If you’re reading this and are someone who consumes or performs music, then every day you should be celebrating the innovation, resilience, and talent of black music communities. Last February, we published a guitarist a day in the genre of rock ‘n’ roll to emphasize the history and impact black women have had as pioneers in the United States. Today, on the last day of Black History Month, we take a deeper dive into the influences that Black, Indigenous, and Afro identifying women musicians have had on music history. 

For this particular list, we choose to focus on black women guitarists and bassists from prior to 1999. We did this specifically to showcase the legends—many of whom unfortunately have been overlooked, dismissed, or forgotten—that should be recognized as pillars of music history. 

This list is not to be brushed off as just another list. Rather, it should be treated as a step taken towards exposing the truth. It’s for all of us who aren’t able to count the names of black women guitarists in one hand. It’s for the young black girls aspiring to be musicians but seldom see a history that represents them. It is to learn about our past and evolve into our future, and without black history we cannot accurately do so. 

Below are 50 women, some of which you’ve heard about countless times such as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Elizabeth Cotten, and Barbara Lynn. Others were found in liner notes, vintage photos without names, and obscure websites deep within the world wide web. With your help, we hope that this list can continue to grow. If you have names, videos, pictures please leave them in the comments below. If you feel so inclined, Please share this article and help distribute the names and lives of these incredible women! 

1. Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Sister Rosetta Tharpe (3/20/1915–8/9/1973) is often referred to as the “original soul sister” and “the mother of rock n roll” for too many good reasons to display at once. Among others, Tharpe was among the very first recording guitarists to incorporate heavy distortion on her tracks. Not only did Tharpe influence many now more recognizable names such as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton but her unique style and ability to merge genres gave her an instrumental role in pushing music forward. In 1945, Tharpe’s single “Strange Things Happening Every Day” was the first Gospel song to cross into popular music—becoming #2 on the Billboard charts.

2. Memphis Minnie

Even before Sister Rosetta Tharpe, It was guitarist/bassist/vocalist Memphis Minnie (June 3, 1897–Aug. 6, 1973) who picked up the torch to keep African American popular music raw and relevant between the 1920s and 1950s. Although more recognized for her impeccable voice, her music helped shape the sound of modern pop music. Best known tracks influenced by her original songs:

Memphis Minnie: 1929 “When the Levee Breaks,”
Made famous by: Led Zeppelin as the final song on Led Zeppelin IV
Memphis Minnie: 1930 “Bumble Bee,” Made famous by:
Muddy Waters’ “Honey Bee.”
Memphis Minnie: “What’s the Matter with the Mill?”
Made famous by:  Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys

3. Beverly Guitar Watkins

In 2016 She Shreds had the honor of speaking with blues guitar picking queen, Beverly “Guitar” Watkins who began her career as guitarist for Piano Red in 1959. Today at 79 years old, despite a long and self described extremely difficult musical path, Watkins desires nothing more that to continue playing, writing and performing.

She Shreds: Who introduced you to the blues?

Beverly Watkins: Well, it was born in me, from my ancestors. I had a granddaddy who was a banjo player. And then I had four aunties, called the Hayes Sisters—Aunt B., Aunt Ruth, Aunt Nell, and Aunt Margaret. They had a group back in them days and they would go to different churches down in Commerce and they would dress alike. Aunt B. played guitar, Aunt Ruth and Aunt Nell sang, and Aunt Margaret played piano. And my daddy, Lonnie Watkins, played the harmonica.

4. Peggy Jones

Peggy Jones, later known as Lady Bo, was an innovative and expressive guitarist who was an original part of Bo Diddley’s sound from 1957 to 1962 and influential in her own songwriting and musical endeavors thereafter. Jones always displayed an enthusiastic willingness to experiment with new guitars, effects, and sounds. Her enthusiasm for new guitar technologies helped balance out Diddley’s reliance on the cigar box guitar that made him famous, and allowed the band to evolve sonically over the course of time. Though she typically favored Gibson guitars, Lady Bo also played more experimental instruments such as the Roland guitar synthesizer and used their unique sounds in ways not often heard in rhythm and blues guitar.

