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7 Pioneering Black Female Jazz And Blues Singers Who Made Music History

Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald are just a few of the artists who deserve to be celebrated. 

Long before Aretha, Tina, Whitney, Janet, Brandy, Monica, and Beyonce, a group of pioneering jazz and blues vocalists fashioned the blueprint for the record-breaking feats enjoyed by some of music's biggest names.

There's no denying the impact and contributions of black recording acts, and Black Music Month is the perfect time to celebrate some of the groundbreaking black singers whose tenacity and determination paved the way for some of our favorite artists to break barriers of their own.

Check out our list of seven trailblazing blues and jazz singers below.

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Ma Rainey

Noted as the “Mother of Blues,” Gertrude “Ma” Rainey was reportedly born in Alabama in either 1882 or 1886. She began her music career as a teenager performing in minstrel shows and  signed a contract with Paramount Records in 1932, where she would record more than 100 songs over a five-year span. Throughout her career Rainey recorded with the likes of Louis Armstrong, became close friends with Bessie Smith, and toured with the Georgia Jazz Band until her retirement in 1935. She died four years later from a heart attack.

Rainey earned posthumous inductions into the Blues Foundations Hall of Fame in 1983, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

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Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith was the most popular and highest-paid singer of her day. Nicknamed the “Empress of the Blues,” Smith started out as a street performer, and signed with Columbia Phonograph Company (the parent company of Columbia Records) in 1923. The singer-songwriter and composer released 160 recordings under Columbia, sold millions of record, performed on Broadway, and made her first and only silver screen appearance in the 1929 film, St. Louis Blues.

Smith’s music touched on social issues like poverty, intra-racial conflict, female sexuality, and bisexuality. Though her career was lampooned as the Great Depression wreaked havoc on the record industry, she continued touring and recording up until around 1933.

In 1937, Smith was fatally injured in a car accident in Mississippi that left her bleeding to death while awaiting an ambulance. Because of Jim Crow Laws, Smith was not allowed at the local white hospital, and therefore had to be transported to G.T. Thomas Afro-American Hospital, where she died. Her grave remained unmarked until 1970 when Janis Joplin and Juanita Green, a woman who worked for Smith as a child, paid to have her tombstone engraved.

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Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday is one the most well-known jazz vocalists in history. “Lady Day” was born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia in 1915. She took the name Billie from her favorite actress, Billie Dove, and Holiday, from her father, Clarence Holiday.

Holiday began singing in Harlem nightclubs as a teenager, and recorded her first song at age 18. She signed with Brunswick Records in 1935 and was hired and later fired as in Count Basie’s band in 1938. A month after her firing, Holiday was hired by Artie Shaw, making her one of the first black singers to lead an all-white orchestra. In 1939, Holiday recorded and performed “Strange Fruit,” which was based off a poem about lynching written two years earlier by Abel Meeropol. She recorded her most coveted hit “God Bless the Child (written by Holiday and Arthur Herzog in 1939) in 1941, and earned pop success with the 1942 song “Trav’lin Light” which she recorded with Capitol Records, under the name Lady Day due to her contract with Columbia. Over the next decade Holiday recorded several more notables including, "Lover Man" a top 20 pop hit and top 5 hit on the R&B charts. Holiday also appeared in her first and only major motion picture, New Orleans, in 1946, starring opposite Louis Armstrong and Woody Herman.

By the following year Holiday’s career had reached its commercial peak, but she was riddled with legal troubles, namely being arrested for narcotics possession. Holiday pleaded guilty to the charges and was sentenced to Alderson Federal Prison Camp in West Virginia. She earned an early release in 1948 for good behavior. Weeks later, Holiday played to a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall.

In her latter years, drug and alcohol addiction crippled her ability to work. Holiday's criminal conviction resulted in her New York City Cabaret Card being revoked which meant that she couldn’t perform in venues that served alcohol, though she did take the stage at the Ebony Club in 1948, which was technically illegal. For the last decade of her life Holiday toured Europe, returned to Carnegie Hall, and recorded music.

In 1959, Holiday was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver brought on by alcohol addiction. She was admitted to New York’s Metropolitan Hospital, but as a longtime target of the Federal Bearue of Narcotics with a noted drug addiction, Holiday was arrested for drug possession and handcuffed to her bed as she lay dying in the hospital.

Holiday died on July 17, 1959 of pulmonary edema and heart failure. She was 44.

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Ella Fitzgerald

Around the same time that Billie Holiday was making a name for herself on the jazz scene, Ella Fitzgerald was moving along a similar path. Naturally, Fitzgerald and Holiday were pitted as rivals, but the two became friends instead.

