illustration by Jordann Alease
My little sister does this thing, where she only becomes interested in a celebrity after they’ve died. She’s recently discovered the magnificence that is Donna Summer and I’m glad she did. For those who aren’t familiar with this Disco Queen and all-around fabulous lady, here’s a brief intro. Donna Summer began recording solo albums in ’74, but before that she fronted a psychedelic rock band, toured with the musical Hair (which may or may not be my favorite musical), left the states to art it up and record an obscure album in West Germany, and then came back to the US to become the goddess we know her as today. Not familiar with her songs? Donna Summer is basically important for any situation. Need to mope around your room? Listen to McArthur Park and drunkenly sing into your hairbrush. Feelin’ sassy? Bad Girls is the jam for you. Are you an avid Barbra Streisand fan? (It’s okay, I am too.) They’ve sung together! Summer also suffered from depression which is very important for increasing visibility of Women of Color with mental illness! I think it’s time you made room for Donna in your life. Go forth, start now, be wowed.
Angela Davis is so good at being a human being, I don’t even know where to start. Let me firstly recommend watching the documentaries, Free Angela and All Political Prisoners and The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, for a more in-depth look into Angela’s influence on the social justice movement. The ’70s began with the inclusion of Angela on the FBI’s Most Wanted List after which she was tried and arrested, sparking the “Free Angela” movement. She was fired from her teaching position at the University of California for being a Communist, criticized the Million Man March of being based upon male chauvinism, has written countless books on Black Feminist Thought, helped found Critical Resistance–an organization dedicated to abolishing the prison-industrial complex, and never let her afro game fall short. There is literally no words to describe her, just research all you can and fall in love over and over again.
When you need help “keepin’ your head above water, makin’ a wave if you can,” look to Esther Rolle, most popular for playing Florida Evans in the popular sitcom, Good Times. Though Esther was most famous for this role, she had a life before the show! She started out originally in a dance company then got a prominent role on Broadway in the Melvin Van Peeble’s musical, Don’t Play Us Cheap as well as portraying Lady Macbeth in Orson Welle’s Haitian inspired rendition of Hamlet in 1977. She was in two popular sitcoms, Maude and the aforementioned Good Times, in which she never let her opinions go silent and pushed writers for more relevant themes. Rolle won an Emmy for her role in a made-for-tv movie, starred in a film rendition of Maya Angelou’s memoir I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and released an album in 1975. Esther Rolle was busy making herself known in the ’70s and her dedication to her craft has not gone unnoticed.
Such afro! Much Seventies! If you only know Chaka Khan from her startling resemblance to Nicki Minaj, dig a little deeper. I grew up on her early songs with the band Rufus (“Do You Love What You Feel” is a staple for any roadtrip) and in admiration of Ms. Chaka Khan’s flawless style. Also, I bet you didn’t know Chaka joined the Black Panther Party shortly before dropping out of high school to become a full time diva. She earned her first Grammy Award with Rufus in 1974 and then went on to release her debut album, ‘Chaka,’ in ’78, letting the world know that she’s “every woman” (and we can be too!) And HAVE YOU SEEN HER RECENTLY? Chaka is rockin’ her sixties with a vegan lifestyle, new recordings, and trendy threads! (And her hair is still as perfect as ever!!)
First off: Did you know Toni Morrison was 82? Me neither, and she’s literally on the top end of my imaginary writing mentors. The Seventies were a fantastic period for Toni. She kicked off the decade with publishing her first novel, The Bluest Eye, and then continued to kick out two other astonishing pieces of literature, Sula and Song of Solomon before the decade went out! She is probably one of the most intelligent people in the universe and I cannot handle her existence. She’s also written children’s books, plays and librettos, won countless awards, and has taught English at several prestigious universities. She edits black literature and publishes them to mainstream audiences and has won both the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize! If Toni Morrison isn’t on your list of inspiring people, then I’m gonna need you to want better for yourself.
I’ve just been introduced to the image of glamour that is Lola Falana. With a name like that, you have no other choice than to be a star! In 1970, she was nominated for a Golden Globe for her American screen debut (she had been super popular in Italian cinema before then), posed in Playboy, was the first Black model for Faberge perfume, and became a regular face in many Blaxploitation films. She was discovered dancing in a nightclub by Sammy Davis Jr. in the 60’s and kept up her act through the seventies, often dancing, singing, or doing comedy on hit shows in the ’70s, including Bill Cosby’s variety show, The New Bill Cosby Show. In ’75, Falana released a disco album and starred as the lead in a Broadway play! In the late seventies, Lola retired her act to Las Vegas where she was, for a time, the highest paid female performer in Vegas. Falana accomplished more in the span of ten years then most of us do in our lifespans. She is truly an inspiration and I’m trying to channel Ms. Lola, challenging myself to think: Look at your life, look at your choices.
Yes, she’s married to David Bowie (power couple of the century, in my opinion) but this Somali supergoddess took the ’70s by storm! Not only is she an international supermodel, but she was also a bit of a reclusive nerd (which is so inspiring coming from another Black reclusive female nerd!) In 1973, 18 year old Iman was studying Political Science and working as a translator at the University of Nairobi when she was “discovered” by a fashion photographer who paid off her college tuition just to take a few photos of her. She then flew to New York and took the fashion world by storm, signing a contract with Wilhemina and calling out any ignorant and racist professionals who came her way. Iman has been in Vogue, Harper’s Bizarre and many more prestigious fashion publications; Yves Saint-Laurent even dedicated an entire collection to her! Now, she has her own cosmetic line and does work to better the conditions of her native country and if that isn’t the coolest thing, I don’t know what is.
In 1972, Elisabeth Domitien was the Vice President of the Movement for the Social Evolution of Black Africa (MESAN). From 1975-76, she became the prime minister of the Central African Republic and until this day, she remains the first and ONLY female to do so. What a BAMF move. Though later, Domitien would be placed under arrest and put under political restrictions over disagreeing with the current dictator, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, she would still prove to be a prominent political figure and a role model to Black and African girls years after her role became limited.
The Seventies gave us a lot of things but most importantly, it gave us Roots, and Roots gave us Leslie Uggams. Leslie graced American TV screens as Kizzy, Kunta Kinte’s daughter, breaking hearts and winning us over for good. She’s basically a snow fairy princess and paved the way for lots of Black entertainers to come. She starred in her own variety show, The Leslie Uggams Show, and debuted on the silver screen in Skyjacked and Black Girl, directed by Ossie Davis. Her role as Kizzy earned her a Critic’s Choice Award and an Emmy/Golden Globe nomination! She then went on to do lots and lots of musical theatre in the ’80s, never once shedding her radiant demeanor. You go, girl!
That hair! The braces! Those pipes! Poly Styrene, born Marianne Joan Elliott-Said, brought a new face and sound to the world of ’70s-era punk. After seeing a Sex Pistols show in 1976, Poly decided that she wanted to have her own punk band and created X-Ray Spex. Before the band hit it off, she had already recorded a demo and released a reggae single on her own. Poly is so important for daring to add her voice among the ranks of lame sweaty White boys, belting out her feminist manifestos like “Oh Bondage! Up Your’s!” X-Ray Spex broke up in the early ’80s but Poly never stopped performing or creating up until her untimely death from breast cancer in 2011.
BONUS MENTION: PAM GRIER