5. Jessie Mae Hemphill

Jessie Mae Hemphill (8/18/1923–6/22/2016) was truly a great example of the “one woman band” often performing live with a guitar, and tambourine at once. Although guitar was Hemphill’s instrument of choice since age 7, she was also a skilled drummer and percussionist. Hemphill, whose mother, father and 3 sisters were all musicians, would go on to be internationally recognized for her unique talent and technique.

6. Carline Ray

Carline Ray. Photo by Raymond Ross.

Born in Manhattan (4/21/1925–6/18/2013) Carline Ray was an award winning guitarist/bassist/pianist/singer who studied at Juilliard and earned her Master’s in composition. In 1946 Ray joined the “all girl jazz band,” The International Sweethearts of Rhythm known best for being the first and arguably most important all-women contribution to the big band era. Her 7 decade career spanned a variety of genres often switching from various instruments. According to her daughter, Catherine Russell, Ray “always made a point of saying she wasn’t a female musician, she was a musician who happened to be female.” We couldn’t stand by her statement more.

7. Odetta

Odetta Holmes aka “Odetta” (12/31/1930–12/2/2008), is often referred to as “The Voice of the Civil Rights Movement,” for her immense capability to reflect the passion, and emotion of her community through works of jazz, folk, blues and beyond. As a result she influenced some of the greatest names of the folk revival movement: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Janis Joplin who all sight Odetta as being a major influence on their decision to sing and write they way they did. According to Time magazine Rosa Parks was her #1 fan, and Martin Luther King Jr. called her “the queen of American folk music.” Bob Dylan was quoted saying “The first thing that turned me on to folk singing was Odetta… I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustical guitar.” Baez mentions that, “Odetta was a goddess. Her passion moved me. I learned everything she sang.”

8. Artists Unknown

Photo by Roger da Silva sometime between 1953–1969

An image of these unknown women was taken by Roger da Silva for a series of photos taken between 1953–1969 meant to present a historical portrait of Senegal. As far as we know, the names and whereabouts of these women are unknown. The exhibit was featured and presented by XARITUFOTO—a non profit in Dakar with a mission to preserve African art as well as The Intensive Art Magazine (IAM)—”one of the first publications that focused exclusively on female African art, fashion, and design.”

9. Sylvia Robinson

Sylvia Vanderpool aka Sylvia Robinson is considered “The Mother of Hip-Hop” for being a record producer, record label executive and founder/CEO of Sugar Hill Records—the label that produced hip hop’s very first top 40 single, “Rappers Delight” by Sugarhill Gang. However, before becoming the mother of hip hop, Robinson obtained her production, writing and managing skills as the guitarist and co-writer in Mickey and Sylvia—the duo who sold over 1 million records for their single “Love Is Strange” in 1957. But it doesn’t end there. In 1972, after being rejected by numerous outlets, Robinson recorded her debut solo album on her own, “Pillow Talk,” which became #1 on the R&B chart and crossing over to #3 on Billboard’s Top Hot 100.

10. Etta Baker

Born Etta Lucille Reid on March 1st, 1913 (died Sep 23rd, 2016), Etta Baker was a playing legend of the Piedmont blues for 90 years. Picking up her first guitar at the age of three, her father Boone Reid taught Etta how to play a 6-string guitar, 12-string guitar and 5-string banjo. Her discography spans from 1956–2015 and even while birthing and raising nine kids, Etta Baker was known to never once give up playing the Piedmont Blues.

11. Algia Mae Hinton

Algia Mae Hinton (8/29/1929–2/8/2018) was born in Johnston County, North Carolina and learned to play the guitar at age 9 by her mother who was an expert guitarist and singer, often seen performing at community gatherings. Her father was a dancer and taught her buck dancing and two step. Hinton was best recognized for her ability to merge buck dancing and Piedmont fingerpicking, often playing behind her head (as shown above) as she danced. A true pro. Video Cred: Dust To Digital.

