Whenever anyone mentions Aretha Franklin as a female music mogul, one word comes to mind: Respect. Unfortunately, respect for women (or oneself) isn’t necessarily a pre-requisite in the music industry. In the 1920s and 1930s, blues music began gaining popularity, and was known for his provocative and pervasive sexual imagery. Not only was this imagery new to the American public, but women were also singing the music. In their refusal to romanticize relationships, and thus expose stereotypes and explore the contradictions of relationships, these female blues singers helped provide a new “place” for women. Now, by making their personal relationship experiences public, women like Bessie Smith and Gertrude “Ma” Rainey were telling other black, working class women, that they weren’t alone and other women shared the same experiences they did. Consider the lyrics of “Don’t Fish In My Sea”, sung by both women. Here, Bessie Smith complains that her man came home drunk in the morning after staying out all night, and although he used to stay out late, now he often doesn’t come home at all. She goes on to sing:
If you don’t like my ocean, don’t fish in my sea
Don’t like my ocean, don’t fish in my sea
Stay out of my valley and let my mountain be 
Instead of propagating the widely accepted ideas of black women as “mammy” or overly-sexualized figures, women like “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith implied that hardship was normal, and by singing that message, they empowered women to assert individuality and power in their own lives and relationships.
With their refusal to be stifled, the female blues singers of the early twentieth century opened the door to female expression through popular music. Not only could women speak to other women through song, but politics could be conveyed effectively as well. As Judy Kutulas points out in her article “That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard It Should Be,” popular music has the unique power of immediacy. Music is ever-present, constantly produced, and has become a background noise for life. As always, however, there are conflicting messages. In many songs and music videos, women continue to be depicted as “temptress” figures, and are not taken seriously. Consider many of the current hip-hop and rap music videos—they include rich men flashing their “bling” while surrounded by dozens of beautiful, scantily clad women.
Thankfully, some women have decided to continue in the tradition of Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith. Take Alicia Keys for example. In her song “Fallin’,” she sings about falling in and out of love, while feeling good, used, and confused all at the same time. What’s more, she uses the song’s music video to portray powerful imagery while remaining decidedly un-sexualized and almost masculine at certain points. As Keys walks through her day, she shows imprisoned black women working in a field wearing their bright orange prison jumpsuits. Next, Keys visits her boyfriend, the subject of the song, in prison. The message of the video seems to be that everyone is imprisoned by something—love, men, society, or race, among other things.
With her use of a current urban landscape and legitimate issues, I believe Alicia Keys represents a continuation of the movement started by those female blues singers almost a century ago. Making private issues public can empower people, and in our current technological climate, artists now have the power to make their messages heard instantly.