WOMEN MAKING WAVES: SISTER ROSETTA THARPE
We have reached a point where women can creatively express themselves in remarkable ways never before seen in history. Whether it be Rihanna simultaneously dominating the fashion, music, and beauty industry; Queen Latifah, the trailblazing rapper, singer, and actress, who won numerous prestigious awards in each category; Or Lauren Hill, who revolutionized hip hop with her only solo album. Women have long made bold impressions and contributions to the world of creative expression around us.
The progress made for women's autonomy that we continue to strive towards derives from the resistance and innovation of women throughout history who fearlessly enter male-centered industries and dominate them. Among those deserving recognition are the OG female icons of Rock N' Roll. Most notably, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, also known as the Godmother of Rock N' Roll (an understatement), defied the domesticated stereotypes imposed on women and contributed to founding one of the biggest music genres of all time.
Sister Tharpe was a gifted performer, guitarist, artist, and songwriter her entire life. In 1921, Tharpe began performing at the age of six alongside her mother for church services in Chicago, Illinois. She would sing various songs while also playing the guitar and piano. Her talent and passion drew crowds of people into the church and guided them in feeling closer to God. Growing up in Chicago during the 20's, Sister Tharpe was exposed to jazz and blues, which she later integrated into her own personal style to create the most quintessential sounds in Rock N' Roll. During her teen years, Tharpe began touring and performing at various churches from state to state with her mother, who decided to become a traveling evangelist preacher.
In her 20's, Tharpe moved to New York where she was hired to perform at some of the popular jazz clubs to primarily white crowds among primarily white artists. A highly unusual phenomenon in a still segregated society. She experimented with lyrics outside of what was permitted by the church for a more sensual sound that evoked dancing rather than complementing a preach to God, although she loved doing both. Sister Tharpe was quickly recognized for her fiery voice and mesmerizing guitar riffs that produced a fantastic amalgamation of blues, jazz, and gospel. Her rebellious and passionate style of performing, sounds, and rifts created some of the most integral aspects of the Rock N' Roll essence.
In 1938, Tharpe signed a record contract with Decca Records and was among the few women to make it big in a male-dominated industry. When told her guitar skills were similar to that of a man, she would simply state: “Can’t no man play like me. I play better than a man.”
Sister Rosetta Tharple began touring across the United States and became one of the biggest names in American music throughout the 40's. Her work set the perfect stage for what would formally be called Rock N' Roll in the 50's. Primarily white men began studying the sound of Black gospel music due to its profound ability to evoke an inescapable feeling of soul and dance, something that Sister Tharpe was distinctly known for. Many of the most famous rock stars have accredited their sound to Sister Tharpe, including Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Chuck
Sister Rosetta Sharpe is a founding mother of Rock N’ Roll, and an embodiment of the creative influence women have had in the music industry. Although many Rock N’ Roll greats have acknowledged the profound impact Tharpe had on the foundation of their music, her life is not widely celebrated or known. A study from Loyola Marymount University found that only 7.7 percent of the people welcomed into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are women. Sharpe was not inducted into the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame until 2018, while the male counterparts have long been praised. Although it should be celebrated that Sister Sharpe is finally being recognized, her almost-forgotten legacy reminds us that we must continue to empower and support women in all industries and give them the recognition they deserve.