12. The Duchess

Norma Jean Wofford. Photographer unknown.

Norma Jean Wofford aka The Duchess (10/20/1938–4/30/2005) was the second guitarist in Bo Diddley’s band between 1962 and 1966. With her Gretsch Jupiter Thunderbird, she performed back up vocals, danced, and played rhythm guitar alongside Bo Diddley until calling it quits in 1966 to pursue raising a family.

13. Elizabeth Cotten

Elizabeth Cotten (1/5/1893–6/29/1987) is the true definition of innovation. Born in 1893 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Cotten began teaching herself to play on a banjo at the age of eight. As a teenager and domestic worker, Cotten saved up $3.75 for a Sears guitar and began teaching herself to play as a left handed guitarist. What resulted was her very own signature technique: she would take the right-handed guitar, and turn it upside down, playing the bass lines with her fingers and the melody with her thumb—a technique known now as “Cotten Picking.” Her most recognized song is called “Freight Train.”

14. Linda Martell

While there’s not very much information on Linda Martell (born Thelma Bynem, June 4, 1941) was an American Country singer and guitarist. She became the first African-American woman to perform at the Grand Ole Opry but soon thereafter abandoned her career to raise a family.

15. Cora Fluker

Little information floats around in the internet about Cora Fluker.  Born in Livingston, Alabama, around 1920 she grew up sharecropping with her family and was nearly beaten to death after trying to run away at the age of 9. It seems that shortly thereafter Fluker’s life took a shift into a deep dedication to preaching. As a young girl Fluker built her own guitar and began writing and singing songs in the church. She performed in churches and at the occasional festival until her death. You can now hear some of her songs on Spotify.

16. Lauryn Hill

Lauryn Hill. Photo by Shareif Ziyadat/FilmMagic.

Do you know what Lauryn Hill does live? She composes, she conducts her band, she sings and raps AND plays an extremely fierce nylon guitar all at the same time. Photo Cred: Shareif Ziyadat/FilmMagic.

17. Rosa Lee Hill

“Born 25 September 1910, Como, Mississippi, USA, d. 22 October 1968, Senatobia, Mississippi, USA. The daughter of Sid Hemphill, Rosa Lee Hill grew up in a musical family, playing a broad repertoire for both whites and blacks. Her recordings are confined to blues, which she sang ‘from my mouth, and not from the heart’, feeling them to be incompatible with her religious faith. Her blues are typical of Panola County, where she spent her whole life: accompanied by a droning guitar, her songs have an inward-looking, brooding feel, comparable to those of Mississippi Fred McDowell. Hill and her husband were sharecroppers and lived in dire poverty, particularly towards the end of their lives, when their house burned down and they had to move into a tumbledown shack.” Caption Cred: allmusic.com.

18. Joan Armatrading

Joan Armatrading was born in Basseterre, Saint Kitts Britain on December 9th, 1950. Her recording career spans 40 years and began as a self taught guitarist at the age of 14. At the age of 15, after dropping out of school to support her family, she lost her first job after taking her guitar to work and playing it during tea-breaks. She later would become a world renowned singer songwriter/guitarist nominated for three grammy awards, 2 Brit awards and receive an Ivor Novello Award for Outstanding Contemporary Song Collection.

19. Barbara Lynn

Born Barbara Lynn Ozen in Beaumont, TX, on January 16, 1942, Barbara Lynn is known to us as the “Lefty Queen of R&B” for her being a lefty guitarist and expert R&B composer. She first began playing the piano as a youngster before switching to guitar. Still a teenager, Lynn began performing at local clubs after winning many high school talent shows, and soon was recognized by singer Joe Barry. Shortly thereafter, Lynn headed over to New Orleans to cut her first 12 song LP comprising of 10 of her own original songs (unusual for an African-American woman to be composing her own songs at the time), including the most well known of them all, “You’ll Lose A Good Thing.” She toured with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Sam Cooke, James Brown, Al Green, Carla Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, B.B. King and was covered by the Rolling Stones and Ottis Redding. In the ’70s Lynn retired to take care of her family after not being very satisfied with how she was being represented by her label, Atlantic Records. 20 years later she began writing and touring and continues to do so to this day.

