Was Tina Ours?
Tina or Teena
Beyond growing up in a two-parent or multi-generational household and routinely having Black teachers who cherished us, the greatest gift that Black children coming of age in the 70s were given was Black music. Our consoles—you know that three-in-one record player, 8-track tape deck, and FM/AM radio with built-in speakers that doubled as a piece of furniture—pushed out riffs, chords, melodies, hooks, and vocals that testified to the Black artist as the highest form of humanity and the nearest being to perfection. Songs in the Key of Life, What’s Going On, Off the Wall, 3+3, That’s the Way of the World, Pizzazz, C’est Chic, Inseparable, Perfect Angel, Switch, too many to name. And we had soundtracks—Sparkle, Claudine, Superfly, Shaft, Carwash. Blues, jazz, rock, soul, funk and Black struggle and resistance certified every one of these albums as Black music belonging to us—salve and savior.
I remember the night I fell in love—sealed my fan covenant—with Black music. I was in kindergarten and heard this:
My uncle had been tinkering with the stereo that he purchased while stationed in Germany. Kool and the Gang’s Jungle Boogie from their Wild and Peaceful album wafted into my ears and tickled me down to my sinew. In that moment, I was the posterchild for “dance like nobody’s watching,” and no one was. My uncle was seated, lost in Kool and the Gang’s musicianship busting through the speakers. He held in his hands the Ohio Players’ Fire album (I know because everybody knows that album cover), likely anticipating what Sugarfoot and ‘em were gonna sound like delivering twangy funk through his new woofers.
Grooving with abandon in my grandmother’s basement—the venue for many a classic house party complete with Soul Train lines that my mother and her siblings would have while my sibling, cousins, and I witnessed from our perch, hidden underneath a table, protected by its white eyelet tablecloth—the music coursed through me like summer-Saturday hose water. Aahhh, the bass, the heartbeat had me rocking steady on 2/4. And the horns, the horns and everything else—trumpet, trombone, saxophone, guitar, drums, you NAME IT—incited me to explore their staccato as I hit that 1/3. In other words, I was moving everything to every beat. My joy that day was not even surpassed by getting sidewalk skates and a Show ‘N Tell Phono Viewer that Christmas.
These innovators—from Stevie to Minnie, from the Isley Brothers to Earth, Wind, & Fire, from the other genius musicians, songwriters, composers, and vocalists—had been influenced by classes of innovators before them—Pinetop Perkins, Ruth Brown, Ike Turner, Big Mama Thornton, Muddy Waters, Sly and the Family Stone. And Teena would emerge in the 80s incarnating those generations of Black musical influences.
I was heartbroken when I learned of Teena’s passing. She was the embodiment of Black music—the singular term that captures multiple genres created by stolen Africans and their descendants, drawing from memory of indigenous musical forms. And she eased through genres, attesting to her versatility as an artist and her embrace of our music’s origins. During the 80s, when many of our leading female vocalists were designated as sultry R&B songstresses, Teena earthed an ethereal toggle from alto to soprano voice. And her musicianship affirmed her study of and with the masters of funk.
Christmas was in July when I first heard Teena the summer before I began high school. A pedestrian stood on the corner of my block waiting for the bus, boombox pulsing:
Marie. I was referring to Teena Marie. She belonged to us. She was not an interloper or acculturator. Teena was us—a waterbearer, offering life-affirming riffs that showcased the genius of Black music, giving it right back to us, making her music for us, a lovely call and response.
Recently, Tina Turner transitioned. May she rest in peace. Collective conversations have suggested that the Black community lost her long before she returned to the earth. Recently, I queried several of my DJ friends about how often they played Tina Turner’s post-Ike music. They echoed: her music was Pop and not meant for us.
In a recent article for Refinery29, Taylor Crumpton wrote about Turner: Turner wanted to reclaim the Black musical tradition of rock in her own way and she used the same white musicians who stole from generations of Black musicians to do it. Call it reparations if you must, but Turner knew exactly how to carve an entry into the overtly white, male dominated space of rock and roll. Decades of artistic theft and erasure distanced Black musicians from the rock and roll tradition.
That is not reparations. That is “securing the bag.” Reparations are to make our collective whole for injustices experienced. And oddly, I can’t even imagine that Turner would have considered it such. Further, as a Black woman, the idea of being accepted into a white, male dominated space sounds akin to being invited to come up from the sea, like Ariel, and you get to be a Black princess. And it is silently agreed upon that you don’t get a Black prince or court.
Two years earlier, in 2021, Christine Turner examined Tina Turner’s defection of the United States, interviewing history professor at CUNY’s Graduate Center, Tanisha Ford. Ford said:
“That difference of adoration that Tina felt throughout her career, between U.S. and European audiences, reflected the ‘vestiges of Jim Crow’ that were still very much alive in the music industry. Ford continued, “While rock and roll is rooted in the Black experience and the Black musical tradition, the mainstream industry has racialized it as ‘white’ music.” So Tina Turner had much resistance when she wanted to position herself as a rock ‘n’ roll artist.”
The common truism in both articles and even implied in the DJs’ responses is the deliberate stealing and repackaging of rock and roll, another Black created music genre, as white music. The repackaging historically has been the worse kind of imitation. Think Pat Boone’s 1957 cover of Little Richard’s Tutti Fruiti, and Boone’s version was far more commercially/financially successful than Richard’s. Elvis Presley’s cover of Big Mama Thornton’s Hound Dog three years after she released contributed to his unholy wealth gain while Thornton received no royalites. Thornton was also a force in songwriting, composing Ball and Chain that Janis Joplin would record several years after she wrote it. Again, Thornton received no royalties. Bob Marley wrote and performed I Shot the Sheriff with the Wailers. One year later, Eric Clapton recorded it. And though Clapton was an overt fan and supporter who respected Marley, that admiration did not quell his being more associated with the song than its originator. Black people seemingly have had to consider our talent and calling as innovators separately from the industry.
The whitewashing of Black music is not solely about imitation or even acculturation. It is about the raw exploitation of Black people, the stripping of agency, another form or controlling our mobility. This characterizes the relationship between the Black people and the white settler project.
Rock and roll was never returned to its rightful owners, much like land. What is clearly debatable is whether Tina Turner reclaimed the Black tradition of rock and roll or whether the white music industry claimed her to reinforce its dispossession of primarily Black men, as well as Black women, from their innovation and wealth.