side by side on the couch, in one of the most legendary crossovers ever. The energy generated in that room, in that moment, still oozes from any screen; while watching that one interview clip - still recoverable on Youtube in a very low quality, in full 90s style - it is evident how, rather than magic, it was about an expression of Black womanhood legacy in its purest form.

Queen Latifah has always been a bearer, unknowingly in her early days, of a powerful black feminist legacy. She herself, in an interview a few years ago, when asked "Do you consider yourself a feminist?", replied "I consider myself my mother's daughter", recounting how as a younger woman she lived so immersed in street culture, alongside her peers, that she did not realize she had become a feminist icon in the eyes of the public. Latifah explained that everything she conveyed through her music in those days was simply an extension of her mother's teachings - the one to first push her towards a musical career and to first encourage her to embrace her true self through art, thus unapologetically Black and unapologetically woman: there was born the colossal icon that is Queen Latifah as we know her today. In the wake of the same unawareness, Latifah was given at the time the appellation 'Queen Mother', precisely because of the message that not only her songs conveyed, but that was also reverberated by her image and body: «Latifah's maternal demeanor, posture, and full figure contribute to the perception of her as a queen mother» (Keyes, 2000). On the definition of "Queen Mother", the words of Angela Y. Davis in 1998 come in handy:

«Their rhymes embrace Black female empowerment and spirituality, making clear their self-identification as African, woman, warrior, priestess and queen. Queen mothers demand respect not only for their people but for Black women, who are to be accorded respect by...men».

Monie Love and Queen Latifah performing during a concert. 1990. Newark, New Jersey. (Raymond Boyd / Getty Images)

This archetype of black female figure took root during the 1990s, which culminated in the rise of another heiress and transmitter of this legacy. It was 1997 when Erykah Badu took the stage in Washington D.C. - as she herself recalls in the podcast episode dedicated to her on The FADER Uncovered (2021). With that simple inquiry, "Brothers, y'all alright?", she not only unsettled the crowd and the course of Nu-Soul music history, but also - and above all - every black African-American woman who came across her path. Tyrone (Live), the song in question, remained embedded, like a diamond, in the minds of these women, a true Black feminist anthem that officially marked Badu as a true Black feminist legend. Among the extraordinary things about this song was the fact that it was recorded entirely live on the spot, a pure improvisation born out of Erykah's synergy with her tight-knit band; yet, even more remarkable was that tall, regal silhouette of her, adorned with ancestry and African heritage, moving steadfastly to the notes of an anthem of independence from these broken and emotionally unavailable men, which reflected her essence as Queen Mother. That Bag Lady (2000) baggage that Badu carries with her, just like Latifah, was forged within the framework of an African-American feminist musical revolution, which peaked in the 1990s and paved the way for all the Women in Hip Hop of our time.

Erykah Badu performs during Baduizm World Tour. 1997. Chicago, Illinois. (Paul Natkin / WireImage)

Badu inherited from her peers and the artists that preceded and accompanied her a political way of making music, from her first child Baduizm (1997) to the albums New Amerykah Part One & 2 (2008/2010) and the 'stay woke' re-revolution they triggered, as well as establishing herself early on as a fashion icon and Afrofuturist spokesperson, becoming one of the most influential African American artists of all time. Through her very focus on empowering self and Black consciousness, Badu expresses her experience as a black woman in America in a unique and almost unrepeatable manner, aligning herself with the protest and struggle for independence and affirmation shared by those black women heiresses aforementioned.

These three women basically exemplify how today's music industry owes everything to Black American women. There is a gigantic debt to all those who revolutionized not only music, but also the minds and collective consciousness of communities and movements from below, using their voices and bodies in a non-conformist manner - depending on the societal norms of the time -, and profoundly influencing contemporary Black women artists. These women have shaped the entire Hip Hop Culture and are the physical representation of an intersectional feminist movement within the culture itself; without them, we might not be able to talk about Hip Hop music industry, legacy or even feminism today. To conclude with the last words of Queen Latifah in Ladies First (2023):

«You need us in Hip Hop. We gotta say what we gotta say sometimes. You need that beat. You need that rhyme. You need that song. You need those words. And they're words only a woman will speak».