Fitzgerald, a.k.a. “The First Lady of Song,” was born in Newport News, Virginia in 1917. Her mother and stepfather moved the family to Yonkers in the early 1920s. Tragically, Fitzgerald's mother died when she was 15 leaving her in the care of an abusive stepfather until 1933, when she moved to Harlem to live with an aunt. She was later placed in a segregated girls orphanage in the Bronx after skipping school and allegedly working as a lookout for a numbers runner. Because over overcrowding, Fitzgerald was transferred to the New York Training School for Girls, but escaped and was homeless for a time.

Fitzgerald made her debut on the Apollo Theater in 1934 taking the top prize of a weeklong residency which was never awarded to her likely because of her disheveled look. Nonetheless, the performance would be the first in many milestones in Fitzgerald’s then budding singer career. After scoring a chance to perform with the band Harlem Opera House, Fitzgerald was signed by bandleader Chick Webb and was invited to join Webb’s orchestra with whom she recorded multiple hits including "A-Tisket, A-Tasket.” After Webb’s death in 1939, the band was renamed to Ella and Her Famous Orchestra. In 1942, Fitzgerald officially began a solo career that would span decades. She collaborated with fellow jazz greats and friends, Dizzy Gillespe, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington. She also shattered gender and racial barriers, most notably becoming the first black female singer to win a Grammy at the inaugural awards ceremony in 1958.  Fitzgerald would win a total of 13 Grammys throughout her career, and earned the Grammys Lifetime Achievement Award in 1967.

By the mid 1980, Fitzgerald’s health began to decline due to a long battle with diabetes. She was hospitalized for respiratory issues and heart failure, and would become wheelchair bound after having both of her legs amputated in 1993. She died from a stroke three years later.

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Mamie Smith

While there is no official record of her birth, Mamie Smith was believed to have been born in Cincinnati in 1883. By 1920, Smith became the first black artist to make a vocal blues recordings, and earned her biggest hit in "It's Right Here for You (If You Don't Get It, 'Tain't No Fault of Mine)," which sold a million copies in under a year. Her success opened the door for other black female blues singers to be sought after by record labels. Smith retired in 1931, returning to the stage in 1939 for a performance in the film Paradise in Harlem.

While in retirement, Smith appeared in a handful of films, the last of which was Because I Love You in 1943. Smith reportedly fell ill the following year spending the last two years of her life in Harlem hospital. She died in 1946 at age 63.

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Dinah Washington

The “most popular black recording artist of the 1950s” was Dinah Washington, who amassed more than two dozen R&B top 10 hits between 1948 and 1955. Washington was born Born Ruth Lee Jones in Tuscaloosa, Ala. in 1924, and was raised in Chicago.

She started out singing in gospel choirs and by 1941 Washington began playing Chicago night clubs and later the Garrick Stage Bar where Billie Holiday performed. Impressed by Washington's talents, club owner Joe Sherman hired her to play the bar's upstairs room, while Holiday performed downstairs.

In 1944 Washington recorded her first song for Keynote Records called “Evil Gal Blues,” which began a long streak of  hits for the singer. "Evil Gal Blues" landed on Billboard’s Harlem Hit Parade chart (an early incarnation of the R&B singles chart), along with its follow-up “Salty Papa Blues.” In 1959, Washington landed a top 10 pop hit with her version of “What a Difference a Day Made.” She performed around the country, sharing the stage with fellow jazz greats, Count Basie, and Tony Bennet, and was the first black performer to be booked at Las Vegas’ Sahara Hotel main room.

Washington died in 1963 from an overdose of prescription pills. She was 39.

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Sarah Vaughan

A native of Newark, N.J., Sarah Vaughan is credited as one of the first jazz vocalists to introduce bebop into her singing. The singer and pianist acquired a love for music at a young age. As a teen, Vaughan and friends would cross over into New York City to watch jazz bands perform at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. At age 19, Vaughan took the Apollo stage as an amateur performer. She won the top prize of $10, and opened for Ella Fitzgerald in 1942, and  later toured with jazz pianist and band leader, Earl Hines. Vaughan went on to join another band, this time led by jazz and pop singer Billy Eckstine. Vaughan went solo in 1946, and in December of that year, she married her manager, musician, George Treadwell.

In 1947 Vaughan landed a surprise pop hit with “Tenderly.” The following year, she signed with Columbia, her label home until 1953. During her tenure with Columbia, Vaughan released hits like “That Lucky Old Sun", "Make Believe (You Are Glad When You're Sorry)," "I'm Crazy to Love You," and ”I Cried for You.” In 1954, Treadwell negotiated a contract with Vaughn and Mercury Records where she scored her first hit with the label, a song called “Make Yourself Uncomfortable.” That fall, Vaughn performed at Carnegie Hall with the Count Basie Orchestra.

