Black Women Songwriters

by Carl Wiser

Where are the black women songwriters, and what makes them tick? We asked LaShonda Katrice Barnett, who has taught history, literature and African studies at Sarah Lawrence College, Hunter College, and the University of Richmond, to find out. She is the author of I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters on Their Craft.
Of over 380 members of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, just two are black women (Sylvia Moy and Valerie Simpson). Why are there so few prominent black women songwriters?

The work of singing has somehow been divorced of the work of writing and composing in many peoples' mind. As an audience, we are trained, which has worked to the detriment of women in the music industry. No one would argue the significance of Aretha Franklin, Roberta Flack, or even Bessie Smith and Gertrude Ma' Rainey (whose blues recordings were the first to go platinum in the history of U.S. music and as such they should be posthumous inductees). However, if someone is perceived as "just a singer," as has often been the case, it's easy to undermine their legacy.

From your interview with Nina Simone, it's clear that she would have been shocked to see a black president elected in 2008. What are the implications of Barack Obama's election on black women songwriters and performers?

The beauty of Barack Obama is not only that he is intelligent but that he is also creative. He is a writer himself and also has a tremendous respect and reverence for creative artists. He has said on more than one occasion that he plans to return the White House to the people, he plans to invite artists regularly-writers, poets, musicians, etc. How could this not increase the morale of the nation's artists? For our nation to have a leader interested in highlighting the creative works of our citizens is just the bit of fate we are in desperate need of especially at this historical juncture.

Black men like John Legend, Ne-Yo and R. Kelly write lots of hit songs with universal themes. The women you spoke with don't seem interested in doing this. Why?

I wouldn't say that the women I spoke with don't write on universal themes; they certainly do - those themes being romance, sexuality, loss, grief, spirituality. It doesn't get more humanistic than that. However, the women I interviewed did make clear that they are never "hit-minded" - that is to say that what guides them, what inspires them is not the idea of money or a platinum record but rather telling the truth in a song and moving people with that truth.

Tina Turner wrote the outstanding "Nutbush City Limits," then pretty much stopped writing songs. Why do artists like Turner, Dionne Warwick and Whitney Houston focus on performing instead of writing?

All singers are not songwriters nor should they be. The aim of my book was not to undermine the significance of those women who sing the compositions of others but rather to highlight the women who sing and write. No one asks the classically-trained Kathleen Battle or Denyce Graves why they don't compose their own music, so I don't think it should necessarily be applied to singers of popular music. I remember approaching Nancy Wilson for an interview for my book (as a favor to my mother who is a Wilson fan - I had not thought to include her because she is not a songwriter) and she politely declined and said, "Interpreting a song is not the same as writing one. I don't write." I think singers who do not compose their own music understand themselves as interpreters primarily.

Who are three most significant black women songwriters?

These are three black women songwriters who are very significant to me.

A. Abbey Lincoln, because in the musical genre for which she is known, jazz, vocalists record standards, (the great music that grew out of Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood movie musicals) and this is what jazz audiences have come to expect over the years: My funny Valentine. Lincoln, however, crafted her own songbook. She is the only jazz singer, across generations, to record numerous self-composed albums. By herself, Lincoln has managed to expand jazz audiences' expectations.

B. Cassandra Wilson, because of all the songbirds out there now, she is the mockingbird - that looks both forward and backward during flight. Her oeuvre is so carefully crafted chosen from old standards (jazz and pop) and her own contemporary original contributions. Her last album, Loverly (Blue Note 2008), contains jazz standards and no original compositions. However, previous recordings showcase Wilson's own songs and the works of Bob Dylan, The Monkees, Willie Nelson, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Sting. Her eclectic taste is inspiring to audiences and musicians alike because she is continually erasing the boundaries the music police (critics) like to impose on artists.

C. The unknown singer-songwriter that is not signed to a label but playing at your neighborhood coffeehouse. The economy is in the shitter, the music business wrestles with pressing CDs and including liner notes altogether since everybody downloads these days and who, after all, collects CDs? (I, for one, do and vinyl as well) And, despite this she has her shoulder to the wheel writing a song that you may or may not care to listen to.

As the population starts to blend, we're seeing more artists like Mariah Carey and Fergie who are hard to classify by race. Will there be a time when labels like "R&B" and "Soul" change meaning or become irrelevant?

These labels won't ever become irrelevant because of their historical significance. Black America music is social music and as such it is black history - it charts a time and the experience of blacks in America.

What do you think of Beyonce?

I think Beyonce is a great entertainer - replete with fabulous costumes, choreography, and glamour. I do not think of her as a performing songwriter.

You told Oleta Adams, "Some of the songwriters I've interviewed have lamented the difficulty of the songwriting process." Can you expand on this?

Sometimes there is the notion that because working artists are lucky enough to make their bread and butter doing the creative acts that they love it is not very difficult work. However, many of the stories I heard talked about the sometimes years-long process of writing and editing a song, and finally performing it to the standard that exists in the artist's head. As I shared some of these stories with friends, I witnessed the real shock and almost disbelief that someone might labor over a three-minute song for a decade, but it happens all of the time. (Needless to say, more often than not these are the songs that have staying power.)

Why do all the women I know think Mary J. Blige is singing their life story?

I don't know the women you know, but I have heard from numerous people that Mary J. Blige is "our generation's (I am 34) Aretha Franklin." That is quite a moniker and I believe that assertion speaks to the authenticity, the emotional honesty and the vulnerability Blige reveals in her music. Women who relate to her music strongly do so, more than likely, because the aforementioned elements are personally significant.