4. Bridge: The power of the erotic has always been in our ears

by Selam Tesfai

Written listening to this playlist:

7min circa

«To be read several times. It always takes time to digest what a black feminist writes»

With these words written on the cover page, I was given Uses of the Erotic: Erotic as a Power, a book written by Audre Lorde in 1978 and landed on my bedside table less than 10 years ago. It was immediately clear to me from the title that this book was a rallying cry against patriarchy: a woman writing the word erotic in the title of an essay is in itself a provocation, in a society that forces women to suppress anything sensual about themselves. Uses of the Erotic: Erotic as a Power is an essay that opens up a radical view of the world: the erotic is a power that is taken away from women, abused and denigrated, because it is a source of energy that can enable them to rise up and resist. 

Audre Lorde during the Berlin years. 1984-1992. Berlin, Germany. (Dagmar Schultz)

We women[1] grow up knowing that there is something about us that bothers, is discomforting, wreaks havoc. We have all been taught to fear our own body, to feel uncomfortable in our own flesh, which thus prevents us from exploring and knowing ourselves in depth. Since childhood, the mantra has been to stay composed, to ensure that our body does not bother others, does not attract the male gaze, does not turn them on. Our body must be tamed, normalised, even made taboo. For many it is still unthinkable to consider it as a source of joy and pleasure.

For this reason, we have often turned away from exploring the erotic, using it as a source of power and information about our body. Instead, we have often mistaken it for its opposite, the heteronormative pornography, i.e. the direct denial of the power of the erotic, the suppression of the true emotion, a plastic and distorted representation, far removed from conveying to oppressed bodies the power of joy and pleasure. How can pleasure be recognised, then, when our bodies are only depicted as being there to serve others?

«Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet»

Audre Lorde was born on february 18th, 1934, to Frederic and Linda Belmar Lorde, immigrants from the caribbean islands of Grenada and Barbados. She was the youngest of three sisters and grew up in Harlem, New York. Lorde described herself as «black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet»; a description which narrates the intertwining of identities that inhabited her body and that she would embody through her books, poetry and political activism  pursued throughout her life, thus becoming one of the most important thinkers of intersectional black feminism. Lorde continued to write prolifically throughout the seventies and the eighties, exploring the intersections of race, gender and class, and examining her own identities in a global context.

Audre Lorde speaking at the March on Washington for Lesbian & Gay Rights. 14 October 1979. Washington D.C. (Larry Butler / Botts Collection)

In 1977, a year before the release of her famous essay Uses of the Erotic: Erotic ad a power, Lorde not only discovered that she had breast cancer, but found that the treatments for women were shrouded in silence and, for her, as a lesbian and black woman, were even more isolating. Lorde felt that the narratives on coping with illness and healing she had encountered in her researches were exclusively designed for heterosexual white women. In an effort to challenge this silence and foster connection with other lesbians and black women facing the same struggle, Lorde offered a harsh portrayal of pain and hope in The Cancer Journals (1980), a seminal text in breast cancer literature.

Lorde’s advocacy on behalf of black people and the queer community continued also outside of her literary career. In 1979, she was a prominent speaker at the National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights. In 1981, alongside Barbara Smith and other writers, Lorde founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, a publishing house dedicated to promoting racialized feminists and their writings. Lorde was also a founding member of Sisterhood in Support of Sisters in South Africa, an organisation that stood up for women living under apartheid.

Audre Lorde with Barbara Smith and other authors, founders of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. 1981. Boston, Massachusetts. (Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press)

Sadly, cancer recurred. Lorde died in 1992, leaving us with valuable tools to deconstruct the way black women’s bodies have been narrated, with poetry and analyses to spread and keep on exploring.

«The erotic has often been misnamed by men and used against women.»

Audre Lorde not only suggested focusing on the possibility of liberation that the erotic gives to women’s body, but also rediscovering its conflictual facet which allows the hegemony of male power to be unveiled: in the hands of women, the erotic is a revolutionary power. 

