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Cultural/Social

Reclaiming Betty Davis

betty-davis-03

My, how times have changed.

Back in the 70s,  it was still considered lewd and risque for a woman to be on stage in lingerie, fishnet stockings, and scowl while singing about ‘crawling to her man’ when he needed his ego lifted.  I suppose those still around with modest sensibilities must wear a constant frown at the likes of Beyonce, who is half-naked every time she steps on stage and actually wiggled on the floor during a performance.   But, the willingness to be scantily-clad is normal among so many women these days, not just the Pop Queens and R&B Princesses.  That’s their business.  I don’t have it in me to take on the sex kitten persona with this post, or, maybe I do….just from a different angle.

See, I got this thing about people who don’t fall into pre-determined categories.  Also, I love to ponder on the large-scale meanings of things and see if there’s a connection between them. Ya dig?  That’s why I’d rather play around with the badass-ness of Betty Davis.  It’s much more fun because this woman was letting it all hang out when it really wasn’t the norm to do so.

Now, in terms of sheer musical quality, Betty’s funky contributions were rather normal, after all, she used musicians that used to play for Sly and the Family Stone.  The gritty vocal delivery of female singers had already happened with the likes of Tina Turner, Janis Joplin, and Kate Copeland, so, nothing new there.  But,  Betty’s screeches, moans, and wailing separated her from other female vocalists for a couple of reasons.  For one, she opted to keep it raw, abandoning the trend of Disco that was sweeping up the market and she completely avoided diving into the sweet Soul movement.  Another reason and the most important one,  Betty dared to put female sexuality on blast in her records and stage performances.  As a matter of fact, the latter is why her performances were protested by religious groups (perhaps the same ones that despised the feminism movement) and radio stations shied away from playing her records, which eventually resulted in poor album sales–causing Betty to stop doing music and go into hiding.

betty_davis_bpAs the former wife of jazz master, Miles Davis, Betty’s nasty gal image contrasted totally to her cute-faced, model girl looks, giving her that extra boost of eccentricity that raised a lot of eyebrows.  I can imagine it now.  They probably asked questions like, ‘Dang, how did someone as smooth as Miles get hooked up with such a racy woman?’  I suppose  Miles wondered that too because the couple divorced after a year of marriage.  The trumpeter would go on later to cite that Betty was just a little too wild for him. Of course, that pesky little rumor about her affair with Jimi Hendrix, whom she connected to Miles, may have had something to do with their split as well.  Betty completely denies the allegation.   According to sources though, she was the inspiration behind Miles’ experimental jazz masterpiece, Bitches Brew, so the union couldn’t have been that bad.

Fast forward to the 21st century,  Betty’s music is enjoying a resurgence, thanks to the indie label, Light in the Attic Records.  The label released her three albums, including the formerly unreleased third album (shown below) that’s considered her best work. Some thirty something years later, Betty seems to fits in well with today’s culture, perhaps so much so that there’s probably a few people who don’t get the big deal about her at all.

Betty-Davis-Is-It-Love-or-Desire1

For the sake of the sisters, I’d like to reclaim Betty Davis and put her in the annals of history alongside Pam Grier and Tamara Dobson.  So, as we critique and have this discussion about the cultural and social persona of Black women, we can adequately assess that Betty Davis also did her part to ensure that minxes like Beyonce and company could comfortably exist in their sex appeal—now whether that’s good or bad is not the subject of this post.   It’s even safe to state that Betty Davis was the ‘Lil Kim’ of her day and we all know how the Notorious K.I.M. gets down.  Here’s the difference though:  Betty Davis, for the most part, was almost burned at the stake.  Lil’ Kim, on the other hand, had a college course named after her.  Talk about extremes.

Anyway, check out the bawdy Betty Davis courtesy of Youtube.  As you listen to the lyrics, bear in mind that this was 1975…and not 2009.

Yo, there’s really nothing new under the sun.


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About Chandra Kamaria

Chandra Kamaria is a playwright, essayist, culture maven, educator, entrepreneur, and activist. To learn more, visit www.chandrakamaria.com.

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