By: Ezra Wheeler
While the music industry has often been criticized as a boy’s club (and for good reason), women in Memphis have been at the forefront of various genres since the very beginning. In the 1930s, Memphis Minnie earned a reputation as one of the country’s most formidable guitar players, prompting blues legend Big Bill Broonzy to say that she could “pick a guitar and sing as good as any man I’ve ever heard.” In the 1950s, Cordell Jackson became the first woman to produce, arrange, engineer, and promote music on her own rock and roll label. In the 1960s, artists such as Carla Thomas and Ann Peebles helped to make Memphis the soul music capitol of America. And more recently, hip-hop artists like Gangsta Boo and La Chat proved that women could be just as brash, violent, and sexually explicit as their male counterparts.
Today, this tradition is alive and well in Memphis, as countless female artists continue to push the boundaries of music in new and exciting directions while keeping one foot deeply planted in tradition. In honor of Women’s History Month, we present five contemporary artists who are tapping into this deep wellspring of Memphis tradition while also charting their own paths.
For Fans of: Mavis Staples, Louise McCord
Although not a Memphis native, Liz Brasher’s music is unmistakably steeped in the city’s soul, gospel, and rock traditions. In fact, her influences are so varied, and her sound is so diverse that she is often referred to simply as a “Southern music artist,” a somewhat nebulous title that feels fitting, nonetheless. Since moving to Memphis in 2017, Brasher has immersed herself in the city’s musical culture, working with some of the Bluff City’s finest talents to create a retro-soul sound filled with spiritual undertones. What unifies all of Brasher’s music is her powerful voice, an undeniably beautiful instrument that can seamlessly transition from primal howls to gentle crooning with ease. In 2019, Brasher released her critically acclaimed album “Painted Image,” which received glowing reviews from prominent outlets such as Rolling Stone and NPR, solidifying her status as one of Memphis’ most promising and talented young singers. Most recently, Brasher released the single “Sad Girl Status,” a stripped-down and emotionally honest ballad that she says “was really born out of what I felt was a low point in my career, and subsequently my life.” You can find all of Liz Brasher’s music at https://www.lizbrasher.com/.
For Fans of: Amy Lavere, Rosanne Cash
Few Memphis artists have been as busy over the past year as Victoria Dowdy, the singer-songwriter whose duo Oakwalker has released a string of easy-going singles during the last twelve months of lockdown. The group, which also includes violinist Ethan Baker, formed only months before the Covid-19 pandemic, which has been both a gift and a curse. While the duo hasn’t had the opportunity to establish themselves as a live act just yet, they’ve found plenty of time to sharpen and refine their twangy and organic sound. Although the type of Americana music that Oakwalker specializes in may be more synonymous with Nashville than Memphis, the fact of the matter is that country and folk music has a long and deep history in Memphis and is seeing a strong resurgence. As proof, Oakwalker recently participated in Folk Unlocked, which is an event held by Folk Alliance International that also featured Memphians Elizabeth King, Will Sexton, and The Tennessee Screamers. The duo also recently collaborated with Hunter Cross for their newest single “Oak Cross (Ode to Dolly),” which you can hear below.
For Fans of: Gangsta Boo, Princess Loko
As any casual listener can tell you, today’s hip-hop airwaves are filled with confident women flaunting their independence and sexuality. Artists such as Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B owe a debt of gratitude to the Memphis pioneers who helped to break through rap’s glass ceiling. Today, no Memphis rapper is carrying that torch more forcefully than Terrica Alexander, the fast-rising star better known as Jucee Froot. While the rapper has been a mainstay of the underground hip-hop scene for several years now, 2020 proved to be a major breakthrough for Jucee Froot, who released her major label debut “Black Sheep” and contributed several songs to TV and film soundtracks such as Insecure, P-Valley, and Birds of Prey. In a recent article with Uproxx, Jucee Froot revealed that she has recently been in contact with her idol, Gangsta Boo, which has many fans excited for the potential of a collaboration in the future. Although her growing status as an up-and-coming star is largely based on her party anthems, Jucee Froot recently displayed her serious side on the Black Lives Matter-inspired track “T.H.U.G.”
For Fans of: Memphis Minnie, Jessie Mae Hemphill
Perhaps more than any other artist on this list, Valerie June’s music is suffused with the spirit and sound of a bygone era, a brand of music she calls “organic moonshine roots.” Inspired by artists of the 1920s and ‘30s such as Mississippi John Hurt and Elizabeth Cotton, June has a unique ability to put a contemporary spin on some of America’s most traditional musical art forms. While her twangy soprano voice is her signature, June is also a talented multi-instrumentalist, playing guitar, banjo, and ukulele. After establishing herself as a cornerstone of the region with a series of homemade records and relentless touring, June began to catch the attention of music industry heavyweights such as Old Crow Medicine Show and The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, who helped to bring the artist to the next level. Today, June is a bona fide star within the world of Americana music and has amassed a fanbase that spans the globe. Next month, June will be releasing her much-anticipated 5th studio album “The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers.” In the meantime, you can hear June’s new single “Call Me a Fool,” which features Memphis soul icon Carla Thomas.
For Fans of: Ann Peebles, Joyce Cobb
Since moving back to her hometown of Memphis in 2018, R&B artist Talibah Safiya has emerged as one of the city’s most promising young talents. Although we still haven’t received her upcoming debut album, Safiya has earned legions of fans through her captivating live performances and a string of singles that blur the line between the spiritual and sensual. Safiya describes her art as “diasporic,” a fitting description for music that pulls from virtually every genre and era of African American music from soul to hip-hop to jazz. This convergence of influences gives Safiya’s music a sense of being both fresh and timeless, a consistent theme amongst Memphis’ contemporary artists. “I feel like we have to deal with being a ‘legacy city,’ but we’re singing new soul classics, continuing the story of music through our music… I’m really grateful to be a part of that,” she says. While we anxiously await for new music from Talibah Safiya, you can check out her newest Three 6 Mafia-inspired single “A Wild One” below.