Over the next five years, Vaughan would divorce Treadwell and married her second husband Clyde Atkins with whom she adopted a daughter, Paris Vaughan (a.k.a. Debra Lois). Vaughan divorced Atkins in 1961 and began dating Marshall Fisher, her partner until 1971.  Meanwhile, after her contract ended at Mercury, Vaughan joined Roulette Records and recorded multiple ensemble albums piloted by several well known conductors and arrangers, including Bill May and Quincy Jones.

Vaughan remained active on the performing and recording circuit until the 1989 when she began to experience health problems and was subsequently diagnosed with lung cancer. Vaughan underwent chemotherapy treatment, but died at her Southern California home in 1990.

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Jenny Regan

Freddie Gibbs Has Nothing To Hide With 'Bandana'

Talking with Freddie Gibbs, a Gary, Indiana native who came of age hustling during the ‘90s, can be a bit jarring at times. Discussing the Madlib beat that backs the song “Gat Damn” off his upcoming album, Bandana, the artist cheerfully details his desire to create a “dope a** melody and freak that motherf**ker” before quietly pondering one of the chaotic stories that make the track so impactful.

“Sometimes the violence feels good when you’re not on the other end of it, but when family members and children and women start getting killed, you know it’s a real serious thing,” he says. “So I don’t know, man, my whole purpose with this project was to let people know where I was at mentally and emotionally.”

A Los Angeles transplant, Gibbs is too busy raising his daughter, running a business and posting memes to worry about the streets. Almost three years after being discharged from Austrian prison for a crime he was ultimately acquitted of, he has more to celebrate now than ever, especially with Bandana dropping on June 28.

A follow-up to Piñata, Gibbs’ critically acclaimed 2014 venture with Madlib that paired the Midwestern rapper’s intricate, illustrative verses with the California-born producer’s jazzy, lo-fi beats, Bandana was teased for years before the artist started releasing information this February. The high-energy single “Flat Tummy Tea,” which touches on everything from the artists’ political disillusionment to his former drug habits, was inconspicuously teased on Instagram and then posted on YouTube shortly after, just a few weeks before the album’s biting, bass drum-heavy signature track was released to the public. Fast forward to the middle of June and Gibbs has unveiled the Quasimoto-inspired cover art, sent Zebra mascots to Hollywood and Times Square to publicize the release and dropped videos for “Crime Pays” and “Giannis,” his first collaboration with Anderson .Paak.

The album, which effortlessly moves between Gibbs’ speedy, hard bars and his softer R&B side, comes across like a meditation on his chaotic past. Talking to him, it’s clear that he’s “waxing, trying to get to a better spot in [his] career [and] as a father,” and that impression comes through in each track. Instead of focusing on the flashier aspects of his life, the artist forces people to examine his discomforting, long-winded path to success and the scars it left on his mind. Chock-full of beat changes that jolt the MC to switch styles midway through a song, Bandana is composed in a way that it feels like the listener is truly inside Gibbs’ head, following along as he jumps from one thought, or nightmare, to another. Sure, Gibbs may be enjoying his hard-wrought success now, but he never glorifies his past, choosing instead to highlight his sleepless nights and the masculine paranoia that permeated his days dealing.

“My sh*t is an open book,” he explains. “Artists now I feel like I don't even know who these ni**as are because everyone is just automatically rich when they come out, you know? That definitely wasn't my reality.”

More than just a long-awaited project, Bandana is Gibbs’ first release with a major label. After some career ups-and-downs that saw him sign with Interscope in 2006 before promptly being dropped a year later, he recently partnered with friend Tunji Balogun to release Bandana through Keep Cool, a subsidiary of RCA and Sony Music, in tandem with his own ESGN label and Madlib’s Invazion. Despite the corporate support and larger marketing budget, he insists he’s not doing anything differently.

"I kind of created my own lane, I got my own lane of things, so I'm not really pressured,” Gibbs says. “I'm dropping music to satisfy the people that rock with me, and if some new people rock with me, that's cool, but if not, I'm not tripping."

Gibbs’ lyrical skills helped him build a dedicated fanbase, but his business partner and manager Ben “Lambo” Lambert is an instrumental part of his success. A lifelong hip-hop fan who cut his teeth in the industry at 15 putting up stickers for Slum Village’s Fantastic Volume 2, Lambo first discovered 22-year-old Gibbs while working as a college intern at Interscope and has stuck by him ever since. If they’re not physically together, the partners speak on the phone daily, covering everything from merch design to beat selection, and they both agreed the time was right to utilize a larger platform.

