ReverberationsHistory and Legacies of Resistance in Black Women’s Music

This article appears in our 2017 Spring issue, Family Values. Subscribe today!

Beyoncé’s Lemonade and Solange’s A Seat at the Table have been lauded as two of the most pro-Black, self-care-centered albums of our time, and rightly so. Beyoncé’s visual album includes work from Black artists, including body paint by Nigerian artist Laolu Senbanjo and poetry by Warsan Shire. The album amplifies the faces and voices of the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown and ushers those on the margins of Blackness to the center with stunning visuals of young Black women activists like Zendaya and Amandla Stenberg. Likewise, Solange’s record and the visuals behind it celebrate Blackness, discuss people’s discomfort with pro-Black ideology, and fight back against the exoticization of Black women’s hair. In their work the sisters invoke a tradition of often covert resistance that Black women have been practicing since slavery—and though it felt groundbreaking, this tradition, especially in music, is far from new.

One of the guiding principles of Black feminist ideology is the idea of “acts of transfer.” Traditions, behaviors, and mannerisms are passed down from generation to generation; through acts of transfer, collective memory is formed. Music has served as a medium for preserving history and for survival. Enslaved people used music and hidden song to quietly protest their predicament. As Angela Davis writes in her book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, “Blues make abundant use of humor, satire, and irony, revealing their historic roots in slave music…the blues genre is a direct descendant of work songs, which often relied on indirection and irony to highlight the inhumanity of slave owners.”

Post emancipation, blues music filled the space that scholar Saidiya V. Hartman describes in her book Scenes of Subjection as the limbo between legal emancipation and actual freedom. Reconstruction was one of the most violent times in American history. Extralegal means, like lynching, rape, alongside legal but abusive practices such as sharecropping, emerged to maintain the status quo of Black subordination. It was out of this that blues culture emerged to vocalize the false hope many African Americans felt waning in their spirits.

The blues had an integral role in articulating the experience of middle-class and low-income Black people, validating a Blackness that remained on the margins rather than one predominantly based on affluent and well-off Black people. For example, when iconic blues singers Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith sang about their experiences with lovers and engaged in call-and-response with their audiences, they were fostering an imagined community consisting of them and other women who were dealing with multiple men, abusive men, or broken hearts, all seen as lowly or as perpetuating the myths of Black female hypersexuality.

These songs are what Davis describes as “advice songs.” She describes the imagined community in Smith’s “Safety Mama,” in which she encouraged women to be independent from the men they were involved with, as “one that refuses to place women in sexual and economic subordination to men. It affirms working-class women’s independence.” One could argue that Beyoncé’s Lemonade continues this legacy of “advice songs.” Along with providing social commentary on Black Southern culture and police brutality, Lemonade chronicles the stages of her reaction to Beyoncé’s husband’s infidelity, a topic in many blues singers’ songs. In these stages—named onscreen as “Denial,” “Redemption,” “Anger,” “Apathy,” “Reformation,” “Emptiness,” “Accountability,” “Forgiveness,” “Intuition,” “Hope,” and “Resurrection”—we see Bey grapple with the betrayal. In the beginning of the visual album, on “Pray You Catch Me,” we are confronted with Beyoncé’s first realization of her husband’s infidelity. She sings, “You can taste the dishonesty/ It’s all over your breath as you pass it off so cavalier/ But even that’s a test/ Constantly aware of it all.” The excerpts of Shire’s poems that serve as interludes between each stage also further this motif. In “Anger,” Shire’s poetry expresses Bey’s frustration with a man who has yet to appreciate and value her: “I don’t know when love became elusive. What I know is, no one I know has it. My father’s arms around my mother’s neck, fruit too ripe to eat. I think of lovers as trees…growing to and from one another. Searching for the same light. Why can’t you see me? Why can’t you see me? Why can’t you see me? Everyone else can.” For many other women and Black people alike, listening to the blues was a lived experience, and women like Rainey and Smith voiced the challenges Black people faced. In the end, Bey validates this common experience, creating a tangible manifestation of the issues we keep in the home.

Listening to the blues became a sacred secular gathering, shifting the personal narrative to the collective and reimagining the Black experience. It was the blues ability to evoke revival-like experiences that, perhaps, caused the tension between the blues and the Black church, which had formed as another sacred gathering space and community for Black people. When Rainey sang the lines “I could break these chains and let my worried heart go free/ But it’s too late now/ The blues have made a slave of me” in “Slave to the Blues,” or “The judge found me guilty/ The clerk wrote it down/ Just a poor gal in trouble/ I know I’m county-road-bound” in “Chain Gang Blues,” she was vocalizing the struggles Black people faced with convict leasing and with looming racial terror. Rainey’s and the rest of the Black community’s experiences are informed by white supremacy and the racial violence that marked their entire lives. So for many, hearing Rainey sing about these very fresh, very real and palpable experiences incited an emotional burst like that of catching the holy ghost.

