Black women like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Big Mama Thornton, and Betty Davis were the vocal bibles of rock and roll. These black women, along with others like The Shirelles and Lavern Baker, laid the foundation for the genre. Their black, cocky sound was imitated by white rockers of the 1960s blues revival such as Mick Jagger who wanted to sing blackness without the presence of black musicians on stage. Her popularity overshadowed the contributions of black women to rock music. Then came Tina Turner, the original disruptor. A patron saint who returned the rock to its original home from the auditory blackness.
Born Anna Mae Bullock in 1939 in Brownsville, Tennessee, Tina Turner grew up in Knotbush, a city 50 miles from Memphis. The daughter of farmers, she accompanied her parents in the fields where she spent her early childhood picking cotton. As a young girl, she found solace in the church choir in her hometown. Church remained steadfast, while experiencing severe ups and downs in her life—the separation of her parents, spousal abuse in the home, and the death of close family members. When she was 16 years old, she moved to St. Louis to live with her mother. While there, she frequented the city’s nightlife scene, seeing Kings of Rhythm perform on the first night. One night in 1957, she took control of the microphone and sang “Darling, You Know I Love You,” a song by her childhood icon BB King. Intrigued by her performance, she hired Ike Turner (who was to become her abusive husband) to perform alongside the band. It was then that young Anna Mae Bullock began her transformation into Tina Turner.
Turner’s position on the music scene was unique. It existed in the reality of its creation. a reality where she witnessed the erasure and appropriation of the black musical tradition established by her childhood idols. When she got into rock and roll in 1984, she was overseen by people not her business. But it was a missile. She was adamant about a place in the rock and roll tradition, in contrast to her years when she performed rhythm and blues with her then abusive husband.
A man who, though Tina outsmarts him in every way personally and professionally, is still deeply bound by her legacy, further strengthening the sadistic bond between survivor and abuser. Despite world heroine Turner’s liberation from Ike and the announcement of her return story, the media, journalism, music and pop culture have played an important role in creating the conditions for survivors to be forever bound to their abusers. Awards, documentaries, biographies, bestselling books, and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame aside, Tina Turner’s legacy has become intertwined with the violence she endured at the hands of Ike Turner. Failing to defend Tina Turner is a sign of civil negligence.
For Turner, rock music was not a place beholden to the gender degeneration, violence, and trauma she experienced in the Ike and Tina years. Turner no longer wanted to weep and lament like Mahela Jackson and the R&B legends before her. No, she wanted to swing.
Turner wanted to restore the black musical tradition of rock music in her own way and used the same white musicians who had stolen generations of black musicians to do so. Call it a makeover if you have to, but Turner knew exactly how to get into the openly white male-dominated rock and roll space. Decades of art theft and erasure have alienated black musicians from the rock and roll tradition. While British rockers David Bowie and Joe Cocker hired black women singers to get a stamp of authenticity for their musical productions, Turner waited.
Yes, she’s recorded with legendary producer Phil Spector, taught Mick Jagger how to dance, and performed hard rock covers with Ike and Tina Turner reviewing in England. But she waited until the right moment to make rock music her own.
As a daughter of the black American South, raised in the Baptist tradition, Turner knew the power of voice. A sound that can be used to bring down the Archangels in a frenzy of praise. She knew her voice had no limits. It was a release and vibration tool. A tool for communicating with the divine. And Turner used her voice to gain freedom.
Tina Turner’s voice appeared at a time when the tone was not read as “feminine”. Her inherent strength, grit, aggressiveness, and powerful vocal demeanor brought her into perfect agreement with the rock music of the time. Her harvest and vocal tenacity not only enabled Turner to go toe-to-toe with the rockers of the era, but showed them how to do it. It is often said that Turner used rock music—the genre that loved black sound, but not blacks—to distance herself from blackness. In fact, Little Richard, a close friend of Ike Turner, accused her of leaving her grandparents’ house and musician.
However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Its reclamation of rock and roll was a tribute to musicians like Richard, who were pushed to the sidelines, when white musicians came into the spotlight in the 1960s. Her position as the Queen of Rock and Roll cemented black women as originators of the tradition. Her career has been the endorsement of revisionist music history, which has spread throughout the music industry. Not only did she bring home rock music, but she herself became a rockstar.
