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What is the formula for a good rock n roll song? A powerful electric guitar solo? A drum as strong as a heart? Or, maybe, a base of bass telling a story? These things are essential, indeed, but the rock’s vital element is the soul. The ingredient responsible for the feeling that makes rock lovers freak out every time that a song starts, like the yeast for a cake. In the history of rock, the soul was born well before the King of Rock and (surprise!) is a Queen and is Black. 

The fact is, in every history topic, the black’s protagonism was literally erased. In this context, Rock n roll became a white man’s stuff and has consolidated itself as a sexist and racist environment. Because of that, this week is the perfect moment to remember  the real soul and origin of rock, this type of  music that makes so many people feel alive! Continue reading to meet five black women who changed the world of rock in the timeline of 20th century music!

Sister Rosetta Tharpe (the godmother of rock ‘n roll)

If you have been born on this planet you probably already hear about Elvis Presley, the authentic King of Rock. What may be a surprise to you, is discovering that his inspiration to dive inside the music’s world, more specifically, in the rock’s world was a black woman named Sister Rosetta Tharpe. 

Borned in Arkansas in 1915, at four Rosetta already sang and played guitar by her mother’s side in the church. Despite this, the first styles that she really fell in love with were jazz and blues. Completely inebriated by the strong sound of both, but educated by a religious family, she couldn’t sing what she truly liked. Because of that, at the end of 20’s, the young girl started to perform in hiding, making the music of her heart. Over time, she made a fusion that changed everything. With her powerful voice, her electric guitar and her faith, Rosetta started to make music in her own way, bringing together the best of each of the worlds to which she belonged. Her invention worked so well that in the 1930s she debuted on the radio and recorded her first tracks. Her success awakened in the young Elvis Aaron Presley, who runned home from school to listen to the singer’s radio program, just like Rosetta felt as a child when she heard music that spoke the language of her heart.

Officially, the first rock song was “Strange Things Happening Every Day”, composed by her in 1944.

LaVern Baker (the queen of R&B)

The first woman to enter the Hall of Fame of Rock n Roll was Aretha Franklin, the second one was LaVern Baker; two black women in the same level of Beatles and Elvis, and society still thinks that Rock n Roll is just white. 

Borned in 1929, in the city of Chicago, Delores LaVern Baker started singing professionally in music clubs; but the joy and soul she put into her songs led her to sign many contracts to sing with bands and solo. LaVern’s style was so contagious and danceable, that it could easily be in Hairspray Musical. This aspect about her, put at least twenty of her songs in the R&B top 40 and enshrined her as the queen of Jukebox. 

The coronation of Baker’s career was the appointment of her name to enter the Hall of Fame of the Rock n Roll and, after that, her song “Jim Dandy” was considered one of the best songs ever by the notable magazine Rolling Stone.

Alice Coltrane (the cosmic traveller) 

One of the first things that comes to my mind when I think about the 70’s, is the style of rock at that time. The flower power movement was high and the indian culture was incorporated by the principal bands like by the Beatles’s songs and Rolling Stone’s visual. Despite this, only Alice Coltrane was the musician that really incarnated the indian spirit in the most authentic and powerful way. 

Alice McLeod borned in the cradle of US music, Detroit. Shrouded by so many styles, from jazz to rock and from blues to classic, she soon developed the gift of music and before the age of 30 she already was a professional pianist of McCoy Tyner’s caliber, in fact, better than him. Thus, at the age of 26 she became Alice Coltrane, pianist and wife of the greatest jazz saxophonist of all time. For anyone else this task could be too hard – be a woman, black and musician in an environment dominated by men – but not for Alice. With her resilience and confidence in her own talent, she enshrined herself  as one of the best musicians of her time. Later, she felt a calling coming from the orient and surrendered to hinduism, after that, her faith overflowed into her music and she became as complete as an artist can be.  

Alice was, for a long time, called just “John Coltrane’s wife”. But just like many women around the world who have had their potential and capacity stifled for the benefit of their husbands (like, for example, Frida Kahlo and Marie Curie), in the end she became recognized by her own size, grandeur and genius. 

Merry Clayton (the vocalist)

There up in the first paragraph, when I used the word “soul”, I was thinking about the voice of Merry Clayton. If you are a fan of the Rolling Stones you probably know her powerful voice from “Gimme Shelter”, and it was like in this case that she enshrined herself in the 60’s, borrowing her voice to give life and soul to other people’s Rock n Roll, until diving alone as singer and actress into her own. However, her story is more than a singer too immersed in music, it is the story of devotion and passion. 

On the night when Merry Clayton was called to record with a “british band” everything changed for her. Because it was that night – about eight months pregnant, with pajamas and rolls in her hair – that she gave to music more than just her voice, but one of the precious things in her life, her unborn son. The refrain “rape, murder it’s just a shot away” was the last thing she sang before she lost her baby, she suffered a miscarriage problably caused by the effort she made to interpret the song. Although Merry recorded her own version of the track a year later, the song haunted her for more than 10 years.

Totally back in the 80’s, her story of resilience was not over yet. That’s because in 2014 she suffered a car accident and lost her leg movements. That was the moment when she had to show her strength once again. Her voice saved her from the dark at the worst moments of her life. As she once said “I still have my voice”.

Poly Styrene (the riot grrrl)

There was a little bit of UK missing from that list, right? How about a heavy sound wrapped by Vivienne Westwood aesthetics in the London atmosphere? Therefore, to close our timeline with golden key, couldn’t miss a representative of one of the majors rock movements in the last decades of 20th century, the punk feminist riot grrrl! Without further ado, I introduce you to Poly Styrene.

Borned in England in 1957 and home educated, punk to Marianne Joan Elliott-Said was more than just music, it was a real life style. Her mother was a British Scottish-Irish legal advisor and her father was a Somali aristocrat, but Poly – still Marienne – did not want to follow the steps of her parents. Thirsty for freedom, Poly left home at the age of 16 to meet different ways of living. The experience inspired her to start a solo career when her first song was about teenage pregnancy, something absolutely revolutionary for that time. In the same year, she entered as a vocalist in the punk band X-Ray Spex, when she decided to put a saxophone on the songs, which gave the band a personality different from everything until that period. Then, she changed her name to Poly Styrene and composed the mains songs of the group, all of them with a strong and wide open political content in which she shouted themes like slavery, suicide, consumerism and sexism. Basically, her voice was a tool for her protest as her indignity was firing. 

Poly Styrene knew her political place as a black woman, and with her musicated activism paved the way for women like her to raise their voices against everything that is wrong with the system. 

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The article above was edited by Laura Enchioglo

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Letícia Cassiano

Casper Libero '24

Journalism student at the Brazilian University Casper Libero who believes that words can change the world.
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