«There is something I want you to do for me

I want you to use yourself (hey)

Like you've never, ever used to do before (never)

To explore my body (explore it, baby)

Until you reach the shore (yeah)

I'll be calling, calling for more (calling)»

Rock the boat by Aaliyah

It was the nineties, I was a few years old and lucky enough to have an older sister who recorded from the radio onto cassette tape all the hits by girl groups dominating the U.S. hip-hop scene during the Golden Era: En vogue, Salt’n’pepa, TLC. From lyrics to their song titles, from choreographies to the outfits in their music videos; the black women who have initiated the world to hip hop culture expressed their sensuality, didn’t fear it, used it as a power to reappropriate, responding in kind against the misogyny and racism of U.S. society and music industry, reclaiming female sexual pleasure.

Salt-N-Pepa SHOOP

They were joined by the voices of Queen Latifah, Lauryn Hill, Lil’ Kim and, towards the end of the nineties, Erykah Badu and Missy Elliot entered the scene. These world-renowned artists, who emerged over the course of a decade, constantly challenged with their style the dominant female aesthetic standards and those of hip hop, narrating an incredible cultural fervour and documenting the great contribution of black women to the birth, development and spread of hip hop.

They were the women who laid the groundwork for hip hop to become a vehicle for black feminism, which was always able to influence African-American oral tradition. Black feminism used the different genres of black music as a weapon of dissemination: from blues to R’n’B, the American discography features the signatures of many black women who, through singing and rapping, have been able to narrate concrete examples of the intersection of race, gender and class, but also of everyday resistance, care and community defence. 

«Girls can't never say they want it

Girls can't never say how

Girls can't never say they need it

Girls can't never say now»

Girls need love by Summer Walker

Like Audre Lorde, many black female artists have contributed to narrating the challenge of conceiving the erotic as a conflictual power, which, through provocation, reveals taboos and misogyny, but also the ability to reclaim the use of black women’s body. 

Audre Lorde had been writing poetry since childhood. Around the age of twelve, she wrote: «when I couldn’t find the poems to express the things I was feeling, that’s what started me writing poetry». These words crystallise the way in which segregated communities on the margins of patriarchal and capitalist societies, such as racialised and queer communities, constantly need not only to narrate themselves, but also to explore, through creativity, practices of semantic and social resistance, in order to regain the power to narrate themselves, and not let the oppressor alone describe who we are and how we think.

Audre Lorde lectures students at the Atlantic Center for the Arts. 1983. New Smyrna Beach, Florida. (Robert Alexander / Getty Images)

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about black feminism is its dwelling simultaneously in different languages and contexts, across eras and movements of resistance and liberation of black peoples across the world. Forms and practices that are narrated and passed on through music, hair care, poetry and performance art, dance and creativity, to build new languages, capable of opening up spaces of joy.

Lyrics, books, poems, articles, reels and live broadcasts: the tools our communities use to give vent to the need to narrate and transmit practices of liberation are endless, from a world that imposes us silence through the shaming, nullification and criminalisation of our bodies. A world without joy, that we do not want to be part of.

Uses of Erotic: Erotic as a Power is a book that has evoked dozens of microscopic sensations in me, which together have contributed to my being a feminist. Reading Audre Lorde’s words helped me to no longer fear my body, to stop denying the emotions it communicates, to actively rest to allow my body to exist, to feel, to enjoy and to rejoice. However, to think that only her words resonated with me would be reductive: the truth is that Audre Lorde - like some of the women I have named or included in the playlist I have compiled for this article - guarded and disseminated those ancestral secrets capable of revealing to us the powers that enable us to struggle and imagine liberation.

Notes:

[1] Women, queers, non-binary people or people who do not conform with bodies, genders and sexes accepted by patriarchal society.

5. Outro: «Never givin’ credit where it’s due cause you don’t like pussy in power»

by Naomi Kelechi Di Meo

Written listening to Venom by Little Simz

2min circa

In tracing the dynamic journey of Black women in the music industry, it becomes evident that their narrative is one of revolution, innovation, and emancipation. Through the trials and triumphs of their careers, Black women artists have not only paved a path for themselves but have also illuminated a way forward for women of color across the United States. Their unwavering commitment to self-expression, defiance against systemic oppression, and unyielding pursuit of their artistic vision have catalyzed a profound cultural shift, laying the foundation for the emergence of black feminist thought.

