The astounding Betty Davis.
At the time of this writing, singer Betty Davis is most likely in the comfort of her Pittsburgh home, not having any idea of the recent concert that took place in her honor.
Releasing only four albums, the hard funk/rock singer had a tumultuous marriage to musician Miles Davis, whom she married in 1967 but divorced him a year later. Soon after, she retreated out of the limelight, choosing to live in obscurity and refusing to speak about her musical experiences to the press. She was the first African-American female rock singer to have a confrontational image, and her raw lyricism about the seedy and sexual underbelly of life made her both a cult favorite and a social pariah within African-American communities.
Esteemed poet, author and book publisher Jessica Care Moore conceived of a music celebration that would blend the talent of progressive black women artists and provide education on the participation of African-Americans in rock music. She first invited women musicians to perform Davis’s songs in 2004, wanting to not only celebrate the inspiring singer but to also provide a platform for black women alternative music artists who, like Davis, are critically acclaimed but struggle to find success within the larger music industry.
Based on the sold out attendance at the concert, which took place on March 16th in Detroit, the Fourth Annual Black Women Rock concert served as an opportunity for black women artists not just to perform but to also speak openly about their experiences in being labeled ‘different’ for their musical and other creative ventures. In addition, local artists, such as Sabrina Nelson, painted portraits as the musicians performed.
Accompanied by the 10-piece, all-black female orchestra, which included veteran guitarist Kat Dyson, Toronto-based singer Saidah Baba Talibah opened the show and performed her hit “A Place Called Grace” from her excellent album, 2010’s (S)Cream and momentarily stunned some onlookers ( and perhaps the smattering of children in the room) when she raunchily belted out Davis’s “If I’m in Luck I Might Get Picked Up,” as there were some surprised looks on some of the older ladies in the room when Talibah dropped and shimmied her way through the hard funk song. Poet Ursula Rucker performed three of her works, ending with the title track from her album, She Said. Detroit native Steffanie Christi’an was a powerhouse - a perfect example of the level of sheer talent that is ignored because an artist does not fit the physical aesthetic of what she is supposed to look like when performing rock music. Maybe she was momentarily possessed with the dual spirits of Davis and Tina Turner, as the singer exploded across the stage; her physical movements were just as powerful and intense as her vocals.
During her set Native/African-American Martha Redbone talked a bit about her work as a singer, songwriter and a prominent activist, noting that her independent artist status gives her the freedom to actively promote indigenous rights without worrying about an imposed image that is commonly given to women involved on major record labels. As a veteran Americana and soul artist, she provided much needed advice to the aspiring female musicians that what was most important about their music careers was the music itself, not empty promises of fame and fortune.
Musicians on stage at Black Women Rock.
After a duet with poet Moore and Christi’an and a surprise dance performance from bellydancer Tene Dismuke, ouse of Baset singer Dionne Farris (formerly of the group Arrested Development) performed and all the artists took the stage to jam and to close out the evening.
It’s fitting that the event took place in a city that, in some ways, has been just as dismissed as black women who perform alternative music. The concert epitomized the tenacity both Davis and Detroit represents: forgotten and often misunderstood, both remain strong.
Photo of Betty Davis via Red Telephone. Photo of Black Women Rock courtesy of the author.