Black women have never been heavily associated with the guitar or instrumentation throughout popular music’s long history in the United States. However, there have always been black female guitarists who have made their marks in the industry. Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Memphis Minnie are both pioneers in the electric guitar. Odetta is legendary as an iconic folk singer. Meshell Ndegeocello has been known as a skilled bassist for years and now Esperanza Spalding has emerged as the newest star of this instrument.
Still, the number of prominent black women in the music industry remains few and far between. There are a few women who are turning the tide and continuing the long legacy black women have had in the creation of music on guitars, pianos, the bass and many other instruments. A few have come out of the United States as well as the UK and play in genres that have historically excluded black female artists.
For instance, one can see newcomers like Lianne La Havas and Mirel Wagner in the innovative French music website La Blogothéque’s Take Away Shows alongside many other well-known acts including Bon Iver, Vampire Weekend, Mumford and Sons, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, Sufjan Stevens and avant garde artists Sigur Rós. As folk singers, these women occupy spaces not traditionally associated with black women (with exceptions like Odetta), but both women are also based in Europe with La Havas born and raised in London and Wagner born in Ethiopia but raised in Finland.
Young audiences may be familiar with Angel Taylor who has been featured as a VH1’s “You Oughta Know Artist on the Rise.” Her sound may be described as more in tune with the folk pop of other similar artists like Colbie Caillat although she may not get the same kind of credit as a new age troubadour as her contemporaries. Mary Cutrufello has managed to stay active in the grass roots rock scene for years even though she has never had larger mainstream following. Like many artists with devoted followings, she frequently performs in Europe.
Rissi Palmer has also found a home within country music and often accompanies herself on acoustic guitar. Singer, songwriter and activist Toshi Reagon has also managed a devoted following over the years and has crossed into many genres during her long career including rock, folk, blues, country, R&B, funk and spiritual with her band BIGLovely. Rebecca Jordan began with a rock debut but has since taken to an acoustic guitar-based sound with the band The Dreaming Ferns as well as with her solo work.
UK-based group The Noisettes features Shingai Shoniwa on both bass and vocals. However, The Noisettes often cross genres with their sound. With Esperanza Spalding also wielding a bass for her Grammy-winning music, there just may be a sea change in the making with more black females picking up their own instruments and creating their own sounds. These women challenge convention and expand the bounds of the black woman’s place in the music industry.