In his new book lecture Tuesday, CU Boulder researcher Reiland Rabaka focuses on the relationship between the Black Women’s Liberation Movement and its music, heralding pioneers like Aretha Franklin
The beats may have been for dancing and the fashion may have been impeccable, but the soul, funk and disco music that soundtracked the Black Women’s Liberation Movement also had a message—a profound one that has given voice to women whom history often places in the shadows of the movement’s men.
And while there has been research on the political and literary feminism that has come from the Black Women’s Liberation Movement, scant research has been done on the music related to the core elements of the movement.
In his new book, Black Women's Liberation Movement Music: Soul Sisters, Black Feminist Funksters, and Afro-Disco Divas, Reiland Rabaka, a University of Colorado Boulder professor of ethnic studies and director of the Center for African and African American Studies, seeks to “develop an intersectional musicology: a form of music history, theory, cultural study and criticism that is attentive to the ways race, gender, sexism and class struggles influence the composition, performance, distribution and reception of music,” he explained at a lecture Tuesday.
Rabaka said it’s important to move away from the “male-centered interpretation of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement. It's important to focus on the lives of women, queer and trans people in the Civil Rights Movement as well.”
However, he stressed that it still is important to “learn about Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party and Stokely Carmichael,” but that there should be a “both/and” narrative instead of “either/or.”
“African American women ended up in the unpleasant position of having to choose between supporting the Black Power Movement—which was now largely defined and dominated by Black men—or supporting the Women's Liberation Movement, which had increasingly come to be defined and dominated by white women,” he said.
“Consequently, a contingent of Black women ultimately decided to create their own, distinct movement that combined the struggle for racial justice with the struggle for gender justice. Many Black women were participants in the aforementioned widely recognized movements as well as their own often unrecognized movement: the Black Women's Liberation Movement.”
He added that it’s important to place Black political feminism in context “because sometimes people think sisters are just talking and not writing and reading and leading on a deeper level. It's important to understand how we would engage songs and albums as sites and sources of epistemology of knowledge.”
In the 1970s, Black musician feminists gave voice to a liberated Black femininity that freed itself from dominant expectations of musical, lyrical and physical practices for Black women, Rabaka said. Through these Black musical feminists’ daring vision of Black womanhood, they explored new possibilities of sound, expression and representation.
“Just as many soul sisters, Black feminist funksters and disco divas’ music has been routinely overlooked in the histories of soul, funk, disco and women's music, so has the link between their music and the Black Women's Liberation Movement to which it directly corresponded and provided a soundtrack for,” he said.
Artists such as Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan and Donna Summer “challenged long-standing structures and practices of race, gender and class power which traditionally denied Black women access, mobility and freedom,” Rabaka added.
The Queen of Soul gets political
Rabaka cited Aretha Franklin as an example of this musical and political shift. Although she was primarily known for her soul and love songs, Franklin's music took on an increasingly political tone in the 1960s and 1970s, he said.
“Among the soul sisters who challenged male domination and served as mouthpieces for the broadly conceived Black Women's Liberation Movement, she stands out and deserves special attention,” Rabaka said.
“Franklin's pioneering protest music went above and beyond the other mostly male architects of soul music when we consider that her songs became anthems for the Black Women's Liberation Movement as well as the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement.”
The women of funk also gave voice to the shifting political and social climate. Rabaka cited Chaka Khan and Betty Davis in particular, noting they were “innovators within that musical genre who embraced and expanded the funk aesthetic on their own terms and used it to articulate alternatives to musical, racial, gender, sexual and social conventions. Funk has always been more than the music of men like James Brown, Sly Stone and George Clinton.”
Disco, too, gave rise to Afro-disco divas who embodied and gave voice to Black women’s liberation. “The marginalized social statuses of many disco artists and fans contributed to the emergence of a new dynamic on the dance floor,” Rabaka said.
“Disco is a music and culture that frequently centered 1970s social outcasts and allowed them to socialize on their own terms and in their own non-normative ways. It is rife with references to, commentary on and ample critiques of issues revolving around race, gender, class and sexuality, among others.”
He said there is no way to tell the story of disco without highlighting Afro-disco divas, “as their music served as a soundtrack for all those who had grown disillusioned with mainstream American politics, inflation, recession, race relations, patriarchy and heterosexism, among other issues in the mid to late 1970s.”
Rabaka said a passage from Black political feminist Assata Shakur’s autobiography embodied the music and ethos of the Black Women’s Liberation Movement: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”
Top image: Chaka Khan (photo: Chicago Sun-Times); Aretha Franklin (photo: Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times); Donna Summer (photo: Michael Ochs archives/Getty Images)