“It's like we're on the AND1 tour,” Lambo said, referring to the traveling basketball competition. “We're on Venice Beach, killing it, but at a certain point, unless you put up some points in the NBA, there's always going to be a feeling of ‘what if?’”

As personal as creating Bandana was for Gibbs, it’s been equally emotional for Lambo. Since the team started working on the record five years ago, Lambo has had two kids, one of whom was born just weeks before its release. He said it’s difficult to even discuss the album’s early days, back before Gibbs’ trouble overseas threw a wrench in their plans, since everything is different now.

“We’re in a society where people need to see other people celebrating something and then everyone can celebrate it, so I'm excited to see that because we've literally put our lives into this,” Lambo explained. “I just feel like it's a culmination of a lot of years of stuff and I want to move onto the next phase, whatever that is. Which, resulting from this album, I think will be something really exciting and fun."

For a while, Gibbs hinted at Bandana being his final project, but he recently told Entertainment Weekly that he and Madlib are already working on a new record called Montana. According to Lambo, all three MadGibbs titles were conceived part-way into recording Piñata. While he’s hesitant to call the new albums sequels, he likens the unfinished trilogy to Quentin Tarantino’s filmography where disconnected movies share key elements in a way that makes audiences feel like they’re returning to a familiar world.

The reveal does come with one drawback though, as Gibbs, who said he was just in the studio working on three or four tracks for the album last week, insists “Montana is gonna be [his] last album.” For him, everything goes back to the strength and value of his catalog and he wants to cap things off with a few more “strong projects.”

“I feel like a lot of these ni**as just put out too much music, man. Every year it's like three mixtapes or a lot of sh*t that don't mean nothing. I want everything I give you to mean something.”

Music isn’t the only thing pushing this renaissance gangster forward. On top of writing rhymes and running ESGN with Lambo, Gibbs wants to break into filmmaking. The former dealer almost scored a role in the FX series Snowfall, a show about crack’s rise in Los Angeles during the ‘80s, but so far he hasn’t had too much luck with auditions.

“I’m not bitter about it,” he says. “I just look at it as God gonna give me the perfect role when I get it, so it is what it is."

Instead of sitting back and waiting for opportunities, Gibbs is hard at work writing his own scripts and tackling filmmaking with the same independent mindset he brought to music. With close associates like Nick Walker, the director on the “Pronto” and “Crime Pays” music videos, Gibbs wants to “develop [his] own kind of films.”

While he’s mum about the details for any future projects, a quick look at his past music videos, especially “Thuggin,’” shows that Gibbs strives for authenticity in the way he presents his stories.

“Everything I was doing in “Thuggin’” I was actually doing at that time. I was selling crack and all I did with that sh*t was take you throughout my day. I was in South Central selling crack and those are my real homies and everything was authentic, so it was like let's just walk everybody through a day in the life of what I'm doing, and I was doing a lot of bullsh*t that day.”

In his own words, the video sums up his life from 2010 until his daughter’s birth in 2015. Straddling the worlds of music and drug dealing, Gibbs made an artistic name for himself but couldn’t live solely on music. Comparing it to purgatory, the artist felt like he was too deep in both professions to give up but he had to deal with people pressuring him to choose between the streets and the booth.

 

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“You know, I was on the cover of magazines and still selling like crack and heroin,” he says, "so it was kind of a tough thing to juggle, actually being out there for real and kind of being in the spotlight.”

Now comfortably living off his music, Gibbs is gunning for the respect and clout he thinks he deserves. For years he’s called himself the “most versatile rapper” in the game and believes he belongs in the “upper echelon of MCs,” but he’s well aware that a lot of talented people get overlooked in the industry. Now, with Keep Cool behind him, it’s time for Gibbs to find out if the public agrees with his self-evaluation.

“I always ask myself, if there was a rap hall of fame, would I go?” he says. “And yeah, once I finished this album I was like 'yeah, I think I'd be there.'”

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Rapper Flavor Flav, director Spike Lee and Chuck D of the rap group 'Public Enemy' film a video for their song 'Fight The Power' directed by Spike Lee in 1989 in New York, New York.
Michael Ochs

Music Sermon: How 'Fight The Power' Saved Public Enemy

It was “1989, the number, another summer,” and in New York City, the racial tension was thick as the season’s heat. For New York, it wasn’t just “another summer” - 1989 was a defining year for the city, and for its black and brown youth. The swift persecution of five black and brown boys for the Central Park Jogger attack, with little evidence, is in the national conversation today, but divided the city along racial and class lines that spring. The August murder of 16-year-old Yusuf Hawkins by a group of teens in Brooklyn’s Italian-American Bensonhurst neighborhood sparked protests across the city. In the middle of these two events, both of which are tightly woven into the fabric of New York, Spike Lee released one of his most provocative films: the prophetic Do the Right Thing.