20. Band Unknown

Photo by Charles ‘Teenie’ Harris/Carnegie Museum of Art/Getty Images.

Band: unknown. Photo by Charles ‘Teenie’ Harris/Carnegie Museum of Art/Getty Images. One of the many images that speak to the prominence of black women instrumentalists unsung. PS: That Silvertone Guitar though.

21. Gail Ann Dorsey

Gail Anne Dorsey is a longtime musician best known for her work as the bassist for David Bowie between 1995 until his death in 2016 as well as her songwriting, bass, and touring work with Tears for Fears from 1993–1996. Dorsey’s career is long and packed but it all started with a guitar at the age of 9. Although she picked up the bass at 14, she didn’t consider herself a bassist until the age of 20, which then became her main instrument as a solo and session player. Among many other accomplishments, Dorsey has recorded, performed and written with the likes of  Lenny Kravitz, Bryan Ferry, Boy George, the Indigo Girls, Gwen Stefani, Charlie Watts, Seal, Gang of Four, and many more.

22. Stella Bass

Stella Bass. Photo by Waring Abbott/Getty Images.

Stella Bass was a member of the “Horn Rock”—a genre that developed in the late 60s fusing jazz, improve, funk, rock and blues—band IsIs, named after the Egyptian Goddess. IsIs was the 5th all-female band that signed to a major label and one of the few (if not only) signed to a major label at the time with an openly out woman. It’s tough to find info on Stella herself and the career she led before and after the band, however, IsIs was a legendary band for their time—opening for the likes of Kiss, Lynrd Skynrd and The Beach Boys.

23. Artist Unknown

Photo by Morton Broffman.

Artist: unknown. Taken during the Civil Rights Movement . Photo Cred: Morton Broffman.

24. Flora Molton

Born in Louisa County, Virginia (3/12/1908–5/31/1990) Flora Molton was a gospel singing slide guitarist who made a name for herself busking on the corner of 7th Street NW and F Street NW streets in Washington, DC. Due to being born partially blind, she was often unable to find employment and therefore continued busking, performing at local venues and even toured Europe until just a few months before her death at 82 years old. She wrote what she called “spiritual and truth music.” According to a plaque dedicated to Molton in Louisa County, she picked up the slide guitar by seeing it played with a knife at a community party—a technique she adopted herself later on. Photo Cred: Julie Watt.

25. Willa Mae Buckner

Willa Mae Buckner. Photographer unknown.

Willa Mae Buckner is truly one of the most fascinating stories we’ve encountered yet. Born June 15, 1922, in Augusta, Georgia Buckner was a fearless woman who taught herself piano at 21 and picked up the guitar at age 35. She was known for many different lives: knew seven languages, traveled on her own circus/snake show, was a guitar slinging burlesque dancer, and “settled down” owning 28 snakes at the end of her life. From an interview in Living Blues Magazine, April, 1993: “I sang just regular kind of blues that they were singing out there. I used to do risqué, dirty songs. I started playing piano when I was 21, then I switched over to guitar when I was about 35. There was three of us. We used to get together with our instruments. One of us played Hawaiian guitar, the other one played straight.” Read a more in depth bio of Willa Mae Buckner.

26. Precious Bryant

“Precious Bryant was born on January 4, 1942, in Talbot County, the third of nine children, and was a country blues singer and finger style guitarist of the Piedmont Tradition. As a young girl she sang with her sisters in their Baptist church. Her family was musical, and she learned to play guitar at a very early age, becoming proficient by age nine. Her father then taught her to play bottleneck guitar, and eventually her uncle and mentor, blues musician George Henry Bussey, presented her with an instrument of her own, a Silvertone from Sears and Roebuck. Bryant dropped out of high school in the eleventh grade and in 1965 got married. She soon began performing whenever possible, accepting tips in her guitar. Bryant’s repertoire evolved from traditional songs to include original arrangements and compositions.” Caption Cred: Terminus Records.

