From the sexually-charged lyrics of Nicki Minaj and Lil’ Kim to the lyrical exploration of love and sexual independence by Beyonce, black female artists of today use their music as a vehicle to express their sexuality. With the male-dominated music industry and the consumerist nature of women’s sexuality in contemporary culture, the amount of agency and autonomy current black female vocalists and rappers have over their lyrics and image is contested. However, the expression of black women’s sexuality as a musical tradition can be traced back to the blue’s music of the early twentieth century. Black female blue’s artists expressed their sexuality through their music, which distinguished themselves apart from the Euro-American, patriarchal notions and ideals of female sexuality. Music was used as an avenue to express sexual independence and queer identities, and Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, by singing about sexuality and desire, protested against the social expectations of women and domesticity.
Sexual independence is a key theme to blue’s music performed by women. This expression of sexual independence was a revolutionary ideal born out of emancipation. Angela Davis, contemporary black feminist scholar and activist, argues that emancipation allowed free black men and women to explore their sexualities and romantic relationships independent of explicit white control. Musical expressions during slavery were about the collective experiences, hardships, and desires of enslaved people; emancipation created a black musical tradition which focused, rather, on the individual’s needs and desires.  Davis contends that Bessie Smith’s songs, laden with innuendos and sexual metaphors, tell stories of empowerment, freedom, and independence, and these female characters in her songs “are clearly in control of their sexuality in ways that exploit neither their partners nor themselves.”  Female blues musicians freely expressed themes of infidelity in their works and performances. Infidelity is rarely ever expressed in Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith’s songs as a burden or taboo. Instead, female blues artists celebrate their ability to be as brazen, crass, and sensual as men.  In “Barrel House Blues,” Ma Rainey portrays the parallels between men’s and women’s similar desires for alcohol, merriment, and sex: “Papa likes his bourbon, mama likes her gin / Papa likes his outside women, mama likes her outside men.”  Infidelity can be seen as the ultimate sign of sexual independence; it’s a woman’s way of asserting her sexual freedom from her spouse or partner. Men were consistently depicted as wandering, philandering partners in songs, so by depicting women as equally sexually adventurous and non-committal to traditional monogamous relationships, female blues artists were asserting their independence and freedom from dominant, romantic-love ideals and expectations.
Blues artists challenged the heterosexual notions of female sexuality in a time when lesbianism and female love existed as a secretive, oppressed subculture in society. Black lesbians of the Harlem Renaissance “adopted a heterosexual public persona” while keeping their love interests and affairs with women “a secret.”  Speakeasies, jazz clubs, and dive bars became venues where female blues artists could not only express female love and attraction through song but also through relationships, interactions, and attire.  The sexually expressive nature of blues music allowed black women to discuss queer identities and unconventional sexual desires. “Prove It on Me Blues” by Ma Rainey is about a woman who flaunts and indulges in her attraction for women and cross dressing. The lyrics also express, however, the secretive nature of queer relationships in society when the female character in the song exclaims, “’Cause they say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me.”  The woman featured in the song boldly flaunts her attraction to women. This song alludes to the lesbian subculture that existed in the Jazz Age by portraying a woman who is comfortable conveying her sexuality in public but still has to consider the fact that she might be caught doing so. Although there might well have been implications to her being caught cross dressing and approaching women, the female character displays confidence and enjoyment in challenging sexual norms. Lesbianism and queer desires portrayed in the songs of female blues artists illustrates their defiance to conform to the dominant, heterosexual culture.
Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and other female blues artists resisted conventional, patriarchal notions of female sexuality through their music. Lyrics telling tales of infidelity, promiscuity, desire, sexual freedom, and lesbianism cemented female sexuality as a tradition within African American musical forms and emboldened future black female artists to interpret their sexuality as a source of empowerment, confidence, resistance, and protest.
 Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (New York: Random House Inc., 1998), 4-5.
 Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, 14.
 Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, 20-21.
 Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, 24.
 Eric Garber, “A Spectacle in Color: The Lesbian and Gay Subculture of Jazz Age Harlem,” in Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past, ed. Martin B. Duberman et al (New York: New American Library, 1989), 320.
 Lisa Hix, “Singing the Lesbian Blues in 1920s Harlem,” Collectors Weekly, July 9, 2013, http://www.collectorsweekly.com/articles/singing-the-lesbian-blues-in-1920s-harlem/
 Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, 39.