by Inda Lauryn
In the book What Are You Doing Here?, author Laina Dawes explores the lives of black women in the heavy metal scene. Although she primarily focuses on the fans and artists within this subculture, much of the discussion can apply to other black women who find themselves in music genres outside of pop, R&B, soul, and rap. Women such as Alexis Brown of Straight Line Stitch and Skunk Anansie’s Skin have opened doors for black women in many different genres of music. Within the past few years, several black women have come to be at the helm of bands in genres like alternative, indie pop, and rock. Here are seven groups prominently featuring black women.
Big Joanie is different from many bands in that they consist of all black women. Referring to themselves as a black feminist punk band, the London group released two EPs in 2014, Lounge Sessions and Sistah Punk. While Lounge Sessions provides rough demos of original tracks and a cover of TLC’s “No Scrubs,” Sistah Punk polishes off these compositions with Chardine on drums , Kiera on bass, and Steph on guitar. All three women share vocals and embody the punk spirit of their influences including X-Ray Spex and PJ Harvey. They also cite other bands and artists including Nirvana, The Ronettes, Jesus and Mary Chain, Darlene Love, and Tina Turner as influences.
Bleed the Pigs
Kayla Phillips leads the Nashville metal band Bleed the Pigs. Named after a song by Neurosis, Bleed the Pigs has a harsh, brash, loud sound fitting of the heavy metal scene. Formed in late 2013, the group released two independent EPs in 2014, Mortis Fatum and Overcompensations for Misery. Outspoken in her demeanor, Phillips leads songs that address issues including race, death, identity and police brutality. In fact, she also penned an essay for Vice’s music vertical entitled “What Do Hardcore, Ferguson, and the ‘Angry Black Woman’ Trope All Have in Common?” She understands a certain irony in being an outcast in a subculture that celebrates outcasts and meets it head on with an angry roar in her music.
Fitz & the Tantrums
Noelle Scaggs is one-sixth of the group Fitz & the Tantrums. Not only is she the only visible person of color in the group, but she is also the only woman. While the group blends a number of genres, listeners can hear the deep influence of 60s and 80s pop and soul reminiscent of The Friends of Distinction and Hall and Oates. Scaggs shares lead vocals with Michael Fitzpatrick, who formed the group in 2008, and in a way functions as the group’s secret weapon. Since their formation, the group has released two albums, 2010’s Pickin’ Up the Pieces and 2013’s More Than Just a Dream. The group’s sound exudes a throwback sound, but has enough contemporary originality to make Fitz & the Tantrums catchy and lively.
Peter and Kerry
London duo Peter and Kerry consists of Kerry Leatham and Peter Lyons. In the UK, the duo released their debut La Trimouille in 2012, but the LP does not seem to have been released in the US. However, stateside fans got to know them via their EP releases from 2013: Benaize, which featured acoustic renderings of tracks from La Trimouille; and Clothes, Friends, Photos. Their sound is reminiscent of Human League and Everything But the Girl, mixed with comedy and film influences including the Goldie Hawn vehicle Overboard and Ken Loach dramas. Peter and Kerry combine catchy tunes with lyrics full of English wit and melody. Whether you’re a fan of timeless folk or 80s new wave, you’ll enjoy the duo that began as a side-project for two solo artists evolved to create a unique combo.
One appeal of the band PHOX is its genre-bending style. Another is Monica Martin’s smooth voice. The Wisconsin-based band draws on a number of influences—from Monty Python, rock, psychedelic, and soul, which is evident in their 2013 EP Confetti. The six members of the band moved from their Baraboo hamlet to Madison to formulate a style that makes them unique among their indie pop and alternative folk peers (think Bon Iver) and finally released their self-titled debut in 2014. Songs such as “1936” and “Shrinking Violets” feel both timeless and contemporary with a blend of styles—such as polka—that have the stamp of the group’s Wisconsin upbringing all over it. Ultimately, Martin’s sweet and innocent sounding voice gives the group that little something extra, sometimes masking risque lyrics while always putting the listener at ease.
Hailing from Brooklyn, Bayli McKeithan and her two siblings Kayla and Reef make up three-fifths of the teen band The Skins. Making their way on the AfroPunk scene, The Skins rock on a level with the likes of Led Zeppelin and The White Stripes as well as contemporaries such as The Heavy, for whom they opened on tour. Even with its rock base, Bayli’s vocal style is a throaty soulful wail that could have been just as powerful in R&B. The band’s sound includes a number of influences ranging from rock, soul, and hip-hop culture to create its own sound. In 2012, The Skins emerged on the scene with a 3-song self-titled EP that eventually helped them garner a record deal. Fans of the group also found occasional singles released on Bandcamp in 2014 while awaiting a full album.
Kimya Dawson has been a favorite among folk audiences for years and can be credited as keeping doors open for black women in folk music. However, most of her career has been spent as a solo artist. Recently, she teamed up with Aesop Rock to combine her folk style with his rapping skills in a whimsical mishmash born of remote collaborations while the two lived in different cities. The result is an album called Hokey Fright released in 2013. Dawson has never been a stranger to heavy themes—for example, dealing with loss and devastation—and she brings her misleading happy-go-lucky style to The Uncluded. She makes these subjects approachable with her light voice but does not back down in her honest lyrics, making The Uncluded reminiscent of The Moldy Peaches albeit a completely different animal with Aesop Rock’s presence.
These women are just a select few among the growing crop of black women music artists stepping outside the bounds of pop, R&B, and hip-hop. They continue to grow in visibility and are well-known in the indie and underground music circles. Their visibility may eventually shift to the mainstream and make it more common to see black women prominently in music genres not often associated with Black women vocalists and musicians—such as heavy metal, alternative, and punk.
Inda Lauryn has previously been published in Blackberry, A Magazine, Interfictions, The Toast, and Callaloo, as well as had her work featured on blogs such as Black Girl Nerds, Bitch Flicks, and AfroPunk. She is currently working on a novel and countless other unfinished writing projects and occasionally blogs at Corner Store Press.