The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has announced that Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Nina Simone, two pioneering women musicians who made indelible impacts on music culture, will finally been inducted as part of its 2018 class.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the queer, Arkansas-born guitarist / singer / songwriter and godmother of rock ‘n’ roll, came into the spotlight in 1938 with her rollicking song “Rock Me.” Over the next two decades, she crushed every “rule” in her path; crossing between gospel, blues, and early R&B; religious and secular music; and notably, black and white audiences during the days of segregation. She helped launch the career of Little Richard, and heavily influenced the early generations of rock musicians, with artists such as Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley singing her praises.
As surf music and the British Invasion took hold of America in the 60s, Tharpe’s popularity waned in her home country, but she turned around found new audiences among in the UK and across Europe. In the decades that followed, she became overlooked in the mainstream discourse of rock history, but her work continued to be celebrated across roots, blues, and gospel circles.
With the rise of both Internet culture and feminism in recent decades, increasing numbers of young women music lovers with a variety of musical backgrounds and tastes have discovered her work for themselves—and have found new inspiration in the process.
Nina Simone’s brilliant, groundbreaking music has touched on so many genres including classical, jazz, blues, and pop, that some have argued that it doesn’t meet the “rock” requirements for the Hall of Fame. Even without her famous takes on rock classics including the Animals’ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” and the Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun,” nothing could be further from the truth.
Born in North Carolina, Simone was a piano prodigy who turned to performing in nightclubs in the early 50s after she was denied acceptance at Philadelphia’s prestigious Curtis Institute of Music, on which she blamed racial discrimination. Her enigmatic performances and transformative music brought her international fame as an artist, and she went on to release over 40 albums throughout her decades-long career. She later became a staunch activist in the Civil Rights Movement, vividly addressing racial injustice and inequality through her music, starting with her 1964 song “Mississippi, Goddam,” which she wrote as a response to the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, which killed four young girls, and the assassination of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers.
Among artists of the 20th century, few have changed the shape of music and public consciousness as much as Nina Simone, and today both her music and the messages in her songs feel as relevant as ever.