For Most of My Life, I Thought I Was the Only Black Girl Who Played the Guitar

I never really noticed how odd it was for me to play guitar until my aunt came to visit. She peered into my room and offhandedly remarked that she’d “never seen a black girl who played guitar.”
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Publish date:
September 25, 2015
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music, race, entertainment, guitar, female musicians, musicians

I’ve been playing guitar (somewhat) badly for the past 10 years and for the longest time I thought I was the only black girl guitarist.

I don’t know if it was my limited music knowledge or just the inherent whiteness of almost every rock music scene but when I first saw videos of Corinne Bailey Rae, Lianne La Havas and Brittany Howard playing, I felt a new kind of kinship with music.

You see, I was 12 when I really got into rock. One Sunday afternoon, my mother surprised me with a trip to the movie theater. We saw School of Rock, and by the final performance I knew I wanted to play just like the kids on the screen.

I did what any logical preteen would do – I started ingesting as much rock anything as I could. I became obsessed. I listened to "the classic great rock bands," watched music documentaries on the most influential bands and read any biography I could get my hands on. I even made my family drive to Cleveland to see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (I don’t know what I was thinking).

I learnt about these sleazy underground worlds and about the people (mostly men) who rose to godlike status for their talent, bravado and uniqueness. I idolized their "fuck you" attitude – something that was sorely lacking from my own life. I even plastered their faces all over my bedroom walls as I started learning their songs on my acoustic guitar.

So every day after school for 3 years I would go to my bedroom, lock the door and practice. I had songbooks, instructional manuals and notes from my guitar teacher Al. (Hi Al, if you are reading this, but you probably aren’t).

I felt so connected. No doubt there is a power that overtakes you when you are strumming along, a pride that glows from within when a new lick is mastered, but I never felt like I could share this with anyone. And at the time I didn’t know why I felt this way.

I had never really played in front of anyone. I think to this day my own mother has only seen me play two times – during the mandatory recitals that were equal parts excruciating and nerve-wracking.

I never really noticed how odd it was for me to play guitar until my aunt came to visit. It was her first time in Canada, after spending over a decade a stone’s throw away in New Jersey. As my mom gave her a tour of the house, she peered into my room and offhandedly remarked that she’d “never seen a black girl who played guitar.”

Up to that point neither had I, but in the moment I just shrugged it off. All my life I had grown up in a predominantly white area and had yet to confront how my blackness played into my identity, let alone into my lady guitarist image.

It was not until much later -- when I was flicking through the TV channels -- that I spotted this beautiful black woman -- acoustic guitar in tow -- crooning about denim jeans and science fiction. I was fixated.

‘This is what all those white guys must feel like," I thought to myself. "When they see someone like them, on stage playing their guts out. It’s so fucking cool!"

Seeing her gently pluck away at her guitar strings stirred this new emotion within me. I was inspired. It was like seeing parts of myself on stage. It made the whole musician thing seem real in a way it never did before. It was the first time I felt like I could play voluntarily in front of people, like there was space for me on that stage.

High off of this discovery I started searching for others. Black women guitarists who were killing it. My search led me to a long list of amazing women like Sister Rosetta Tharpe – gospel singer, songwriter and pioneer of rock n’ roll, the rebellious Tamar-Kali, "Queen Mother of the guitar" Lady Bo and others like Valerie June, Diamond Rowe and Bibi McGill. Each bring their own talent, bravado and uniqueness to the stage and make me feel like I’m part of a something bigger than myself – and that rocks.

Although I am still learning to play/share in front of other people having women like Malina Moye, Toshi Reagon and all the ladies listed above really helps push me to put myself out there more.

To share the songs I have written -- no matter how terrible they may be. And to even one day start a rag-tag band filled with black girl misfits who just want to kick it and rock out.