Bessie Smith only created her music for a decade, but her impact on pop music for the next century was undeniable. Smith captivated audiences with her supreme talent, developing her entertainment skills beyond just music to combine songs with dance, jokes, and full-fledged sketches. Beyond Smith’s talent, it was the relatable working-class experiences she portrayed on stage and through her music that captivated audiences throughout the 1920s and 1930s.
She made art out of her experiences with poverty, sexism, racism, and hardships with love and relationships. This laid the foundation for female artists to come, reveling in their experiences to create art and music, even if it was viewed as “too rough.”
Smith was often referred to as The Empress of Blues throughout her decade long tenure as an artist, regarded as one of the finest singers during her era, an influence for jazz and blues singers to come. Beyond becoming the first African-American superstar in music, she also boasted the title as the highest-paid African-American artist working in music during that time.
Officially starting her recording career in 1923, Smith channeled the subculture of the working class, using her music to create a social commentary on poverty, racial conflict, as well as female sexuality. This turned off some listeners, as it challenged societal and “elitist” norms and was seem distasteful. Smith’s music was before her time, lacking the recognition that it deserved for acting as a representation of the African-American experience and bringing forth the perspective of a black woman in America.
Bessie Smith was able to create a persona that both dominated public appeal and also have the power to communicate her frustrations on stage through her performances. This portrayal of a woman of color’s perspective and experience can be seen echoed throughout artists throughout the decades, sharing their own experience through their versions of art.
From Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin in the 1960s drifted towards a more bluesy sound, pieces of Smith’s lasting legacy threaded throughout their expressive performances. As time progressed and new sounds in music began popularizing, there was another aspect of Smith’s essence that remained prominent throughout the lyrics of women in the industry: personal experiences told unapologetically. Queen Latifah, TLC and Mary J. Blige updated Smith’s subject matter, transforming their own chronicles of life into blues-influenced hip-hop, incorporating blues and soul into an updated format.
Blige developed a legacy of her own throughout her continued career, earning the title of Queen of Hip-Hop Soul after blending hip-hop and R&B together and influencing artists to come with her methods. Just as Bessie Smith did in the early 1900s, Blige reinvented nearly a century later. Scholars have credited Blige for her abundant representation within her music, especially during a time when men dominated the industry. Blige put out music that represented black women and femininity through her experiences, transforming the image of how black women were stereotypically portrayed in pop culture.
Just as Smith had through her brooding tunes, Blige used her own experiences to piece together her art, laying her personal struggles with family out on the table as relatable material. The hip-hop soul legend championed those who were forgotten in pop culture and gave them a voice through her platform. Early in her career, she represented the women from where she grew up in New York like no female artist had been able to do before in such a raw format.
Without the foundation set by Smith through her distinct and powerful perspective, the way women create their music today may not be as raw and real, at least to its fullest potential. Smith started the musical revolution of women being unabashedly themselves, showing the good, the bad, and the ugly throughout their struggles without apologizing for their perspectives.
Photographer Credit: Robert Ector