27. Marylin Scott

Marylin Scott/Mary Deloach. Photographer unknown.

Marylin Scott/Mary Deloach had two stage names: the former for her gospel church recordings and the latter for her R&B arrangements—the two genres generally steering clear for one another in the 50s. Although composing under similar genres and gaining similar notoriety as Sister Rosetta Tharpe at the time, little is known about Marylin Scott besides having a recording career between 1943–1953 in which she recorded guitars and vocals in blues and gospel style.

28. Barbara Jordan

Barbara Jordan

Born in Houston, TX on February 21st, 1936, Barbara Jordan was an incredible leader of the Civil Rights Movement, a politician, and educator who enjoyed playing guitar as a hobby. Despite facing segregation laws and attitudes in all facets of her career, Jordan maintained the first in many categories including being the first black politician elected to the Texas Senate since 1883, and the first black Southern woman elected to the US House of Representatives—the first woman in her own right to represent Texas in the House.

29. Sister O.M Terrell

Sister O.M. Terrell, born Ola Mae Terrell in 1911, the Atlanta native experienced a salvation experience at age 11 while attending a Holiness Movement tent revival. By the Great Depression, she had become a blues-minded street musician who used her talents to evangelize passers-by, singing original compositions such as “God’s Little Birds.” 

30. Tracy Chapman

Tracy Chapman is one of the most recognizable voices of contemporary folk pop, her hits so memorable that her lyrics remain in the lexicon of anyone who lived through the late ‘80s and ‘90s.  At a time when hair metal and synth-pop dominated the airwaves, Chapman brought the minimalist traditions of the singer songwriter to the Bush era, offering an unfiltered and sobering social critique that resonated around the world.  Chapman is often credited with having revived the singer songwriter style in mainstream music all together, paving the way for a long string of folk singers who gained mainstream success throughout the ‘90s.

Signed to Elektra Records in 1987, her self-titled debut album in 1988 sold over 20 million records worldwide. A long time anti-apartheid activist, she was invited to perform her hit “Fast Car” at Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday tribute, which raised money for children’s’ causes and for South Africa’s Anti-Apartheid Movement.  In addition to multi platinum record sales, Grammy awards, and her history of social activism, her mainstream visibility as a queer woman of color in the ‘80s and ‘90s can not be overlooked as a significant legacy. From all of us to Tracy, THANK YOU!!

31. Bea Booze

Bea Booze, often referred to as “Wee Bea Booze” was an R&B and jazz singer popular in the ’40’s for her interpretation of Ma Rainey’s song “See See Rider Blues” which went to number one in 1943 on the US Billboard R&B Chart.  Immersed in the rich musical culture of Harlem, she channeled the influences of singers such as Lil Green while recording for Decca Records. The song “See See Rider Blues” has continued to take on a life of its own, becoming a staple of blues performers such as Ella Fitzgerald, LaVern Baker, and Lead Belly, eventually being picked up by many white performers such as Peggy Lee, Elvis, Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen, and the Grateful Dead.

32. Meshell Ndegeocello

Both a young legend and an active contemporary artist, Meshell Ndegeocello’s debut album Plantation Lullabies was released in 1993 and is credited with helping ignite the neo-soul movement of the ‘90s.  A bassist, songwriter, and rapper, her career’s work has featured collaborations and recordings with Chaka Khan, Herbie Hancock, Madonna, John Mellencamp, The Rolling Stones, Basement Jaxx, Alanis Morrissette, Zap Mama, and Ibeyi to name a few.  Part of Ndegeocello’s legacy is her reverence to other former legends, having recorded a full album in tribute to Nina Simone in 2012, as well as having created a theatrical production in homage to James’ Baldwin’s book The Fire Next Time.  The musical, titled Can I Get a Witness? The Gospel of James Baldwin debuted in 2016 and featured fellow guitarist Toshi Reagon.

