While many fat Black women have been pushed towards the back, there have also been many who have been trailblazers as solo acts.
By Sydneysky G
For years, it has been a running joke that fat women in the music industry are only supposed to be the background singers to thinner women. They are never supposed to be in front taking lead, they are never supposed to take attention away from someone thinner; never supposed to bring attention to themselves. But the joke is just that: a joke. Because while many fat Black women have been pushed towards the back, there have also been many who have been trailblazers as solo acts. Each of them are different from the last, they all have had interesting lives as artists and people, showing the variety and experiences of being a fat Black woman in this country and never accepting the background role. Through this, their presence shifted and molded music in so many ways. So much so that it is time that we give up on the joke that fat women are only for the background.
With Lizzo being the biggest artist of 2019, I think it’s time to look back at the fat Black women who came before her and thrived in an industry that wants artists who are men, white and thin. Musicians like Rosetta Tharpe, who took multiple genres of music and blended them together to create Rock ’n’ Roll. She pushed boundaries and created conversations, playing Gospel music with her guitar in front of secular crowds. Women like her are erased and not discussed when it comes to music history because it is easier to tell and believe that the artists who shaped American music are not the same ones who are considered the background singers.
These women carved a place for themselves, making their own lanes. Whether they knew it or not, their willingness to be bold, unique and ever-evolving made a way for the next woman after them. Without Ella, there would be no Angie Stone; without Willie Mae, there would be no Queen Latifah; without Celia, there would be no Lizzo. For this, they deserve to be honored. Because their contributions, past or present, have shaped Black and American music.
Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton
The writing and growling voice of Willie Mae launched the careers of white artists. Starting as a drummer, singer, and harmonica player, she recorded her famous song “Hound Dog” in 1953—which stayed at the top of the R&B charts for seven weeks. Three years later, her song was stolen and recorded by Elvis. And while she received little to no credit, she continued to sing and tour up until the 80s where she created her last album with Muddy Waters and B.B King.
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Known as the “Mother of the Blues” and the first Blues artist, Ma found her success in the 20s alongside her friend and student Bessie Smith. Known in the industry as a good and firm businesswoman, Ma was the driving force behind her own career. Being an experienced singer and performer, the “down-home” feel of her voice and music made her popular with audiences and other musicians
Voice and songstress of the Jazz era, Ella is among the Jazz giants of her time. Being a staple vocalist, she is the blueprint for the modern style of singing. Bringing Jazz to an international stage, Ella made space in a male-dominated industry and genre.
Being the first Black person to record the Blues singing “Crazy Blues”, Mamie was a singer and actress. Selling 75,000 copies of her record, she put female Black Blues singers on the map. By doing this, she made record companies sign other Black female singers.
Empress of the Blues, Bessie was the star of the roaring 20s. Starting off in minstrel shows and working under Ma Rainey, Bessie made a national name for herself. By the end of the 20s, Bessie was signed with Columbia Records and was the highest-paid Black entertainer of her time.
My hometown hero and Queen of Soul left her mark in Pop, Gospel, Soul, and R&B. While changing with the popular sounds of the time, she never strayed too far away from her Gospel roots and by doing this she had a career that spanned over 5 decades.
First starting off with “The Bluebells” performing at the Apollo Theater, Patti’s singing group did not have much success at the beginning and they were dropped by their label and management at the time. Eventually starting anew, the group changed their names to “LaBelle”. Singing sexy songs like “Lady Marmalade,” her style and glamour captured the 70s perfectly. Her transition from the 70s to the 80s to the 90s set her up as a household name, putting out chart-topping Pop songs.
Living through the Cuban Revolution and exile, Celia never stopped singing and performing. With her colorful and vibrant hair, style, personality, and voice, the Queen of Salsa was a larger-than-life woman and she lived her life as such.
The actual creator of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Rosetta seemed to have been erased and forgotten from history. Being overshadowed by her male counterparts, Rosetta blended the sounds of Blues, Jazz, and Gospel. With her guitar and vocals she is a true pioneer and spectacle of her time.
At the 1982 Tony Awards, Holliday stunned the nation with her role as Effie White in the musical Dreamgirls. She gave a powerfully chilling performance, singing “And I am Telling You”—one of the toughest songs from that score. This launched her and the musical into stardom.
Though she is successful in almost every part of the entertainment industry, Queen started as a rapper. Taking the male-centered genre of Hip-Hop and turning it on its head. Queen created music for women, like “Ladies First” and “U.N.I.T.Y”. Queen represented black feminism to the masses.
Missy helped shape the 2000s era of music from writing, producing, and rapping. There isn’t a corner of the music industry Missy hasn’t tried. Her creativity and sound were ahead of her time. Her contribution to Afrofuturism can still be seen today in Black music and style. Missy was a huge part of 2000s pop culture.
Mixing her activism with her music, Souljah isn’t brought up much when discussing female rappers. Her presence in the 90s was controversial. Radical, firm and proud in her beliefs in and out of her music, she stood for Black womanhood throughout her career.
The girl from Philly, Jill Scott’s music has a way of making you smile. With her album “Who is Jill Scott,” she brought warmth and brightness to us all. Being a big artist during the 2000s Neo-Soul era, her music is a perfect example of the genre Soul, with her loving and soothing songs Jill Scott transported a lot of us to a certain blissful state of mind.
Break out star from American Idol, Jennifer starred in the 2006 film Dreamgirls and, like Jennifer Holliday, her portrayal of Effie White was powerful and moving. Showcasing her acting and vocal skills, Jennifer Hudson brought justice to Holliday’s former role.
The artist of 2019, not much can be said about Lizzo that hasn’t already been stated. Taking over charts, awards, and talk shows, she was a force to be reckoned with. Her authentic personality and positivity is what makes her music fun and relatable.
Self-taught Angie Stone went from Hip-Hop, R&B and then Neo-Soul. Dominating the great era of 2000s soul and R&B, her dark tone of voice fits well with her romantic songs. She had a way of reaching a sweet spot with audiences with her balance of R&B and Hip-Hop.
Sydneysky G. is a Fat Black writer & activist from Detroit whose writing is centered around fat identities & pop culture. Along with writing, she is a Jazz musician, cosmetology student, and makeup connoisseur. She likes to spend her time watching movies and listening to podcasts. You can find Sydneysky on Twitter at @blackfatqueer and Instagram at syddskyy.