12 Women in Black Music History You Should Know

Ethel Waters
June is Black Music Month. According to the website for the National Museum of  African American Music, Black Music Month was founded in 1979 by Kenny Gamble, Ed Wright, and Dyana Williams to celebrate the impact of black music. While there are countless female musical pioneers remembered today, there are many that aren't. Here are just twelve women in black music history you should know. Of course there are many more, but here are just a few.

Sylvia Robinson

She is best remembered as the founder of the hip-hop label Sugar Hill Records and the force behind the pioneering rap songs "Rapper's Delight" and "The Message".  However, she was also one of the few black females in early rock n' roll. With guitarist Mickey Baker, she formed the duo Mickey and Sylvia in the 50's and recorded the rock n' roll hit "Love is Strange." Listen to "Love is Strange" on YouTube here.

Blanche Calloway

She was the first woman to lead an all male orchestra as a bandleader. As the older sister of jazz band leader Cab Calloway, she taught Cab everything he knew about performing. Cab's signature "Hi-De-Ho" phrase is said to have been inspired by Blanche's song "Just A Crazy Song".  Listen to Blanche's song "I'm Gettin Myself Ready For You" here.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Known as "The Godmother of Rock n' Roll", she would influence musicians such as Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Johnny Cash. Her earliest recordings had the spiritual lyrics of gospel mixed with a steel guitar.  Her song "Strange Things Happening Every Day" is said to be the first rock song.  Watch her performance of "Up Above My Head" here.

Roxanne Shanté
As one of the pioneers of hip-hop, she is known for her strong freestyle skills. At the age of 14, she recorded her most well known song "Roxanne's Revenge", in one take. The song was one of the first rap battle songs. Listen to "Roxanne's Revenge" here.

Eartha Kitt

Although she is best remembered for her role as Catwoman in the 1960's, she was also an accomplished singer. She spoke seven languages and sang in four. One of her best known recordings is the French song "C'est Si Bon". Watch her performance of "C'est Si Bon" here.

Gladys Bentley

As a lesbian blues singer during The Harlem Renaissance, she was known for her bold display of sexuality, raunchy lyrics, and deep vocals. Langston Hughes once praised her performing skills when her career was taking off. Listen to Gladys' song "Worried Blues" here.

Mamie Smith
In 1920, she became the first African American vocalist to do a blues recording. She opened the door for other female blues vocalists such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. Her most famous song "Crazy Blues" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1994. Listen to "Crazy Blues" on YouTube here.

Memphis Minnie

Born Lizzie Douglas, she got her stage name from a Columbia A and R man when she recorded in New York. While country blues was male-dominated, she held her own and once beat fellow guitarist Big Bill Broonzy in a cutting contest (a musical battle). She would influence folk, blues, and rock musicians such as Big Mama Thornton and the band Led Zeppelin. Listen to her song "Me and My Chauffeur Blues" here.

Big Mama Thornton
Her big voice would be one of the voices that would influence psychedelic soul singer Janis Joplin. Her song "Ball and Chain" is listed in the Rock n' Roll Hall of Fame list of "500 Songs That Shaped Rock n' Roll". Listen to "Ball and Chain" here

Marian Anderson

In 1955, she became the first African American to sing at the Metropolitan Opera House. However, she also brought attention to discrimination when she performed at the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. Originally, she was meant to perform at Constitution Hall, but was denied by the Daughters of The Revolution and D.C.'s Board of Education. Watch her performance at the Lincoln Memorial here.

Josephine Baker

She was many things; a singer, dancer, actress, World War II French spy, and mother to children of different ethnicities that were known as "The Rainbow Tribe". She was the first African American to star in a motion picture and the first to become a world famous entertainer. Her influence can be seen in modern female entertainers like Beyoncé and Keri Hilson. Watch her film performance of "Dreams" here.

Jordana Lesesne
Known as 1.8.7, this transgender DJ and producer is one of the first well-known drum and bass musicians. She rose to fame in the mid-90's with her album When Worlds Collide. Her work has influenced dubstep and electronic rock musicians such as Bassnectar and Celldweller. Listen to her track "Rainbow's Not Enough" on Soundcloud here.

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Tonya Pennington is a student at Clayton State University. She also blogs about books, music, and movies on artsandyouthlove using the pen name Serena Zola.

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