At the time, Lee intentionally chose Public Enemy, the most radical group in rap, to set the movie’s tone. Their seminal anthem “Fight the Power” was not only one of hip-hop’s most monumental songs, but also Gen X’s first taste of movement music. The group’s 1987 album It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was unlike anything anyone had ever heard in music, let alone the still very new rap genre. Public Enemy’s sophomore album combined the tight flow of battle rappers, the spirit and energy of the Black Power movement, and the aesthetic presentation of the Black Panthers with their paramilitary backing group, Security of the First World (S1W), all packaged up with a logo featuring a black man in a sniper’s crosshairs (can you imagine all of that today? The “If a white group did that…” comments would be insufferable). PE didn’t just start the conscious rap movement, they sparked the gangsta rap movement – NWA’s Straight Outta Compton was directly influenced by Nation of Millions (Chuck sent an early copy of the album to the group, and you feel the inspiration in “F*ck the Police” especially. Along with the defiant social commentary in the lyrics, Dre channeled The Bomb Squad’s sonic chaos in the track. Cube went on to work with The Bomb Squad for his solo debut).

“When I wrote the script for Do the Right Thing, every time when the Radio Raheem character showed up, he had music blasting,” Lee told Rolling Stone. “I wanted Public Enemy.”

But at the time of the movie’s release, PE had technically broken up; sidelined by controversy impacting their reputation not just domestically, but abroad. On June 29, one day before Do the Right Thing hit theaters, Russell Simmons announced: ''Public Enemy is disbanding for an indefinite period.”

THE STORM

Public Enemy was made up of distinctively different personalities: Chuck D, the leader, the voice, and the “adult” of the group; Flava Flav, the blueprint for hip-hop hype men and comedic levity to Chuck’s booming gravity; and Professor Griff, the “Minister of Information,” a black Muslim who didn’t actually observe any of the tenants of Islam but subscribed to the most incendiary rhetoric The Nation of Islam offered. As the Minister of Information, Griff sometimes spoke publicly on the group’s behalf and had been known to stir up controversy with comments that were just over the line, but not far enough to cause a mainstream firestorm. Then, on May 22, 1989, he sat down with reporter (and later writer for The Wire and Treme) David Mills for an interview with The Washington Times. Because he was talking to another black man, Griff got way into his bag, and sh*t went left, quickly.

“Griff opined that ‘the majority of them [i.e., Jews]’ are responsible for ‘the majority of the wickedness that goes on across the globe,” recounted LA Times rock critic Robert Cristgau in his summation of the controversy, properly titled “The Sh*t Storm.” “He… raved about how ‘the Jews finance these experiments on AIDS with black people in South Africa,’ observed that ‘the Jews have their hands right around Bush's throat,’ and concluded that he must be speaking the truth because if he wasn't the Jew who owned CBS would long since have forced him, Griff, out of the group.” It was a mess, but it still flew largely under the radar until the story was picked up by The Village Voice (pours out liquor). You know how the timeline gets when there’s controversy? Imagine that in real life amongst the music community and media.

Even the most esteemed music critics had praised Nation of Millions, many even included the LP on their 1987 Album of the Year lists. Now they were being called on to defend or condemn the group they’d once praised.

Nelson George was one of the lone hip hop writers at the time aside from Harry Allen (which is why you will always find Nelson George references in my work), and as a black man in a space where we were still fighting for voice and position, he was careful to distinguish Griff’s comments from what the group stood for. "There's no question they say Farrakhan's a prophet," George told the LA Times at the time, "but Chuck D was very specific about what they like about Farrakhan. That Prof. Griff is a (jerk) doesn't invalidate the record. And Public Enemy was signed by Rick Rubin, who is Jewish, and one of their first managers is Jewish, as is the photographer that shot most of their album cover pictures, and (so is) their publicist Bill Adler."

Chuck was torn. He first backed Griff, then seperated the group’s stance from Griff’s personal stance, then banned Griff from speaking on behald of PE, before finally condemning Griff and apologizing for his comments, stating: “We’re not anti-Jewish or anti-anyone at all. We're pro-black. To use the same mechanism that you're fighting against definitely is wrong. We don't stand for hatred. We're not here to make enemies. We're apologizing to anyone who might be offended by Griff's remarks.” Griff was expelled from the group on June 21, 1989.

