5 Historical Black Women in Music from the Bay
Written by Brenda Mutuma
When it comes to creating waves, Bay Area women in music are no strangers to shattering sound. In the last decade alone, women from the Bay have left distinct imprints in the music industry, reshaping and redefining everything from R&B and rock. As we cruise through Black History Month, recalling black female musicians from the Bay may not come as a challenge: there are older artists like Ledici, Goapele, and Keyshia Cole as well as a stream of newer artists like H.E.R., Kamaiyah, and Rayana Jay who are shaking up the mainstream.
Remembering some of the Bay’s black female musical pioneers, however, can sometimes be more of a challenge. The women listed here were some of the first in their league to battle much of the racism, misogyny, and sizeism that still exists in the music industry today. Not only did these women have an impact on the music industry through their perseverance and courage, they also had a positive impact on their million of fans and future artists.
Check out some of our favorite historical black women figures who fearlessly trekked through the music industry waters and left the world a little more shook.
Pointer Sisters: Not Your Average Girl Band
Best known for their hit single “I'm So Excited,” The Pointer Sisters exploded onto the music scene in the early 1970s with hit tracks riding the disco wave of the era. Raised in West Oakland and graduates of Oakland Technical High School, the sisters fearlessly explored different genres while curating a musical catalogue that featured jazz, bee-bop, R&B, pop and country music. Despite criticism that they sounded “too white”, The Pointer Sisters made music that crossed racial lines. In fact, they were the the first African-American vocal group to perform at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry, one of country music’s most prestigious stages. In her autobiography, Ruth Pointer recalls a time when the group was taken to the kitchen to wait during the Tennessee Opry after party because they were mistaken for the househelp. The multi-platinum recording group has scored multiple Grammys and American Music Awards, being the first all-female group to win a Grammy Award. They were covered by Elvis Presley, sampled by Salt-n-Peppa and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994. Billboard Magazine put The Pointer Sisters in its Top-5 Girl Group of All Time out of a list of 100. These days, the Pointer Sisters sound can be heard on vintage Sesame Street programming, Burger King commercials, and even Grand Theft Auto interludes.
Martha Wash: “The Most Famous Unknown Singer of the '90s”
Born and raised in San Francisco, California, this living legend changed the game when it came to club rhythms and vocal rights. Martha Wash earned national acclaim as one of The Weather Girls, topping charts with the hit single, “It’s Raining Men.” She went on to record vocals on more than twelve hit dance songs, including C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat” (Everybody Dance Now) and Black Box’s “Everybody Everybody.” Wash famously was never given vocal credit music, video appearances, or royalties for her appearance in those records, because her size was deemed “unmarketable.” Wash went on to sue and settle with both groups, never allowing the industry’s negative view of her size to get in the way of her career. Her case would later help create legislation that would force record labels to assign proper vocal credit on all albums and music videos. Marsh credits much of her musical success to the LGBT community as well, who declared “It’s Raining Men” an official gay anthem. Her distinct voice went on to become popular in gay clubs all over the world. Wash has performed and headlined at Gay Pride celebrations across the country for over 30 years.
Pam Warren: Purple Pam
Pam Warren, AKA “Pam The Funkstress” is one of the Bay Area’s most well-known DJs. Growing up in the whirlwind of Foster City, California in the 1980s, Warren began DJing at a time when few women worked the turntables. She dreamed of becoming the Bay Area’s first female DJ, gaining much acclaim as a party DJ by 1990, with a signature move called the “breast scratch.” In 1994, she was hand-picked by rapper, writer and director Boots Riley to join him in The Coup, a politically-charged Oakland punk/hip-hop group. She contributed to four out of five of the group’s albums, before leaving the group in 2006 to manage her catering business in Northern California. Riley recalls The Funkstress’ frustration being a female DJ, often disrespected by male DJs, and losing touch with the community she longed to be a part. Pam also faced challenges being booked for gigs because of her size. Pam shared stages with many artists including Tupac, Diddy, and Grandmaster Flash. Months before Prince passed away, he selected Pam the Funkstress to be his after-party DJ, knighting her “Purple Pam,” a name that she kept until her passing in 2017. In a 2016 Pitchfork Magazine interview, Warren recalled battling both sexism and sizeism in the music industry, and acknowledging that while there had been a lot of improvements over the years, it is still important for female DJs to get their respect:
“That’s why I’m here to represent for all women. I don’t care if you’re EDM, house, trap, black, white, yellow, green, blue, or purple. I want to represent for all the females. I want them all to know that. Don’t stop doing what you’re doing. Don’t let no one discourage you.” -Pam the Funkstress, Pitchfork Magazine
Vicki Randle: Making the Band
San Francisco artist Vicki Randle is a multi-talented trailblazer in her own right. The first and only woman to be on “The Tonight Show” band with Jay Leno, Vicki Randle played lead percussions on the show for nearly 18 years. In an I-Heart Radio interview, Randall recalls constantly pushing through “bro-culture,” not having another woman to relate to, getting hair and makeup for performances, and battling micro-aggressions women often face in the music industry. Over her 40-year career, Randall noticed the impact that she had on her fans. She often received thank you letters from young women whose parents told them that girls couldn’t play drums. Being one of the few openly gay women on TV in the early 90s, Randle also took a political and social stance for the LGBT community. A singer-songwriter, composer, and multi-instrumentalist, she has toured and recorded with Aretha Franklin, Lionel Richie, and other revered artists.
Perri “Pebbles” Reid: The Executive
Though she is better known for having managed multi-platinum group TLC, Perri “Pebbles” Reid is also an R&B artist with smash singles like “Girlfriend” and “Love Makes Things Happen.” She started out as a background singer in San Francisco, almost landing a record deal when she was 19. When she became pregnant at 18, however, she received a lot of backlash and lost the record deal offer. Five years later, Reid became a music executive and manager to one of the 21st century’s best selling American girl groups. In a CBS interview, Reid recalls being able to read the music industry from early on and knowing that it needed a female singing group. Taking to the streets for talent, Reid found Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins working as a shampoo girl at a hair salon she went to, and the rest was history. Perri credits her drive, professionalism, and success in the industry with the lack of female managers in the early 90s. Despite the tumultuous relationship TLC had with their record label, the surviving members do attribute much of their success to Reid’s ability to capitalize on her connections and manifest her vision. While managing TLC, Reid went on to work with many R&B and hip-hop greats, including Toni Braxton, Whitney Houston, and Sean P. Diddy Combs.