Whitney Houston deserves better than the Hall of Fame
And Black women deserve better than rock ’n’ roll’s lies
I have listened to at least one Whitney Houston song every single day of my life since April 2000. (I say 2000 because I only have data going back to peak Napster. It could be 1988, the year I pretended I was the Queen of Pop because I wasn’t old enough to legally drink in Bermuda, and it worked.) And at the moment when all that stanning needs to be put to use, I have “Gimme Shelter” by The Rolling Stones colonizing my frontal lobes. It feels like it’s burned into my brain. (“Ooh, a storm is threatening / My very life today / If I don’t get some shelter / Ooh, yeah, I’m gonna fade away.)
So at the very moment when I need to explain that white male rockers and their Hall of Fame have resulted in the erasure of Black women from their history — when a Black woman invented rock ‘n’ roll! — I only seem to have access to the words of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. Ironic. But illuminating.
Nope. Scratch that. I’m not wasting another word on the Stones. (Except, Google Merry Clayton. Her contribution to the song makes it a classic just as much as Richards does.) This isn’t about them. They were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame way back in 1989 — they’re rock legends.
This is about Whitney Houston. The single most awarded female artist in music is being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this year in a star-studded ceremony this weekend on HBO. Her class, as they so primly call it, includes Depeche Mode, The Doobie Brothers, Nine Inch Nails, The Notorious B.I.G. and T. Rex.
Celebrated as the “greatest singer of her generation,” Whitney Houston’s accomplishments in music were unparalleled.
That’s it. That’s what the hall has to say on its website … about Whitney Houston! Granted, all of the inductees get little blurbs. But it’s way too late and not nearly enough. How many of them turned “Higher Love,” a 34-year-old song from Steve Winwood (class of 2004), into a 2019 hit from the grave? Just this month, she became the first Black artist to have three diamond albums (more than 10 million sold), a feat matched only by Garth Brooks, class of 2012, The Eagles (1998), The Beatles (1988), Led Zeppelin (1995) and Shania Twain. Her nickname was “The Voice,” and she is the only artist to have seven consecutive No. 1 singles, breaking a record held by Elvis Presley (inducted into the hall’s first class) and the Bee Gees (1997).
That’s all they have to say? All I have to say is, who cares what the Rock & Roll museum has to say or doesn’t say about the worthiness of Whitney Houston? Houston’s honorary auntie, Aretha Franklin, didn’t even make the inaugural class of this “Hall of Fame,” although she was the first woman inducted in 1987 as a member of its second class. There are 22 Black female acts in that hall, including all the Supremes, Ronettes, Shirelles and Staple Singers. Out of 338 inductees. That means the music industry doesn’t even know what rock ‘n’ roll is, never mind what it should be recognizing as Hall of Fame-worthy.
I don’t have anything against rock ‘n’ roll. In fact, I love it. But the way one loves a tween. I respect the rebellion. Love the clothes. And I hope that what they don’t know doesn’t kill them. I even get the appropriation — it’s a hot sound.
It’s the erasure I can’t handle. How can they not see Houston as not just a pretty singer of Dolly Parton songs, but a pitch-perfect avatar of where the music came from — the intersection of the church and the juke joint. Don’t believe me? Ask Alexa about Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the “forgotten” inventor of rock ‘n’ roll. She plugged in an electric guitar and sang the blues. She got into the hall … in 2018 with Bon Jovi, Dire Straits and The Cars. The woman who inspired Chuck Berry and was Johnny Cash’s favorite singer was “acknowledged” two years ago. That’s what’s so infuriating. (The floods is threatening / My very life today.)
Because if rock ‘n’ roll knew where it came from or what it is, Black female musicians would be central to its story — not latecomers and add-ons celebrated for their pretty voices. If the Hall of Fame was interested in doing anything other than whitewashing, Whitney Elizabeth Houston’s inclusion would be a game-changer, not a diversity play.
If the music industry could wrap its head around how much it owes Black women, Houston’s death on Feb. 11, 2012, at the age of 48, would have at least stopped Clive Davis’ pre-Grammy Awards party. But they didn’t even delay it. Davis said: “Whitney would have wanted the music to go on.” Really? I would have thought the head of Arista Records knew his way around a diva. He would have waited if that had been Jim Morrison — they’d still be writing songs about it — the other day the music died.
Again, no disrespect to The Doobie Brothers. I adore Depeche Mode. Nine Inch Nails has the stats. But rock ‘n’ roll began when a Black woman born just 50 years after the end of the Civil War plugged in an electric guitar, not when Bob Dylan (class of 1988) did. It is a sound coaxed to life through the voices of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Lady Day, Ella Fitzgerald and so many anonymous Black women whose melisma we will never know. And until the hall tells the true and full history of the music, it can keep its stupid ceremonies.