The bent voices of Rainey and Smith had the power to insinuate cultural and embodied memory, becoming effigies to invoke Black collective memory. Listening to the blues, in other words, could be synonymous with going to church. Lemonade and A Seat at the Table summon similar experiences. L. Joy Williams, president of Brooklyn NAACP, attested to Lemonade’s ability to stir church-like-emotions. “When it was all over I sat on my couch [thinking] ….only church folk will understand this. You know that high you feel after the spirit moved? That’s me right now, just rockin on my couch.” Not to mention the conversations Lemonade stirred throughout Black Twitter, friend gatherings, and everyday conversation. In A Seat at the Table, Solange tackles head-on what it’s like to be Black in the United States today. In “Weary” she deftly describes being weary of the ways of the world as a Black woman, and in “Don’t Touch My Hair,” she pushes back against the fetishization of Black hair.

When the album first dropped, I had listening sessions with my friends while we worked. Solange’s voice and her genius use of her parents’ and veteran rapper Master P’s commentary on their experiences fighting back against racism, segregation, and devaluation of Black lives truly helped me and my friends get through the horrors of this presidential election. Listening to the album was like listening to the pastor preach a sermon about hope, resistance, and persistence.

Within blues songs about lovers and heartbreak are protests against traditional female domesticity, male dominance, and economic conditions, among other things. In fact, many of Smith and Rainey’s songs challenge one element of female subordination with their repudiation of marriage. Rainey’s “Misery Blues” openly expresses disdain for the institution of marriage, while in “Young Woman’s Blues,” Smith declares her own independence from marrying and settling down, stating “No time to marry/ No time to settle down/ I’m a young woman/ And ain’t done runnin’ around.” Throughout Lemonade, Beyoncé actively sings of her unwavering self-love despite her husband’s infidelity. In “Sorry,” Bey vocalizes how fed up she is. Lyrics like “Tell him, ‘Boy, bye,’” “I ain’t thinking ’bout you,” and “Suicide before you see this tear fall down my eyes” clearly send a message of independence.

The blues also helped to bring domestic abuse to the forefront, making it a collective rather than private issue. Songs by Smith and Rainey describing battered women with black eyes served to name “domestic violence in the collective context of blues performances and therefore [define] it as a problem worthy of public discourse…. Women who were victims of such abuse consequently could perceive it as a shared and thus social condition,” writes Davis. Female blues singers named the problem of male violence and ushered it into public discourse. Blues singers weren’t only challenging female domesticity, however; they were challenging notions of sexuality, too. Rainey sang about her own lesbianism, as on “Prove It On Me Blues,” in which she strays from orthodox ideas of womanhood singing, “Wear my clothes just like a fan/ Talk to the gals just like any old man,” sings Rainey. The song, according to Davis, “is a cultural precursor to the lesbian cultural movement of the 1970s, which began to crystallize around the performance and recording of lesbian-affirming songs.” Rainey also tackled male homosexuality in “Sissy Blues.”

In “Washwoman’s Blues,” Smith criticizes the conditions of the time that relegated many Black women to the domestic realm. Unlike “Poor Man’s Blues,” which protests the unpleasant economic circumstances Black people found themselves in before the stock market crash that launched the Great Depression, “Washwoman’s Blues” explores gendered social issues. By singing about the forms of labor African American women were forced into after slavery, Smith memorializes the millions of women rendered immobile by this kind of work. While it is easy to dismiss “Washwoman’s Blues” as “mild social protest,” as Edward Brooks did in his book The Bessie Smith Companion, it is important to remember what is considered “protest” in different contexts. While enslaved people did not outwardly condemn their slave masters—they could not do so without being whipped, killed, or enduring other brutalities—their silent and overt acts were still considered protest and resistance to their conditions. The same situation applies to Smith, who in a racially violent America saw herself and many other African Americans at the crux of freedom. Her singing was an act of protest in and of itself. For many African Americans then and even today, just existing in spaces not meant for them and vocalizing their truths is protest and resistance. As Bim Adewunmi, senior culture writer at BuzzFeed, beautifully notes in an article titled “A Seat at the Table Contemplates Black Life’s Contradictions,” the songs “Don’t You Wait,” “Don’t Touch My Hair,” and “Don’t Wish Me Well” sound like “explicit exhortations.” Adewunmi writes: “On ‘F.U.B.U.,’ The Dream croons urgently: ‘Don’t clip my wings before I learn to fly/ I didn’t come back down to Earth to die.’ These are not milquetoast requests. They are instructions on how to handle us: with care, with respect, with the dignity our human souls deserve.” Solange sings about the struggles of trying to love yourself, exist, and, most important, survive in the present day. Her self-affirming song “Mad” asserts that Black women do have the right to be mad despite the Angry Black Woman trope that’s been used to control Black women’s behavior throughout the years. By singing “You got the right to be mad,” Solange validates the daily experiences that so many seek to deny or contradict. But along with describing and validating this anger, Solange also validates alternate possibilities and futures for Black people. “Borderline (An Ode to Self Care),” she said in an interview with W magazine, the song emerged out of her desire to do more than just sit by while young Black men are killed: “Even in the midst of this last week with the multiple murders of young Black men that occurred, I chose this time not to watch. Just for the sake of being able to exist in that day, to exist without rage, and exist without heartbreak. To be able to get up and tell my child to have a wonderful day and know that he’ll be protected and nurtured and loved and treated like an equal contributor to society, I sometimes have to choose to not look.” This is an important aspect of being Black and dealing with trauma every day and still having to go about life and do the work that needs to get done.  

