by Abaki Beck
Our Feminist Hero Friday this week is Bessie Smith, a blues songstress whose music explored music like queerness, women’s sexuality, and domestic abuse.
Bessie Smith was one of the most popular blues singers of the 1920s and 1930s - earning her the nickname the Empress of the Blues. Born in either 1892 or 1894 in Tennessee, Smith began dancing and singing on the streets at a young age to earn money for her impoverished family. Her brother accompanied her brother on the guitar. In 1912, she joined a performance troupe as a dancer. Ma Rainey, another acclaimed black singer, was the lead singer in the troupe. She became Smith’s mentor, helping her to develop her stage presence. By the time Smith began her recording career in 1923, she was already a hugely popular singer and performer.
Her music centered the lives and voices of working class black women living in the South. She spoke out against marriage and explored topics like queerness and domestic abuse.
As Jessica Machado noted in Bitch, “In the decades after emancipation, Bessie Smith called out to her community—Black working-class women in the South—singing about one of few true freedoms they had: autonomy over their own bodies and sexuality.” As a genre, blues is significant in that it developed from slave chants and gospel music; music in these genres has been used by black Americans for survival and joy for centuries. Her badassery expanded beyond her lyrics as well: she once confronted members of the KKK who surrounded her tent, yelling “What the fuck you think you’re doin’?” until they ran away in fear.
Smith passed away in a car crash in 1937 with her lover and was buried in an unmarked grave. In 1970, a tombstone was erected in her honor that was paid for by Janis Joplin and Juanita Green, who did housework as a child for Smith.
Some argue that Bessie Smith continues to have an impact on music, including jazz and more contemporary R&B. She paved the way as a bold, outspoken women; not only through her punchy lyrics, but by the fact that she managed her own career and money at a time when the industry was overwhelmingly dominated by white men.
Here, listen to some of Bessie Smith’s greatest hits.