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Mashadi Matabane

Mashadi Matabane received a BA in Women’s Studies from Spelman College and an MA in Magazine Journalism from NYU. She is a 5th-year doctoral fellow in American Studies at Emory University. Her dissertation is a cultural history about black American women who play the electric guitar in U.S. popular music.

 

Abstract:

"'All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave': The Cultural Politics of Black Women Musicians with an 'Axe' to Grind"

Black women have a broad participation as musicians in the United States from the 18th century to the present. Yet the architecture of their musicianship, with the electric guitar in particular, remains obscured. An iconic American instrument important to the creation, innovation and spread of blues, gospel, and rock, powerful racial-gender politics have heavily invested in a tenacious representational domination and idealized elevation of the electric guitar as a culturally white and/or masculine enterprise. My title is borrowed from the canonical black women’s studies book of the same name as a way to describe popular cultural representations and academic scholarship where white male electric guitarists are privileged, all the “women” seem to be white and all the “blacks” are men. By comparison, pioneers like Memphis Minnie, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Peggy “Lady Bo” Jones; and their contemporary guitar-playing counterparts like B.B. Queen, Tamar-kali, Suzanne Thomas, and Shelley Doty (to name a few) are under acknowledged. Why is their cultural presence still so powerfully overlooked, rendered spectacle or as an anomaly?

Through a black feminist theoretical analysis coupled with oral history interviews conducted with different electric guitarists, this paper considers how the electric guitar impacts their self-presentation, cultural expression, and performance practice. It also considers how these musicians: 1) challenge dominant social meanings and cultural fantasies about the instrument, 2) demonstrate creative possibilities valuable to the politics of location specific to black women in the United States, and 3) critique popular (often narrow, pathologized) representations of the black female body.