Aretha Franklin. (Michael Ochs Archives)

At the intersection of their musical prowess and societal advocacy lies the birth of black feminist thought, a paradigm that emerged from the lived experiences of Black women navigating intersecting oppressions of race, gender, and class. Through their artistry and activism, Black women musicians have been instrumental in shaping this discourse, challenging patriarchal structures, and advocating for the emancipation of all marginalized groups. From the lyrical poignancy of Nina Simone to the unapologetic activism of artists like Janelle Monáe, Black women in music have provided a platform for the articulation of black feminist principles, promoting concepts of self-determination, solidarity, and liberation. Their work has not only reshaped the cultural landscape but has also catalyzed a broader social movement, inspiring individuals from all walks of life to engage critically with issues of power, privilege, and identity. In honoring their contributions, we recognize the transformative potential of black feminist thought as a catalyst for social change and the ongoing struggle for emancipation and equality.

"Say Her Name" protest, artist Janelle Monáe and Wondaland Records members perform Hell You Talmbout protest song. 2015. Atlanta, Georgia. (Sheila Pree Bright)

From the pioneering voices of Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin to the contemporary trailblazers like Beyoncé and Cardi B, Black women in music have continuously shattered boundaries, challenged stereotypes, and demanded recognition for their talents. Through their lyrics, performances, and activism, they have become agents of change, challenging societal norms, and amplifying the voices of marginalized communities.

The influence of these trailblazing musicians extends far beyond the realm of entertainment. Their contributions have sparked conversations about intersectionality, representation, and social justice, igniting a movement that resonates across generations. As their music reverberates through the corridors of history, it serves as a testament to the enduring power of art as a tool for liberation and empowerment.

In celebrating the legacy of Black women in music, we honor not only their artistic achievements but also their profound impact on the struggle for equality and justice. Their journey serves as a beacon of hope, inspiring future generations to embrace their identity, embrace their truth, and continue the fight for a more inclusive and equitable society. As we reflect on their contributions, let us reaffirm our commitment to amplifying their voices, uplifting their stories, and ensuring that their legacy remains an integral part of our cultural tapestry.

References

Books

Davis, A. Y. (2011). Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday. United States: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Lorde, A. (1978). Uses of the erotic : the erotic as power. United States: Out & Out Books.

Articles

“Audre Lorde.” Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/audre-lorde

“Audre Lorde.” Poets.orghttps://poets.org/poet/audre-lorde

“Audre Lorde, 58, A Poet, Memoirist And Lecturer, Dies.” The New York Times. November 20, 1992. https://www.nytimes.com/1992/11/20/books/audre-lorde-58-a-poet-memoirist-and-lecturer-dies.html

Carter, Mickell. "Queen Latifah and the Legacies of Black Power.", 22 february 2023 February 22, 2023. https://www.aaihs.org/queen-latifah-and-the-legacies-of-black-power/

Charnas, Dan. "The Rise and Fall of Hip-Hop’s First Godmother: Sugar Hill Records’ Sylvia Robinson", October 17, 2019. https://www.billboard.com/music/rb-hip-hop/sugar-hill-records-sylvia-robinson-hip-hop-godmother-8533108/

Keyes, Cheryl L. “Empowering Self, Making Choices, Creating Spaces: Black Female Identity via Rap Music Performance.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 113, no. 449, 2000, pp. 255–69

Phillips, Stephanie. "Sylvia Robinson’s Legacy as 'The Mother of Hip Hop' ", February 6, 2019. https://sheshreds.com/sylvia-robinson/

Saad, Nardine. "What does ‘woke’ mean now? Erykah Badu, who popularized it, clarifies original definition.", Los Angeles Times, March 29, 2023. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/music/story/2023-03-29/erykah-badu-woke-definition-conservatives-master-teacher 

Sanneh, Kelefa. "Godmother of Soul. Erykah Badu’s expanding musical universe.", The New Yorker, April 18, 2016. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/04/25/erykah-badu-the-godmother-of-soul