By liberating rock music from the shackles of whiteness, Turner created an opportunity for black female musicians like Vivi Dobson, Santigold, Janelle Monae, Brittany Howard, Lizzo and Beyoncé to flow across genres previously segregated by race. On Turner’s 80th birthday, Beyoncé spoke of Turner’s influence, “To Queen Tina Turner. I’ve loved you for a lifetime. You paved the way and made it possible for another country girl to chase her dreams. I [sic] Very grateful to you. I’m fortunate to have two tenas to show me the way…”
Turner shattered the glass ceiling for black women’s art and music that was only categorized as R&B or Pop. Black women can be rock stars because Tina Turner said so. Black women can be country singers. Black women can appear as whole beings, because Turner herself had the courage to do so.
However, Turner’s ferocity came at a price. By not being afraid to share her abuse experience, she became a joke in pop culture. The same racial and gender stereotypes that Tina used to evade rock music were used to mock her. From the huge misuse of her assault in 1994’s Machine Gun Funk, (“That’s why I pack Nina, beat misdemeanor, and Beatin’ moms like Ike beat Tina) to Jay Z’s mention of spousal abuse in 2013’s Drunk in Love (“I” Ike Turner) Come on, baby, no, I’m not playing, now eat cake, Anna Mae / Eat cake, Anna Mae!”), Tina Turner’s abuse became a delight for these rappers.
Rather than a celebration, Turner’s survival story was used as fodder to exemplify the insidious practice of misogyny and misogyny in the music industry. Although Turner has reclaimed her sensuality and sexuality, as well as her autonomy, her reclamation has been used as an example of why she deserves to endure the abuse. Now, it’s impossible to dissect Turner’s legacy without exposing the regimes that continued to oppress her, long after she was married.
Decades later, she still uses the same metaphors to justify the abuse black women have experienced in music like Megan Thee Stallion. Turner was one of the first black women to come forward as survivors of abuse and violence. Unfortunately, her released story set a dangerous precedent in the way Black women, especially their survivors, are criticized, disbelieved and harassed in the media.
close to What’s Love Got To Do With ItIn the Academy Award-nominated biopic released in 1993, Turner expressed her frustration with the barrage of questions the press had about her abusive marriage. I told Vanity Fair: “It’s like going back in time, when you’re trying to understand how prehistoric people lived. I’m saying it one last time, and I hope people don’t even think about talking to me about it anymore. If they don’t understand, it’s okay.”
Throughout all of this, Turner’s most revolutionary act was to choose herself. Turner taught black women, especially black survivors, to choose themselves first. Over the years, she has developed and maintained her boundaries, prioritizing her health and well-being over everything else. Not only did she become a blueprint for black women in music, but black women in general who had been educated and socialized to put themselves last. If Tina Turner puts herself first, so can we.
Turner always believed that she would come back to herself again and again. “After I began practicing Buddhism, I realized that my hardships could give me a mission. I saw that by overcoming my obstacles, I could build indestructible happiness and inspire others to do the same.” Harvard Business Review. “Then I could see everything that came my way, both the highs and the lows, as an opportunity for self-improvement and sparking hope in others.” Turner was a religious woman and a self-described Buddhist Baptist who believed in the natural and divine order of the tides and flows of life.
Her feelings remind us of Psalm 30:5: “May weeping last at night, but joy come in the morning.” Turner always knew that pain – whether it was from Ike, the abuse and harassment in the media and the press, or her own personal vices – would escape her.
She credits chanting “Nam Myoho-ring-kyu”, a Buddhist mantra, with changing her way of thinking. In 2021, I described the experience to today: “Cheering helped me get inside and unlock deep sources of happiness and wisdom in my heart and mind. I soon realized I already had everything I needed to change my circumstances and create a truly happy life. We all have that, and I want everyone to know it.” I have always found a way to transform the energy of pain and suffering into joy. And this is the legacy that Tina Turner leaves us, one filled with revelatory pain and liberating joy.
As a black woman from the South, Turner’s talent for chemistry will always amaze me. In every season of her life, she redeemed herself. her self. her own child. Selves who have been taught and taught to hate socially have been drenched in a warm embrace. The testimony in her life is to always make peace with the versions of ourselves we hate, so we can live to embrace ourselves with complete integrity. I thank Turner for being the alchemist, a rural Southern woman who conjured the world in her glamor and beauty and grace. Here is the little black girl from Tennessee who changed the whole world. God bless Tina Turner on this journey and the next.
Like what do you see? How about more R29 quality, here?
10 Decades of Black Rock with Grace Gibson
Soul music is the birthright of the Womack Sisters
Beyoncé leads the resurgence of the Black House