4 African-American Women Who Changed the World of Music (And Beyond)

Mar 3, 2021

Since the 1970s, February has been Black History Month. It’s an opportunity to honor some of the greatest and most influential African-Americans throughout history. We’ve been celebrating with 12 African-American Musicians that Changed the Face of Music, as well as an exploration of the histories of the blues and jazz, two incredibly influential genres created and molded by Black artists.

Although Black History Month is officially over, we’re not finished celebrating yet! March also happens to be Women’s History Month! That’s why we’ve got compiled a list of some of the most powerful and important female African-American artists of all time for you to enjoy!

While it is, of course, impossible to choose only a few of the pantheon of history-making women, this short list represents female artists who have changed the world of music, and beyond!

Marian Anderson

“Genius draws no colour lines.” While those words are certainly true, there are few musicians who had to face the same racial adversity that Marian Anderson stood up against across her life and career. But in 1897, her incredible talent for singing was recognized at a young age and she applied to the Philadelphia Music Academy after finishing high school. However, her application was denied due only to the colour of her skin.

Denied her chance to attend the Academy, Anderson continued her studies privately until her career bloomed and she launched a highly successful European singing tour. When she returned to the US, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt invited her to perform at the White House.

Despite this and her continued growing fame, in 1939 the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) denied her permission to sing to an integrated audience in their Constitution Hall on the grounds of race. As a direct result of this snub, Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR in protest, and her Lincoln Memorial performance – where Anderson sang to a crowd of 75,000) became a pivotal moment in the fight for civil rights. The performance was also significant for her career, as Anderson went on to great success, later becoming the first African-American to perform with the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Often called “The Godmother of Rock & Roll,” Sister Rosetta Tharpe was one of the original stars of gospel music in the late 1930s. Her somewhat unique style of combining spiritual lyrics with the electric guitar helped her appeal to a wide and new audience. She was also one of the first popular artists to use heavy distortion on her electric guitar. Thanks to this, her song “Strange Things Happen Every Day” became the first gospel record to reach the R&B Top 10 in 1945.

Tharpe’s influence on music, and rock and roll in particular, is undeniable. Countless artists since Tharpe have cited her as an influence, including names like Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Johnny Cash to name just a few.

Billie Holiday

Born in Philadelphia in 1915 as Eleanora Fagan, the woman that would become known as Billie Holiday grew up in extreme poverty and endured a difficult childhood. Finding solace in music, Holiday first started singing in local clubs in New York City as a teenager. It wasn’t long before her talent was recognized by the jazz world, and she broke new ground in the late ‘30s when she became the first African-American vocalist to work with a white orchestra.

Near the end of the 1930s, Holiday sang and recorded what would become one of her most important works, “Strange Fruit.” The song protests racism in America, particularly the lynching of African-Americans, and was crucial during the early years of the Civil Rights Movement.

Billie Holiday impressed and delighted audiences around the world with her use of tonal variations and vibrato, and her unmatched skill with jazz phrasing until her untimely death at the premature age of 44. During her short life, she fought against racism and sexism. And after facing incredible personal adversity, rose to become one of the most influential performers of all time.

Ma Rainey

Gertrude “Ma” Rainey has become known as “The Mother of the Blues.” And rightfully so! Not only was she one of the earliest professional blues singers, she was also one of the first generation of blues singers to record. She would go on to bridge early vaudeville and authentic expression of the southern blues, influencing generations of blues singers to come after her.

Although the details of Rainey’s childhood are unclear, we do know that she began performing at local tent shows near her native Columbus, Ohio around the age of 14. There she caught the eye of William “Pa” Rainey, who was more than 10 years older than her. The pair married when Rainey was 18.

“Ma” and “Pa” Rainey hit the road as traveling performers and before long, had earned themselves the nickname “The Assassinators of the Blues.” Their marriage, however, wouldn’t last long, and Rainey separated from her husband in 1916 to set off on a solo career.

And what a career it was! By the 1920s, Rainey had moved to Chicago, where the blues scene was electrifying the whole city. She was signed to Paramount Records and laid down her first blues recording in 1923. Paramount marketed her as “The Mother of Blues,” which was a fitting title for her style and grandiose bravado.

A quick-witted and shrewd businesswoman, Ma Rainey played up her stage persona with a flamboyant style, complete with feather boas, flowy sequin gowns, flashy jewelry, gold teeth, fur-trimmed jackets, and her signature headgear.

Are you looking to follow in the footsteps of these great women? It’s never too late to start your own musical path! Who knows, maybe someday someone will be writing an article about how influential your career was!

But it’s all got to start somewhere! Check out all of The Music Studios programs, now online and interactive!