The continued pressure from the Jewish Defense Organization – including calls to boycott Do the Right Thing, Def Jam and Columbia/CBS, who distributed the group’s albums, and Rick Rubin even though he wasn’t involved with the group anymore – finally wore Chuck out. He told Kurt Loder during an MTV interview that the group was done. ''He (Griff) transferred misinformation, and it was just wrong. You can`t back it,” he explained. “But we got sandbagged, and being as I got sandbagged, the group is over as of today. We`re outta here. We`re stepping out of the music business as a boycott . . . against the music industry, management, record companies (and) the industry retailers.”

In Robert Cristgau’s earlier-referenced article, written shortly after that MTV interview, he opined of PE’s future: “…it's reasonable to hope that three or six or nine months down the road, after Spike Lee returns to the set and Chuck's label flops and Flavor Flav staggers under the weight of his own album, PE will regroup.”

Instead, it only took about a month. “Fight the Power” became a hit; The song and movie combined birthed one of the biggest cultural statements of the decade.

THE ANTHEM

Spike told Hank Shocklee (of The Bomb Squad, Public Enemy’s famed production unit) and Chuck he wanted an anthem, but already had an idea in mind. “Spike originally proposed a rap version of a negro spiritual, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” to be produced by someone else and with just Chuck D rapping,” Shocklee told the Guardian. “I was like: ‘No way.’” Hank found an example right out of Do the Right Thing’s world to make his point. “We were in Spike’s office on DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn, by a busy intersection. I pulled down his window, stuck his head out, and was like: ‘Yo man, you’ve got to think about this record as being something played out of these cars going by.’” Spike knew he wanted the power of Chuck’s voice, but Chuck and Shocklee knew that the moment called for something bigger, sonically. Gen X is now considered a generation without a social movement. Boomers were engaged in the Civil Rights Movement, Millennials led Black Lives Matter, Gen X’ers were chillin’ - except we weren’t. Police brutality, the overcriminalization of black and brown people (hi, stop-and-frisk), the rise of the crack epidemic… these were our issues, and hip-hop was our movement: our way to give voice to the systemic injustices and bleak realities black people faced daily.

With “Fight the Power,” Chuck, Hank Shocklee and the Bomb Squad captured the energy of black resistance in a rare, perfect way – sonically and lyrically. It sounded aggressive, it sounded urgent, it sounded defiant, it sounded confident. It was the protest music of black Gen X’ers. “The song could have gone a lot softer, a lot neater, a lot tighter – but it would have lost the chaos,” Shocklee went on to explain. “When something is organized and aligned, it represents passivity. But any resistance, any struggle to overcome, is going to be chaotic. So the hardest part was making sure the track wasn’t monotonous. Lots of the samples appear only once, and a lot of stuff isn’t perfectly in time. I didn’t just want white noise and black noise – I wanted pink noise and brown noise!”

The title and thematic direction came from Ron Isley and his brothers’ 1975 song of the same name. The song struck a chord with 15-year-old Chuck D. Last year, Chuck and Ernie Isley (who, by the way, is the most criminally underrated guitar player in music history) compared notes on the two "Fight the Power's" for NPR: “I was 15 years old, so it was ingrained in me, but it was a record that I thought represented us. ‘I tried to play my music, they say my music's too loud’: That spoke loud to me,” Chuck shared with Ernie. “And I didn't even curse at the time, but that was the first time I ever heard a curse on a record.”

I can't play my music They say my music's too loud I kept talkin about it I got the big run around When I rolled with the punches I got knocked on the ground By all this bullsh*t goin’ down

Like the 1989 version, The Isleys’ joint catches you up in the undeniable bop of the track even while delivering power through the lyrics.

PE’s “Fight the Power” was also a big f*ck you to “American” pop culture, disparaging white icons Elvis and John Wayne, who in the late ‘80s were both damn near deified. It was a declaration that we black folks have our own history and culture.

'Cause I'm Black and I'm proud I'm ready and hyped plus I'm amped Most of my heroes don't appear on no stamps Sample a look back you look and find Nothing but rednecks for four hundred years if you check

A song that feels and sounds like Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” will never happen again, because the Bomb Squad’s trademark sampling methods would be a legal headache and financially crippling today thanks to changes in copyright laws spurred by the growing rap industry in 1991. “It was a totally different process from today, when cats listen to a finished track then put rhymes on top – that separates emotion and content,” Shocklee shared when discussing how the song came to be. “All the samples have to work with Chuck’s emotion. We’d have to find something from all our hundreds of records to fill a second, and it all had to be done by ear, without computers or visual aids.”