33. Felicia Collins

Felicia Collins is best known as the lead guitarist for the house band on Late Night With David Letterman, known as the CBS Orchestra.  Also a vocalist and percussionist, she has toured and recorded since the ‘80s with artists such as Nile Rodgers, Al Jarreau, Cyndi Lauper, Madonna, Vonda Shepard, George Clinton, P-Funk, and Thompson Twins.  In 2018 Collins performed at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, appearing onstage with Brittany Howard, Questlove, and Paul Shaffer.  Previously, she had provided guitar for Marie and Rosetta, a theatrical production about the lives of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and gospel singer Marie Knight.

34. Debora Coleman

Deborah Coleman (Oct. 3, 1956–April, 12, 2018) was a lead blues guitarist and singer-songwriter born in Virginia. Raised in a musical family, she picked up the guitar at age 8 and went on to play in various rock and R&B bands when she was 15. In 1993, Coleman took first place at the Charleston Blues Festival’s National Amateur Talent Search. As a result, she was able to record her debut album, Talkin’ A Stand, which was released in 1994 with New Moon Records in North Carolina. 

35. Charity Bailey

Charity Bailey on NBC’s “Sing A Song”

Charity Alberta Bailey (1904–1978) was a singer, educator, TV host, and pioneer in the field of children’s music. She wrote songbooks arranged on guitar and piano and developed curriculums that used classical music and folk music from around the world to teach music to children. Charity studied at Julliard and Dalcroze before becoming Director of Music at the Little Red School House in NYC. 

36. The Thornton Sisters

The Thornton Sisters appeared on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour twice during the 1950s. Their dad enrolled the sisters into music lessons and soon after, they became regular performers on college campuses, often performing as the the backup instrumental group for R&B concerts. These performances were also a way for the family to save for medical school tuition for their daughters. The Thornton Sisters sound transitioned from jazz to R&B as the times changed. 

37. Joyce Rooks of The Dinettes

Joyce Rooks (left), in one of her other bands, The Cockpits, circa 1978. Photo by Edie Maitland.

Joyce Rooks did guitar and vocals in rock band The Dinettes from 1979–1980. Right before, in 1978, she had been in the band The Cockpits (seen above), which eventually morphed into The Dinettes and had a few member changes. 

38. Queen Oladunni Decency

Serifatu Oladunni Oduguwa, also known as her stagenames Queen Oladunni Decency or Mummy Juju, was one of the most popular musicians of the Yoruba jùjú genre (Nigerian popular music from traditional Yoruba percussion). Queen Oladunni Decency fronted the Unity Orchestra as a singer and guitarist.

39. Klymaxx

Formed in 1979 in LA by producer/drummer Bernadette Cooper, Klymaxx was a R&B/Pop band whose members included Cheryl Cooley (guitar), Lynn Malsby (keyboard), Lorena Porter Shelby and Joyce “Fenderella” Irby (vocals). Their 1984 album, Meeting In the Ladies Room, went platinum in the U.S.

40. Vi Wilson of Sarah McLawler & The Syncoettes

Vi Wilson on the double bass. Photo by Paul Ressler.

Sarah McLawler formed an all woman instrumental group, Sarah McLawler & The Syncoettes, in Chicago in the 1940s right before the rock ‘n’ roll era took off. The Syncoettes were a four piece, McLawler (piano), Lula Roberts (saxophone), Hetty Roberts (drums), and Vi Wilson (bass). They became the house band for Chicago’s Club Savoy for a short time and released a handful of records during the 1950s. Vi Wilson later went on to play bass for the International Sweethearts of Rhythm and eventually left that swing band to join the Darlings of Rhythm to be with her cousin Gurthalee Clark, a reeds player in the band.

41. International Sweethearts of Rhythm

The International Sweethearts of Rhythm was one of the first racially integrated all women swing bands that gained popularity during the WWII era. The group toured extensively throughout the states and abroad with the USO, performing on the Armed Forces radio and playing top venues across the country. The Jim Crow laws, racism, and sexism made traveling dangerous and difficult for the band to be taken seriously as musicians. Carline Ray was a guitarist in the group and can be seen in the above video.

