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

Who am I?

Over many years of being an African American fan of rock music, I’ve learned that the combination of my gender, race, and musical taste can be disconcerting to people who expect Black women to adhere to a limited set of cultural interests. My frustration with these kinds of assumptions, my awareness that rock has deep roots in African American musical culture, my curiosity about the experiences of African American women who participated in rock and roll, and my desire to make sure that they are part of the stories we tell about the music’s history led me to write Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll

I wrote...

Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll

By Maureen Mahon,

Book cover of Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll

What is my book about?

Black Diamond Queens by scholar and professor of music Maureen Mahon explores the pivotal part African American women have played in rock and roll—from laying its foundations and singing chart-topping hits to influencing some of the genre's most iconic acts. By uncovering this hidden history and the cultural impact of Big Mama Thornton, LaVern Baker, Betty Davis, Tina Turner, Merry Clayton, Labelle, the Shirelles, and other Black women in rock and roll, Mahon reveals a powerful sonic legacy that continues to reverberate into the twenty-first century.

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The books I picked & why

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

Why did I love 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.

By Angela Y. Davis,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Blues Legacies and Black Feminism as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From one of this country's most important intellectuals comes a brilliant analysis of the blues tradition that examines the careers of three crucial black women blues singers through a feminist lens. Angela Davis provides the historical, social, and political contexts with which to reinterpret the performances and lyrics of Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Billie Holiday as powerful articulations of an alternative consciousness profoundly at odds with mainstream American culture.

The works of Rainey, Smith, and Holiday have been largely misunderstood by critics. Overlooked, Davis shows, has been the way their candor and bravado laid the groundwork for an…

Rage to Survive: The Etta James Story

By Etta James, David Ritz,

Book cover of Rage to Survive: The Etta James Story

Why did I love 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. 

By Etta James, David Ritz,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Rage to Survive as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the great women of American music, equally at home singing blues and jazz, Etta regales us with tales of her chaotic childhood, the stars she has known, and her troubled trip to stardom in this mesmerizing autobiography.

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

Why did I love 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.   

By Gayle F. Wald,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Shout, Sister, Shout! as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

New York Times Book Review Editor's Pick: The untold story of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Sister Rosetta Tharpe, America’s first rock guitar diva 

Long before "women in rock" became a media catchphrase, African American guitar virtuoso Rosetta Tharpe proved in spectacular fashion that women could rock. Born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, in 1915, Tharpe was gospel's first superstar and the preeminent crossover figure of its golden age (1945–1965).

Shout, Sister, Shout! is the first biography of this trailblazing performer who influenced scores of popular musicians—from Elvis Presley and Little Richard to Eric Clapton and Etta James. Tharpe…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Daphne A. Brooks,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Liner Notes for the Revolution as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the PEN Oakland-Josephine Miles Award
Winner of the MAAH Stone Book Award
A Rolling Stone Best Music Book of the Year
A Pitchfork Best Music Book of the Year

"Brooks traces all kinds of lines, finding unexpected points of connection...inviting voices to talk to one another, seeing what different perspectives can offer, opening up new ways of looking and listening by tracing lineages and calling for more space."
-New York Times

An award-winning Black feminist music critic takes us on an epic journey through radical sound from Bessie Smith to Beyonce.

Daphne A. Brooks explores more than a…

The Motherlode: 100+ Women Who Made Hip-Hop

By Clover Hope, Rachelle Baker (illustrator),

Book cover of The Motherlode: 100+ Women Who Made Hip-Hop

Why did I love 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.

By Clover Hope, Rachelle Baker (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Motherlode as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An illustrated highlight reel of more than 100 women in rap who have helped shape the genre and eschewed gender norms in the process

The Motherlode highlights more than 100 women who have shaped the power, scope, and reach of rap music, including pioneers like Roxanne Shante, game changers like Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott, and current reigning queens like Nicki Minaj, Cardi B, and Lizzo-as well as everyone who came before, after, and in between. Some of these women were respected but not widely celebrated. Some are impossible not to know. Some of these women have stood on their…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in blues musician, singers, and African Americans?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about blues musician, singers, and African Americans.

Blues Musician Explore 11 books about blues musician
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