THE MOVIE

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a song used as many times as “Fight the Power” is in Do the Right Thing. I can’t even tell you what other song is on the soundtrack without looking it up. Honestly, the entire soundtrack should have just been a “Fight the Power” maxi-single. Also, shout out to one of the most iconic opening title sequences ever. It’s like James Bond level. Better.

The song and the movie are inextricably linked. As mentioned earlier, Spike wanted “Fight the Power” playing whenever we saw Radio Raheem. Since Raheem is the movie’s pivotal character, PE underscored some of the movie’s most powerful moments.

Shocklee explained to Rolling Stone why using Radio Raheem as the vehicle for the song worked so well. “The track intensified the story. When Radio Raheem was with the boombox playing that song, that’s what was happening at that time, exactly. You could have walked out the theater and into a pizza shop, and that would have happened at that moment.”

Even before they retreated into self-imposed career exile, Public Enemy weren’t radio artists. The film was their only real promotional vehicle for the single – but what a vehicle. “When I heard Spike Lee put it 20 times in the movie, I was like, pssh,” he shared with Rolling Stone. “We realized early that film was probably going to be our outlet to deliver sh*t. We couldn’t rely on radio.” While the group laid low, “Fight the Power” shot to No. 1 on the Billboard Rap chart and cracked the Top 20 on the Hip-Hop and R&B chart (Hammer would break down the barrier for rap on the Hot 100 and Pop charts about a year later). In August, PE came out of “retirement” to announce their renowned third album, Fear of a Black Planet.

THE VIDEO

The music video for “Fight the Power” goes down as one of the most satisfying visuals for a song, ever. In the history of music videos. It is the perfect accompaniment to the track’s energy and power. For the video, Spike created a modern-day version of the March on Washington in Brooklyn, which he called "The Young People's March on Brooklyn to End Racial Violence,” featuring Public Enemy. The march was Chuck’s idea, and Spike did the video as a favor, on the strength of them letting him use “Fight the Power” for free. If Chuck D wasn’t already firmly positioned as hip-hop’s political leader, watching him leading throngs of young people through Bed-Stuy did the trick. “It was like a rose really sprouted in Brooklyn,” he later shared about the day. “It was seriously a black movement of just being able to stand up and demand that the systems and the powers that be don’t roll you over. And this was a threat to America and it was a threat to the record companies at the time. That video was really powerful.”

Flav added, “That was one of the most craziest days of my life. But it was so amazing. It was my first time ever really doing a video shoot… (W)e had Jesse Jackson there, Al Sharpton was there, Tawana Brawley was in the video, too, as well. And the whole of Bedford-Stuyvesant…I would give anything to live that day one more time.”

Like the movie and the song, the video is on multiple “best of all time” lists.

While echoes of the controversy of 1989 followed PE through the early ‘90s, the sheer power of Fear of a Black Planet prevented it from slowing them down in any way. Nation of Millions blew the music community away, but Fear of a Black Planet surpassed it.

This has nothing to do with anything, really, except that I want y’all to peep how completely off the chain Flav is in this interview. Chuck and Fab 5 Freddie just gave up.

THE LEGACY

The legacy and impact of Do the Right Thing are perhaps immeasurable. The movie garnered two Oscar nominations, including Best Original Screenplay, was deemed one of the most important movies of the year, then later one of the most important of the decade, and is still largely considered to be Spike’s greatest and most complete work. It inspired a new generation of filmmakers, including John Singleton, who went home and wrote Boyz N The Hood after seeing the film. Radio Raheem’s boombox is on display at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). “Fight the Power” is still one of the most important songs in hip-hop, has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and is ranked by multiple lists as one of the greatest songs in music, period. Public Enemy went on to be inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. But as I said before, the power is in the two - movie and song - together. It’s hamburger and bun. Peanut butter and jelly. Milk and cereal. Neither are as strong if they’d been presented to the world without the other.

In any other year, the movie and song just wouldn’t have hit the same. Do the Right Thing was one of the first “day-in-the-life” black movies that showcased the routine and connectivity of community - how we rely on each other, how we interact with each other, and the line between business owners integrating with the community and just making money from the community. “Fight the Power” came just as conscious rap was gaining a commercial foothold. Despite the group’s assumptions, the song did get radio play - lots of it. A year earlier, radio wouldn’t have been ready. A year later, the song wouldn’t have felt as special. Thirty years later, the movie and track aren’t just a snapshot of 1989, but they both still feel incredibly relevant and accurate. But without this partnership, the self-proclaimed Rolling Stones of hip-hop may have had an entirely different musical legacy - one smashed to bits the way Sal smashed Raheem’s boombox. Instead, they proved the galvanizing power hip-hop could have. 1989 was not just another summer; it sparked a hip-hop revolution.

