Black women performers of women-identified music: "they cut off my voice, I grew two voices"
Black women have played a critical role in women-identified music ("wim"), which is, demographically speaking, an intense but small world. The music industry term, "woman-identified music" (or "women's music"), refers to a performance, recording, and distribution network spawned by U.S. lesbian-feminist musician/activists in the early to mid-1970s. The genre, comprised of a myriad of musical styles, is generally defined as music that is "for, by and about women." Performances take place at women's music festivals---venues open to women only.This study examines the overlapping subjectivities of black performers and wim listeners/audience members as they collectively and individually negotiate their identities in a predominantly white, lesbian-feminist social field. Traditional ethnomusicological concerns are complemented by some of the more suggestive features of cultural studies. Most significant is an examination of blackness from the perspectives of wim musicians. Black women musicians critique notions that blackness is more authentically correlated with male, heterosexual identities than with black lesbian identities. At the core of this study is that the identities of the performers matter to audience members, black and white---often in contrasting ways. One musician's sense of parody or irony may be lost on an audience member who brings a contrasting framework of interpretation to the performance. Sometimes these interpretations collide.Musicians address notions that instruments, including the voice, are markers of sexual and/or racial identity. White consumers particularly reference certain criteria in appraising the performances of black musicians including the body, (e.g., skin color, size, vocal timbre) and musical style. Amongst wim fans, the circulation of myths about certain vaudeville blues singers of the 1920s influences their reception of performances by black musicians.While women-identified music consumers affirm the significance of black women musicians to this sphere, discussions with audience members reveal racialized definitions of women's music that often exclude the music of black artists. This study examines a complex of contradictions that emerge as consumers and performers consider the dimensions of race, gender, sexuality and musical style in the process of coalescing around a musical genre.
- Ethnomusicology