Black female rockers may seem like a contradiction in terms, but it ain’t necessarily so. While African-Americans who actually sing and can play a musical instrument have dwindled like a stream in Georgia since the rise of rap, there is still plenty of music out there that makes that term black female rockers not quite the thing of science fiction it may seem. Except for going deeply underground to find current incarnations of this elusive treasure, you may have to go back in time to discover that yes, Virginia, black female pop music artists are capable of rockin’ out.
Overshadowed by the more mundane, mainstream and glamorous Patti Labelle, Nona Hendryx was the real artist to rise from the discarded ashes of the singing group Labelle. Patti has written that the cause of that breakup of Labelle was due in large part to a mental breakdown suffered by Hendryx. If that be the case, then all of us who have suffered a mental breakdown should be so lucky. If Hendryx did go into the fiery pits of psychological hell, then she came out the other side far more creative. Her post-Labelle work runs the gamut of musical stylings from the disco-funk of her own band Material to becoming an integral part of the Talking Heads move from stripped-down post-punk to funky new wave by providing a wealth of backup vocals. But it has been Nona Hendryx’s solo albums that provide the best evidence that black girls can fire it up.
You may remember “I Sweat (Going through the motions)” from the bad John Travolta movie (and don’t we all get tired of saying that so often) Perfect. Her biggest album as a rocker was the self-titled Nona, but I prefer The Art of the Defense, the follow-up. You would probably have heard more about Nona Hendryx, but her record label Epic was run by the typical imbecilic buffoons on the record business and they were confused about how to market a rock and roll record made by a woman. Idiots.
“I Love It When You Call Me Names” sounds for all the world like the kind of song that Tipper Gore in her Nazi heyday would have clamored for Congress to put a sticker on claiming it was corrupting the youth. (Remember, Tipper Gore put The Cure’s “Let’s Go to Bed” on her hit list, obviously having only read the title since the song’s lyrics hardly contain anything that can even remotely be considered objectionable.) Armatrading’s wicked little rocker with a devilish bass line and a guitar lick that would be right at home among any band made up of a bunch of white guys turns the listener’s expectations on its head by singing the song from the guy’s point of view. It is a love song, true, but a love song about a particular kind of S&M relationship. The beauty of Armatrading’s songs is that she can tweak an emotional dimension out of lyrical content that in the hands of someone like Celine Dion would be just another Michael Bolton song.
Tracy Chapman seemed to be on the verge of being anointed a goddess by the Grammy Awards awhile back. Yeah, well, just ask Christopher Cross what winning a bunch of Grammy Awards really means. Unlike Cross, however, Tracy Chapman may have deserved hers; she certainly deserves to be ahead of the multitude of far less talented rappers who are ahead of her on the charts and in the consciousness of radio listeners. Chapman’s bluesy rock speaks to the same elements of popular music that produced everyone from Elvis Presley to Keith Richards. She’s got a gritty, knowing perspective that doesn’t dip into the nihilism of much rap music. She’s a bit more subdued black female rocker than Nona Hendryx, but watching Chapman and Armatrading play the guitar should make anyone who looks at the antics of rappers who possess no musical ability whatever proud.