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#MusicSermon is a weekly series by Naima Cochrane that highlights the under-acknowledged and under-appreciated urban artists and sub-genres from the '90s and earlier. The series seeks to tell unknown and/or forgotten stories that connect the dots between current music, culture and the foundations of the past.

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Tobe Nwigwe wowed the crowd with a live musical performance at the McDonald’s Black & Positively Golden experience at BETX.
BET Expereience

Tobe Nwigwe's Southern Raps At The BET Experience Are Marinaded With Purpose

Thanks to Tobe Nwigwe, Houston’s presence could not be denied at this year’s batch of BET Experience events in Los Angeles. Sporting his signature sock/slippers combo and a mic in his hand, the Nigerian-American storyteller took the stage Friday (June 21) to perform some of his most revolutionary and captivating tracks.

There’s the lyrical strike that is “Ten Toes” and “Against the Grain” made popular from his #GetTwistedSundays series, a keen exploration of Houston. With a new batch of ears and hearts open to his music, the Nigerian-American rapper is at ease with his new purpose.

“I understand my purpose now. I understand that to do what I’m doing now is all of my life,” Nwigwe tells VIBE before taking the stage for McDonald’s Black & Positively Golden event which showcases music’s ability to continue the cultural narratives of the Black experience in America.

Before he was shining on BET Cyphers, performing at the Roots Picnic or delivering projects like Three Originals, Nwigwe had dreams of entering the NFL. Those plans were redirected after a physical injury during his senior year at the University of North Texas. The incident served as a catalyst for the rapper to transform his energy into purposeful rap for his hometown, Houston.

“That’s why I’m due diligent, persistent, and focused on what I’m doing because I understand the call of my life,” he added while speaking about his partnership with McDonald’s platform. “I just really like what the Black and Positively Golden theme is. Being bold, being brilliant, being resilient. I like the black community, I love it. I feel like black people are the most influential people in the world.”

 

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HISTORY WAS MADE AT THE @ROOTSPICNIC 🙏🏿 YASIIN BEY - - 📸: @tynie626

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Houston’s re-emergence into mainstream hip hop culture, from a cultural enclave to an emergent regional capital in Southern rap lineage is evident acts like Megan Thee Stallion and Tobe Nwigwe. Draped in diasporic apparel and perched on a horse in the Texas countryside, Nwigwe is representative of the city’s rich ethnic demographic, and fusion of two Black sub-cultures into one told through the oral traditions of hip hop.

Nwigwe is currently dressed in all black, but it wouldn’t be without purpose. In small but noticeable text, his shirt says, “Mental Health is Crucial.” The fit speaks highly of intentions as an advocate for black youth. Nwigwe’s love for his community extends beyond the reaches of rap into the worlds of non-profit advocacy and mentorship. He’s the co-founder of TeamGINI, “Gini Bu Nkpa Gi?,” an Igbo saying meaning, “What’s Your Purpose?”

“I understand what people where I come from need,” he explains. “I feel that. I understand the void, so I do my best to play a role in being a part of the solution.”

His spiritual beliefs were highlighted in The Rap Map: Meet 5 Talented Artists From Houston featured on DJBooth. An ideology rooted in community-based upliftment drew motivational speaker Eric Thomas to sign Nwigwe for ETA Records, and establish a partnership focused on the implementation of solutions-focused rap for youth in neighborhoods across the United States, impacted by the terrors of community disinvestment, and high rates of violence.

Nwigwe recalled the outpouring of love experienced at one of his recent hometown shows. “I had the biggest crowd ever on my court at home," he proudly boasted in a Houston drawl. "I had over 3,000 people at a show with no openers, none of that. The mayor came out and gave me a dap, so it’s just a lot of love at home. There's like nothing better than being received well in your hometown, where you grew up and got all your influence from. It’s, wherever I go I wear Alief, I wear SWAT, I wear Houston on me like a badge of honor.”

His authenticity is felt throughout his setlist, a musical arrangement with a live band, background vocals from Beaumont-raised LHITNEY, and surprise guest performance from NELL, a frequent collaborator and producer on his music projects.

Nwigwe's purpose for the weekend was complete–he brought Houston to Los Angeles. “Make purpose popular,” Nwigwe’s mantra for his musicality sounds like a tagline from your local conscious rapper, but the intention in how the Houston rapper uses music as a space for community messaging is rooted in genuine Houston hospitality.

Stream Nwigwe’s latest release, “Searching” below.

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