42. Janice-Marie Johnson of A Taste of Honey

Janice-Marie Johnson was a founding member and the bassist/vocalist of the recording act, A Taste of Honey, formed in 1971. Hazel Payne came on board as guitarist/vocalist. The group’s main genre was disco with a few songs that were chart toppers in both R&B and Pop. Johnson picked up the bass while she was in college and played shows with A Taste of Honey all along Southern California and on military bases. The group won a Grammy in 1978 for Best New Artist.

43. Toshi Reagon

Toshi Reagon has been active as a folk, blues, R&B, country, gospel, rock, and funk musician since 1978. As a queer artist and activist, Reagan was raised by musician parents who were social activists during the civil rights movement and part of The Freedom Singers group. She has performed and shared stages with the likes of Lenny Kravitz, Elvis Costello, and Ani DiFranco. Reagon’s most recent musical endeavor was “Parable of the Sower: The Opera,” adapted from Octavia E. Butler’s post-apocalyptic novel of the same name. 

44. PMS

PMS . Photo by Suzanne Thomas.

PMS (Pre-Metal Syndrome), was the first all-black female metal band formed in the early 1990s by guitarist Suzanne Thomas. PMS defied what it means to be a black woman performing heavy metal music in a scene that is often dominated by heteronormative, white, cis males. PMS is featured in Laina Dawes 2012 book, What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal.

45. Nothembi Mkhwebane

Considered the Queen of Ndebele (a language spoken by 1.6 million people in South Africa) music, and a national icon, Nothembi Mkhwebane is widely considered to have brought the Ndebele language to the world stage. A prolific multi-instrumentalist, Mkhwebane composes on guitar and traditional instruments, and her songs often feature uplifting hand-claps, intricate guitar riffs, and music shakers.

Recommended listening: Zimani Balibalele (1998)


Hailing from South Africa, Tu Nokwe taught herself to play the guitar as a young woman. She eventually landed a spot at the Manhattan School of Music and went on to perform around the world. Nokwe’s work has detectable funk and pop influences, but her adept guitar playing and soprano voice create a style that is uniquely her own.

Recommended listening: African Child (1999)

47. Victoria Spivey

Victoria Spivey. Photographer unknown.

Born in Houston, TX, Victoria Spivey (Oct. 15, 1906–Oct. 3, 1976) was an American blues singer and songwriter whose musical career began in the family string band and later got into show business and Vaudeville theater. In 1951, Spivey decided to retire from show business. Just about a decade later, in 1962, she formed her own record company, Spivey Records, upon which she returned to recording and performing music. 

48. Queen Sylvia Embry

Queen Sylvia Embry was born in Arkansas in 1941. As a kid, she was trained on piano by her grandmother. By the time she was 19, Queen Sylvia moved to Memphis then Chicago to pursue music. Chicago is where she fell in love with the bass and started working with Lefty Dizz. She soon became known as one of Chicago’s leading blues bassists. By 1983, Queen Sylvia went out on her own and released her debut solo record, Midnight (Evidence).

49. Melba Jewell of Fabulous PJs

L–R: Melba and Patricia Jewell, Patti-Jo Patriquin. 1965. Photo from Guelph Museums.

Melba Jewell (b. Sept. 15, 1934) and her sibling Pat, formed the Fabulous PJs and released one album together while residing in Guelph, Ontario. The Jewell’s were one of many families local to the area that used their musical talents to combat racism and to empower the black youth of the time.

50. Las Chicas Del Can

Las Chicas Del Can was the first all-female merengue group from Dominican Republic with a rotating cast of Dominican and Afro-Dominican singers and musicians throughout their career. Founded in 1981, they performed a number of hits throughout the eighties, and a great number of their singles and albums achieved gold and/or platinum status. Las Chicas Del Can had tremendous success receiving platinum records and gold records and made extensive tours around the world and europe, including Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Puerto Rico, the United States, Holland and others.