“The most disrespected person in America is the black woman,” Malcolm X says in a sample used on Beyoncé‘s Lemonade. “The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” He was talking about society in general, but the same is true of popular art, specifically rock. The female artists who helped build rock are often forgotten, but the re-imagination of what rock can be and who can sing it by Beyoncé and her superstar peers is giving the genre a second life – and may be what can save it.
On Lemonade, Beyoncé’s choice to include both a raucous blues-rock track — “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” featuring Jack White — as well as an Americana romp — “Daddy Lessons” — is as political as the poetry she intertwines with her songs on her visual album. Lemonade is, in part, an album about black legacy, and her choice to tap more fully into rock, a genre she has touched lightly upon before, is an important nod to the often forgotten place black women had in inspiring and forming the genre. Seen in this light, the fierce and vengeful tone of “Don’t Hurt Yourself” takes on a broader cultural meaning.
Black women, particularly black female blues singers, are part of the foundation from which rock & roll was built. The raw, unhinged vocal style and sexual ambiguity of Big Mama Thornton, the innovative guitar playing of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and the frenetic stage presence of Tina Turner shaped our ideas of what it means to not only play but embody rock music. Yet our conception of what the rock musician looks like has become starkly white, boxing black performers into R&B and soul categories no matter how genre-bending they are. During Prince’s lifetime, for example, his music was often labeled as R&B, though his style and guitar playing comes from the rock tradition. One of rock’s biggest innovators, Prince just happened to fuse R&B, funk and pop into his sound as well.
Beyoncé’s own rock moment follows up Rihanna covering Tame Impala on Anti, an album that trades in the EDM production of her biggest hits for funk and psychedelic rock. Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard has become the new face of Southern rock, and her band has been given its due with the success of sophomore album Sound & Color, which took home three Grammy Awards at this year’s ceremony as well as a coveted nomination for Album of the Year. The Shakes’ win for Best Rock Song was the first time a black woman had been nominated — and won — in the category since Tracy Chapman in 1997.
The presence of black women in the mainstream performing rock is an act of reclamation, especially at a time when the genre’s clout on radio and the charts is severely diminished. Beyoncé’s choice to not only work with White, a forerunner of the movement to bring back blues-rock in the new millennium, as well as sample Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks,” which was itself a reworked version of a song by black Delta blues artists Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie, is a shrewd statement on the genre’s complex lineage. She re-appropriates a hard-rock version of a blues classic that gained more traction and recognition than the original, while teaming up with the new standard bearer for the intermingling of blues and rock.
Even while in Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé toyed with white rock samples. The girl group’s single “Bootylicious” famously interpolates Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen,” while 1999’s “Bug a Boo” samples Toto’s “Child’s Anthem.” On Lemonade, she samples various new-millennium rock luminaries, including the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (on “Hold Up”) and Animal Collective (on “6 Inch.”). In concert, she’s covered songs like Kings of Leon’s “Sex on Fire” and, most recently, the Doors’ “Five to One,” and has sung with Eddie Vedder and Coldplay. Her exploration of rock has been ongoing, though the act of producing a full track of raucous, shivering new-blues to express her anger and resentment towards her husband is a sonic shift, and one that she pulls off impressively well.
“Don’t Hurt Yourself” is only the latest chapter in a rich historical narrative. Since the Fifties and Sixties, black female singers have covered white rock artists and vice versa, though the former have often seen bigger success with their versions. Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog” and “Ball and Chain” are more inextricably linked to Elvis Presley and Janis Joplin, respectively. Tina Turner reversed the tide when the Ike and Tina Turner Revue’s cover of the Beatles’ “Come Together” – performed while opening for the Rolling Stones in 1969 – helped them achieve their breakthrough after struggling with being referred to as “too pop” by soul stations and “too R&B” by white stations. Later, their cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary” became the Revue’s biggest hit and flipped the standard narrative of white rock artists appropriating black music.
In a 1971 Rolling Stone cover story, Tina Turner discussed the Revue’s “move to interpreting white rock and roll,” which Turner called “quite natural.” She remembered being drawn to “Come Together” while in a Seattle record shop and wanting to do it onstage, which led to fans begging for a recording. “And we said, ‘What’s so great about it? We’re doing it just like the Beatles or the Rolling Stones,'” she said. “And they said, ‘No, you have your own thing about it.’ So when we cut the album, we were lacking a few tunes, so we said, ‘Well, let’s just put in a few that we’re doing onstage.’ And that’s how ‘Proud Mary’ came about.”
As a solo artist, Tina Turner’s earliest albums featured covers of white artists. She tackled Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Dolly Parton and Kris Kristofferson on 1974’s Tina Turns the Country On! before revamping the Stones’ “Under My Thumb,” the Who’s “Acid Queen” and Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” on 1975’s Acid Queen. In 2008, Turner would revive her cover of “Proud Mary,” performing it with Beyoncé at the Grammy Awards after the younger artist offered a speech on the history of black female artists, which cast Turner as the meeting point of all of them.
Beyond Turner, many women from her generation reclaimed rock in their own ways: Aretha Franklin covered the Beatles’ “Let It Be” and “Eleanor Rigby,” the Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” on her late-Sixties and early-Seventies albums. Mavis Staples, one of the most influential R&B and gospel singers of the past half-century, has experienced an Americana renaissance in recent years, having found a fruitful collaborative partner in Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy for her 2013 LP One True Vine while working with a slew of younger songwriters on this year’s Livin’ on a High Note, including Neko Case, Nick Cave and Benjamin Booker. And last year, with help from Steven Van Zandt, Darlene Love released Introducing Darlene Love, which featured new songs written by Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello and others.
While guitarists like Keith Richards and Eric Clapton have been effusive about the black male blues guitarists who have shaped their playing, nods to the likes of Tharpe, Thornton and Turner are few and far between. “I learned a lot of things from Tina,” Mick Jagger said in a 1981 interview with People, in which Turner revealed how she taught the Stones frontman how to dance. Janis Joplin paid tribute to Thornton’s influence by taking the singer she famously covered out on tour with her as her fame escalated because of the cover. Robert Plant, a vocalist whose style most clearly evokes traditional female blues singers, covered a Sam Phillips song called “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us” with Alison Krauss in 2007, paying tribute to Tharpe.
On Lemonade, Beyoncé pays her own tribute by proving she’s a quick study of the blues-rock form. On “Don’t Hurt Yourself,” she swaggers and roars, evoking the gritty garage style her collaborator has been known for. Her anger is tempered by a steady funk bass line, then mirrored by the roar of the track’s crunchy riff, like a new generation’s “Whole Lotta Love” or, if the verses were slowed down, “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You.” The twang of her Texas accent comes to the fore on “Daddy Lessons,” a track on which she even embraces the traditional folk trope of familial history. Still, both songs are entirely Beyoncé, much in the way Tina Turner transformed “Proud Mary.” This tradition has always been in her, and much in the same the way that she channels black historical trauma in her most recent opus, she channels the erasure of forgotten black female voices as well.