By Stephanie Phillips Follow @stephanopolus
When our modern definition of a rock star is clouded by white, middle class male egos driven need to be the only stars, who else should we look up to? Stephanie Phillips looks at Bessie and Twenty Feet From Stardom to find the black women behind some of rock n roll’s greatest hits.
I want to play a game. Close your eyes, relax your mind and trust me. There’s a star onstage. A rebellious star, a captivating star, a rock star. When your eyes meet, you’re so breath taken by their presence that it feels like a weight has been dropped on you from above.
They make you move, they make you want to be them and they make you want to be with them. A well of creativity and a fountain of unending charm; they have the life experience of being downtrodden and disrespected to draw their art on.
Open your eyes. Now if you didn’t visualise a proud defiant black woman on stage then you and I are clearly reading from widely different history books. Don’t be too hard on yourself though. It’s an easy conclusion to reach considering we rarely hear about the accomplishments and influence of black women in any area. We only recently found out that the scientists that helped get America to the moon were black women. Who knows which other sisters’ names have been forgotten or falsely remembered?
It has taken time to unearth the true creators of the gems we know and love. Luckily Black Star will be showcasing some of the few films that explore the topic of black women in the music industry, their influence and their eventual decline into obscurity.
Now, it’s safe to say that the history of rock n roll would be far duller without black women. Think of Lou Reed’s memorable line in ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ where he begins the chant: “And all the coloured girls go do, do, do”. Far from a throwaway simplification of the job of a backing singer, Reed was actually acknowledging rock n roll’s dependence on black women.
How many times have you listened to a song that brings in a black choir to uplift the final, defiant chorus? You know you’ve caught yourself singing along to a band only to find you’re actually singing along with the backing singers. Black women are like the authentic ingredients in a musical curry. You could eat it without them but it wouldn’t taste the same.
Twenty Feet from Stardom focuses on this integral role that black women play in rock n roll history. From Merry Clayton’s memorable performance on The Rolling Stone’s ‘Gimme Shelter’ to the seemingly constantly downtrodden Darlene Love and her work with Phil Spector, black women were, and still are, the backbone of the music industry.
As Darlene Love explains in the film: “They [English rock bands] were trying to sound black. They only way they could get that sound was to use us.”
These women were channelling something that white singers couldn’t replicate; the black experience. The Beatles even joked about this; the name of their sixth studio album, Rubber Soul, is derived from the term plastic soul which was used at the time derogatorily in reference to white stars like Mick Jagger or David Bowie.
While these sly jokes may initially seem somewhat funny, after watching Twenty Feet From Stardom it’s hard to see the joke. The majority of the singers featured seemed to have a great pain that they carried around with them because they never reached the personal fame and success they wanted. This was because they were always supporting someone else.
Another sombre tale of the trials and tribulations of talented black women is HBO’s Bessie, featuring Queen Latifah as Bessie Smith, the Empress of Blues. At her peak Smith was one of the most well paid black artists around. Her celebrity status was equivalent to Beyoncé or Rihanna and her music laid the groundwork for our understanding of rock music today.
You can hear the precision of her powerhouse vocals and her ability to cram armfuls of emotion into every crevasse of a song in her classic Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out. She inspired a host of singers, including Janis Joplin who paid for Smith’s gravestone, and paved the way for black women who wanted to be themselves.
Despite this, her name is rarely mentioned outside certain cliquey music circles. Even this brilliant movie of her life took over 20 years to grace our screens. How do we keep our stories alive if it takes two decades to get each one documented? How do we pass on our knowledge if someone doesn’t think it’s worth the risk?
Of course, Bessie was worth the risk as anyone who’s heard of Bessie will know, she lived the life of a high energy soap opera right till the end. She was a black, queer woman with a whirlwind personality, a particularly nasty drinking habit, a no good husband and a fighting spirit that literally got her into scraps more often than not.
At the start of the film Bessie is fooling around with a guy in an alley who wants to go a little further. When Bessie refuses, he slaps her around and leaves her doubled over, cradling her face. Most films would cut here or zoom into the sobbing woman’s face as she laments “why do I always pick the wrong guys”.
That wouldn’t be Bessie though. Instead she picks up a broken bottle and stabs him just before she rushes on stage to perform. In another scene she chases away the Klu Klux Klan who arrive at a tent she’s performing in trying to cause trouble (this actually happened in case you were wondering). Like I said, she’s no victim.
History is so easily rewritten and redefined. There are many reasons why black women are either forgotten or never given their due. For many of the singers in Twenty Feet From Stardom the competitiveness of the industry back then, the disrespect shown to background singers and the egos of the male stars they were backing meant that their light never fully shone.
The message these films send to young black women who are unsure about whether they should unleash their creativity on the world should be one of hope. Although our protagonists go through numerous up and downs at least we now know who they are, and what they gave us; from that starting point, we as black women can determine what we are fully capable of. This is the power of representation.
Towards the end of Bessie, Smith is leaving town after having given a performance to black field workers the night before. Her grandiose train with her name on it in huge, gold letters passes through the fields where the workers are already back to the grind. Overcome with emotion from her performance the workers cry out her name and thank her from the fields. Her brother summarises the emotional release that Bessie brought out, leans over to her and softly states: “I never thought it would be like this. You woke us up.”
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Stephanie Phillips is a freelance journalist and musician who plays in the black feminist punk band Big Joanie. You can follow her on Twitter @stephanopolus and find more of her writing here.
The Black Star series of articles coincides with BFI’s Black Star film series. Over ten weeks, we will bring you articles which explore the films in the series, the issues they highlight and the stars who have played such an important role in the history of film. Curated by Grace Barber-Plentie.
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