Betty Davis paved the way for sexual ownership and feminine agency in music

OPINION: From Janet Jackson to Nicki Minaj, Betty Davis was the prototype for numerous female performers over the years.

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Many people may not know Betty Davis‘ name, let alone any songs from her catalog. However, her influence on music today is vast and undeniable. When it was reported that she died at age 77 Tuesday, she was touted as a funk trailblazer and ex-wife of jazz legend Miles Davis.

Davis was much more than that. She truly birthed the age of the fashion-forward, sex-positive female performer. When you hear Lil’ Kim, Megan Thee Stallion, Nicki Minaj and Cardi B, or Janet Jackson, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Jill Scott, and other Black female artists who have incorporated explicit sexuality in their music, you see women who benefited from Davis’ innovative music and personal sacrifices.

(Betty Davis, Getty Images)

It’s commonplace to see scantily-clad women singing and rapping about sex in music today and Davis is arguably one of the pioneering musicians who influenced that freedom. She acknowledged her contributions during an interview with the New York Times in 2018.

“When I was writing about it (sex), nobody was writing about it,” Davis said. “But now everybody’s writing about it. It’s like a cliché.”

It may now be the norm for women to show skin on stage or record songs about libidinous pleasure but there is a thin line between sexual exploitation and ownership. Davis excelled at owning her sexuality, rather than merely flaunting it.

Sensuality on stage and in songs for women in the 1960s could only be implied, evident with groups like The Ronettes and artists like Eartha Kitt. Davis came from the blues tradition of acts like Big Mama Thornton, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey who played with sexuality in their music and on stage. She had the insight, fearlessness to sing lines likes “I think if I’m in luck, I just might get picked up,” with a raspy decisiveness.

Davis stood out among contemporaries like Millie Jackson and Tina Turner, who were also unapologetic about claiming sexual prowess and comfortability.

Davis’ songwriting went beyond mere declarative exclamations of sexual yearning in songs like “He Was Big Freak” and “Shut Off The Light.” By declaring that she refuses to love a man who she knows puts her into uncontrollable ecstasy on “Anti-Love Song” speaks to her self-awareness and ability to reclaim her power.

Who knows if the world would have songs like Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade” or Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” if Davis didn’t dare to write the cautionary tale of a stripper in “Steppin’ in Her I. Miller Shoes?” Her insistence on writing, composing, and later, producing her own songs in a male-dominated genre speaks to her radical, but essential, ability to bet on herself and be true to her artistic muse.

Davis’ catalog is limited — she only released three albums in her lifetime, all in the 70s. However, in that short window of time, she released timeless music. Her bohemian sensibilities, the time she spent as a model and at the Fashion Institute of Technology helped her lead a one-woman style revolution on her album covers.

On stage, she was singular in her wardrobe, or lack thereof. Dressed in teddies, nightgowns, bustiers, and high, tight shorts, Davis embodied the oozing sexuality of her lyrics and vocals during her raucous live performances.

Sadly, like many Black women, Davis’ definitive contributions to society and culture went underappreciated, and she retired from music in the late 1970s with little fanfare. Her influence on ex-husband Miles in terms of his style and the direction of his music has been revealed in articles and documentaries, but it goes further than that.

Davis is an example of being just a little too ahead of her time, although those are the artists that inform the near and distant future. In the 70s, she eased the pathway for women to be more forward in their lyricism, exemplified by songs like Aretha Franklin‘s “Giving Him Something He Can Feel,” and Betty Wright‘s “Tonight Is The Night.”

Without Davis, Donna Summer couldn’t have gotten away with simulating an orgasm on “Love to Love You Baby” in 1975. Without Davis, Janet Jackson couldn’t have tied men up on stage BDSM style on her 2008 tour.

Janet Jackson and LL Cool J's "Rock Witchu" Tour
Janet Jackson performs onstage during her “Rock Witchu” tour at the Staples Center on Sept. 17, 2008 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Without Davis, Lil Kim couldn’t have the courage to rhyme, “If I was a dude, I’d tell y’all to suck my d—.” Without Davis, Lizzo wouldn’t have had the confidence to pose nude on her album cover and flaunt her bikinis on Instagram, challenging social norms on body image. Without Davis, Jazmine Sullivan doesn’t galvanize a legion of fans with Heaux Tales.

Betty Davis was more than a funk trailblazer. She was more than an inspiring agent of jazz fusion and explicit sexuality. She was a beacon of self-regard and individuality. Thank you, Ms. Davis, for leaving the world better than how you found it.

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