No conversation about Black women’s resistance in music could be complete without Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” In the song, whose lyrics came from a poem written by a New York English teacher, Holiday protested racial violence and lynching in such poignant imagery as to make an entire auditorium of Black people sigh. Holiday’s song came out in 1939, when lynchings were still a regular occurrence in the United States, as a call to action against the brutal practice. As Davis writes in Blues Legacies, “It almost single-handedly changed the politics of American popular culture and put the elements of protest and resistance back at the center of contemporary Black musical culture.” The famous line “Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees” was a condemnation of the laws and regulations that allowed lynching to become a mundane and even a common pastime for whites throughout Reconstruction. Like many blues songs before it, “Strange Fruit” clearly stated the problem at hand. While Holiday was not the first or the last to protest the dominant culture, it is through her recording that we can see a bridge to artist-activists in the present day. Holiday connects her predecessors Smith and Rainey with artists like Erykah Badu, argues Davis. Indeed, it is this bridge or transfer that allowed for artists like Beyoncé and Solange to continue to practice these forms of resistance as well.

If we consider what Solange and Beyoncé are doing in their albums today, it’s clear that we are witnessing a tradition continue and evolve. These acts of transfer, of protesting social conditions and the status quo through music, continues to remain integral to Black women’s survival and protest. As Zandria Robinson writes of Beyoncé’s song “Formation” in “We Slay, Part 1” on the, “‘Formation’ is a different kind of resistance practice, one rooted in the epistemology of (and sometimes only visible/detectable to) folks on the margins of Blackness…. Formation, then, is a metaphor, a Black-feminist, Black-queer, and Black-queer-feminist theory of community organizing and resistance. It is a recognition of one another at the Blackness margins—woman, queer, genderqueer, trans, poor, disabled, undocumented, immigrant—before an overt action. For the Black southern majorettes, across gender formulations, formation is the alignment, the stillness, the readying, the quiet, before the twerk, the turn-up, the (social) movement.” Much in the same way that blues singers protested domestic issues, Lemonade’s visual component tackles these same issues within Beyoncé’s relationship, making her experience part of collective memory and fostering an imagined community. In the stage of “Forgiveness” in Lemonade, we get a glimpse of Beyoncé and Jay Z’s relationship, seeing intimate shots of the two of them embracing one another as Bey sings “Sandcastles.” This is crucial for redefining what we think of when we imagine a couple moving past infidelity—namely, stating that it isn’t necessarily a sign of weakness. Lemonade also includes the voice of Messy Mya, a Black trans woman comedian murdered in New Orleans. This disrupts the suggestion of the uniformity of Blackness, forcing us to reimagine Blackness and to question the lives we value. By revisiting Messy Mya’s life and her unsolved murder, Beyoncé draws attention to the ways in which Black trans women are written out of the dominant narrative of Black liberation and Black unity, seen clearly when Black trans women are murdered and go missing without anyone batting an eye. This inclusion of Black queer ideology not only echoes that pioneered by Rainey in the 1930s but also forces us to consider another type of Black experience.

By having Master P narrate her album and impart some knowledge about Blackness, Solange draws from an integral act of transfers: oral history. Black women’s experiences are informed by the stories told to them by their mothers, who were told by their mothers, and on and on for generations. This oral tradition in Black culture is also seen in Gayl Jones’s Corregidora, a fictional story about a blues singer whose mother constantly reminds her of her family’s history with slavery, rape, and abuse. Oral history has been integral in preserving the history that has long been forgotten in a regularly whitewashed society.

This tradition of resistance and protest in music creates vessels through which the larger Black community can express its sorrow and dissatisfaction with injustice. Not only do Solange and Beyoncé reaffirm this tradition and the Black experience, but they draw on their own experiences to craft albums pertinent to Black women today. It is important that we value and protect Black women amid the chaos and bigotry running rampant through what looks to be another period of racial terror, violence, and bigotry. Much like the blues provided sacred gatherings and comfort throughout Reconstruction and lynching, these albums can help strengthen and validate the Black experience today while allowing Black women to find comfort and community. Hopefully, they can serve as extensions of the Black women who continue to silently defy and protest the status quo, as they counter dominant narratives and galvanize change.  

This article was published in Family Values Issue #74 | Spring 2017
by Roberta Nin Feliz
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Roberta Nin Feliz is an Afro-Latina from New York City who writes at the intersections of race, feminism and social justice. She has written for places like Femsplain, TheFbomb and Women's ENews. She’s probably arguing about the erasure of black and women’s history somewhere.

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