The best books on the unheralded African American women who have shaped popular music

The Books I Picked & Why

Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday

By Angela Y. Davis

Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday

Why this book?

Iconic feminist, philosopher, and activist Angela Y. Davis put African American women at the center of the story of the blues, expanding our understanding of a genre usually presented as the purview of male artists. Discussing the music and careers of 1920s blues superstars Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith and 1930s jazz vocalist Billie Holiday, who was deeply influenced by the blues, Davis approaches the blues as music innovated, popularized, and consumed by African American women. She pays close attention to the impact of gender, race, and class on artists and audiences, and shows how these artists and their fans used blues music as entertainment, self-expression, social commentary, political critique, resistance, and survival.


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Rage to Survive: The Etta James Story

By Etta James, David Ritz

Rage to Survive: The Etta James Story

Why this book?

One of my favorite memoirs, Rage to Survive is a no-holds-barred dive into the life and times of powerful singer who traversed the genres of rock and roll, blues, and R&B during her decades-long career. James tells compelling stories about her tough upbringing on the west coast and her teenage immersion into sex, drugs, and early rock and roll (check out her 1955 hit “The Wallflower”); shares her experiences touring in the segregated south during the 1950s; offers gossip about well-known musical figures; and reflects on her development as an artist navigating the recording industry in the fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties. Throughout she offers insights about love, loss, motherhood, hard knocks, bad choices, addiction, and personal and professional triumphs. James speaks with passion, humor, and honesty. 


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Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-And-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe

By Gayle F. Wald

Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-And-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Why this book?

When Wald published her thoroughly researched and sensitively written biography of Tharpe, few people outside the world of gospel were familiar with the guitarist and singer or her significant contribution to twentieth-century music. Wald traces Tharpe’s years as an acoustic guitar-playing traveling teenage gospel evangelist, her role as one of the first stars of the fledgling genre of gospel in the 1930s and 1940s, her controversial decision to play gospel music in nightclubs, and her influence as a flashy virtuoso whose intricate licks on the electric guitar inspired musicians in country, rock and roll, and beyond. A well-told story of a fascinating woman, Shout, Sister, Shout! establishes Tharpe as a key figure in the evolution of twentieth-century popular music.   


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Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound

By Daphne A. Brooks

Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound

Why this book?

Black feminist scholar and cultural critic Daphne A. Brooks has a solution to the vexing conundrum of the simultaneous centrality of African American women to the development of 20th and 21st-century music and the persistent devaluation of their contributions: she listens closely to their work in its historical, social, and aesthetic context. In her dazzling discussions of the cultural productions of an expansive array of musicians, artists, and critics—Pauline Hopkins, Zora Neale Hurston, Lorraine Hansberry, Abbey Lincoln, Valerie June, Janelle Monáe, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Beyoncé, Carrie Mae Weems, and Wangechi Mutu make appearances—Brooks offers incisive and provocative readings that highlight the transformative intellectual and creative labor of African American women. This luminous book reveals and exemplifies the radical possibilities of Black women’s sound.


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The Motherlode: 100+ Women Who Made Hip-Hop

By Clover Hope, Rachelle Baker

The Motherlode: 100+ Women Who Made Hip-Hop

Why this book?

This compendium of short articles about the women who have lent their voices and spirit to hip-hop is packed with information about the ways early stars like MC Sha-Rock and MC Lyte, chart-toppers like Salt-N-Pepa and Lauryn Hill, disruptive forces like Lil’ Kim and Nicki Minaj, and a host of others have contributed to the sound, energy, style, and image of the music. Lists, charts, and beautiful illustrations add to the pleasures of Hope’s engaging book and, together with her vignettes about the contributions of women artists, producers, writers, and stylists, detail the centrality of women to the foundation and evolution of hip-hop. Both long-time hip-hop heads and curious newcomers will learn a lot from The Motherlode.


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