Blog, Social Justice

Stop “Discovering” Black Women

With the passing of Tina Turner , I’ve noticed that so much of the coverage of her life revolves around her abusive ex-husband and the various men she has crossed paths within her career professionally. It’s a curious thing when one’s obituary is largely dedicated to their abuser and with that the fear that we, hours after the passing of a Black woman with cultural iconic status, are already setting her up to be “re-discovered” in 50 years as a lost and forgotten talent much like Ma Rainey, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, & Mary Lou Williams. Always praised as if even in their time they were swept aside when in reality they weren’t. “Discovering” us as if we were The New World. There are always instances where men (due to the patriarchal society we live in) are elevated in the public’s eye (mostly due to the work behind the cameras) but all of these women were cultural Gods in their time. Well respected by their professional peers and often highly regarded in discussion with their (male!) peers in particular.

Hours of footage, interviews, and personal writings can be found of the men we celebrate where they openly express their admiration for these women while often admitting to theft!

Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Johnny Cash on behalf of Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Dizzy Gillespie on behalf of Mary Lou Williams.

…and David Bowie and Mick Jagger on behalf of Tina Turner.

So no, these women were not “slept on” in their time. It’s as if society picked one black woman from each generation of music and said that’s it for this round. Purposely setting them aside. But of course that was before George Floyd and Juneteenth.

Tina Turner was the first woman to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone. She acquired 12 Grammys in her time. She sold over 200 million records worldwide. She was a Rock Hall Inductee! She holds the Guinness World Record for selling more concert tickets than any solo artist in history. Notice how solo excludes Ike. She had the greatest “come back” in musical history actively destroying the idea that needed her abusive ex-husband in order to gain success. Yes! Tina Turner! Proud Mary! Rivers deep and mountains high! The Queen of Rock’N’Roll! Please! Do not allow this woman’s legacy to be credited to Ike Turner. A 16 year stint in her life. A man you would not know without Tina.

Rolling Stones cover on November 1, 1969. Source: Rolling Stones Baby!

With the internet being as accessible as it is in this country, with the access we have to our communities, archives, video footage, & documents-organizing it is up to us as women, women of color, and accomplices to keep these names afloat. This also means pulling up what we can about women like Rosinha De Valença, a Brazilian classical guitarist, Sarah Vaughn, a jazz vocalist famous enough in her own right but often discussed as an after thought behind Ella Fitzgerald, Bette Davis, psychedelic rock and funk pioneer often regarded sololy as the wife of Miles Davis. There’s also Emily Remler, a jazz guitarist from the 80s celebrated as one of the greatest guitarist of her time and swiftly forgotten after her early passing, Esperanza Spalding, a living jazz bassist, composer, and vocalist who has revolutionized bass playing, and Jordan Waters, Lizzo’s 19-year-old touring guitarist who is melting the faces off of thousands of people every night.

The reality is women and non-binary people cannot trust anyone else to manage our history. Especially in areas where we are most unexpected. But please, let us stop digging up the legacies and careers of black women for a short Black history, Women’s History, or Pride/Juneteenth celebration. Let us discuss our leaders and our icons the way white men celebrate Elon Musk and Hemingway. I encourage us to be relentless and persistent pulling these names into our lesson plans, TBRs, and paint and sips. I don’t want my grand kids asking me if I’ve ever heard of Tina Turner.

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