What does the future hold for black women songwriters?

As always, the future demands that artists chronicle the times in which they live, and that they do so in a manner that is accessible to audiences. There is no indication that black women songwriters will turn their backs on what they've always written about - their own lives and the lives of others. Given the state of the world (wars - yes! But also the persistent demand for human rights and new challenges for defining those rights), it is safe to believe that expression in general will increase and deepen and expand all of our notions on the human experience.

January 14, 2009
I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters on Their Craft is available now.
More Song Writing

Comments: 19

  • Chris Ermoian from Waco, Txcheck out they have a show about all female somgwriters on PBS. It features Barbara Lynn, Ruthie Foster, Marcia Ball, Holly Tucker, Susan Gibson, Star D'Azlan and many more....
  • Dwight Beckford from TorontoPretty much one the most successful singer/songwriter is Donna Summer, but her songwriting often gets overlook. She has one of our greatest voices. But she also wrote 9 of her 14 top ten hits. And has written song for other artist such as Dolly Parton.
  • Mzeliz from AustraliaJessie Mae Robinson was prolific in the 40's and 50's. Lana del Rey covered her song The Other Woman, last year (best known sung by Nina Simone). Elvis. Sarah Vaughn. BB King... So many more sang her songs.
    Look at the Facebook page on her, Lost in the Shuffle.
  • Arlene Corsano from Bergenfield, NjCheck out to learn about one of the most prolific of all black female songwriters. A list of over 350 artists who recorded her songs can be found on that site under Song Info. Then if you agree she belongs in the Songwriters Hall of Fame, sign the petition found at by searching Rose Marie McCoy Songwriters Hall of Fame.
  • Laszlo Alexander from New York, NyNona Hendryx! Enough said.
  • Paul from LondonHas no one heard of Meshell Ndegeocello?
  • Crystal Elle from Chicago, IlYour work is INCOMPLETE with the exclusion of ROSE MARIE McCOY!

    The only AFRICAN-AMERICAN named as one of the greatest songwriters of all time with more than 800 songs to her credit.

    One of the most influential and prolific songwriters if the 1950s and 1960s!
  • Arlene Corsano from New JerseyAnd the most prolific, hit making of all black female songwriters is Rose Marie McCoy. Mostly forgotten because the hits she wrote were in the 1950's & 60's, for R&B singers Ruth Brown, Nappy Brown, Ike & Tina Turner, Nat King Cole, Elvis Presley. Check out her incredible story on Wikipedia or listen to the radio documentary about her "Lady Writes the Blues" still found at
  • Jim from North Billerica, MaI am amazed noone mentioned Memphis Minnie. she was a trailblazer in so many ways. if you want to know what real early blues sounded like, jsut check out her work with kansas city Joe.
  • Gary Bowden from ArkansasWould like to see Lisa Sanders,Sonia Eden,Daniela Cotton and Ruthie Foster get exposure and more attention than the current crop of "entertainers" today.They deserve it more and they're more creative and intelligent than what's in the Top 40..I agree that Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman should always be mentioned.Why not have these artists that I mentioned tour together??
  • Rick from Windsor, CaI hope they write more songs. Because black is beautiful !
  • Sandra from New York, NyOther notable songwriters...Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, Sade, Jhelisa Anderson,
  • O from Atlanta, GeorgiaDon't forget India Arie, but sadly there aren't that many if any visible black female singer songwriters for this generation to look up to. I love this article because lyricism seems to be abandoned these days, especially in recent music. I'd like to see black female artists in other genres too.
  • Nykoe B. from Chicago, IlI've been reading through the comments on this page about black female songwriters and it really excites me to see the pride that is taken in lyricism as a true and pure gift. I am a singer and I love writing however, I find that it's been difficult lately for me to write. I stopped writing for a while and it seems as if that talent doesn't wish to return, lol. Anyway I was wondering if anyone could offer some tips to revive my mind. Thanks you guys and keep writing and singing because you never know who is hearing your work.
  • Steve from AustraliaI don't think anyone's mentioned Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman, both songwriters worthy of the Hall of Fame.
  • Ki from Philadelphia,paBeyonce is an ENTERTAINER. She is NOT an artist. nor a songwriter, get your facts straight. The interview hits the nail on the head when she mentions the current and future state of Black female songwriters, And as long as the empty lyrics of such Keri Hilson ( most popular black female writer in pop) is around, music will remain as stale as it is today.
  • Floetik625So true!! I've been writing lyrics for years and have not been given the chance to shine yet. I will not give up my dream though even if I'm sixty years old when I get published bc as a black woman I feel I have a story to tell.
  • Brenda LongGreetings! Have you had a chance to listen to any music by Phyllis Hyman, Lena Horne, or Freda Payne? What do you think of their music?
  • TanossaGreetings! I am known as RAW Highness, I am a song writer, performer and spoken word artist. We are very much still around. One point not mentioned in your article is that media and social economy plays a major role in the attention that female song writers obtain. In your article you state that you don not consider BEYONCE a song writer. She wrote a lot of her own lyrics and perform them from her love of the words chosen. Wow! take a look at yourself and the classism that you as an author? Artist? has placed on the limited female song writers you've chosen to mention. Your right we must leave a sign of the times in our art...So why judge the reflection or to where those signs are directing? They tell a lot and every woman isn't love sick over a lover or man or strung out on heroin like a lot of our greats were. Women song writers today tell a very different reality. The question is can society tolerate it, look at it and see what it has become? Ask yourself... then answer...Wisely. (R)eal (A)gape (W)oman
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