To say Betty Davis was ahead of her time is an understatement. In the early 1970s, when the former Mrs. Miles Davis, née Betty Mabry, began making records, there was no one like her in all of pop music. It's only in retrospect that we can now look at her persona and her recently reissued albums Betty Davis and They Say I'm Different and appreciate her for who she was a groundbreaking artist who paved the way for many others who followed in her footsteps. Imagine Lil' Kim's sensual sass and Medusa's in-yo-face-motherfucker attitude combined with Alicia Keys' innocent babyface. Angela Davis' or Erykah Badu's radical-chic Afro merged with Tina Turner's legs and ability to generate raw emotive force. Lauryn Hill's noble femininity cross-referenced with Jimi Hendrix' psychedelic fashion sense. That's a glimpse of Davis' persona, circa 1973. She can lay a claim to being the original funky diva, long before En Vogue. She produced, wrote, and arranged her own material before Missy Elliott, and looked better in silver platform boots than Marvin Gaye.
Record collector, blogger, and author Oliver "O-Dub" Wang first discovered Davis on one of his crate-digging excursions to Berkeley's Amoeba Music, where he scored a copy of 1975's Nasty Gal. "The thing about Betty is she was such her own person," he explains. She differed from female funk icons like Marva Whitney and Lyn Collins in that she was in total control of her image, Wang says: "Here was someone who was effectively doing it herself."
Wang penned the liner notes for Light in the Attic's recent reissues of two long-out-of-print albums that captured Davis at the peak of her powers. On the cover of 1973's Betty Davis, she strikes three different poses clad in a stylish blouse, denim cutoffs, and the aforementioned silver space boots, she flashes a warm smile that's sexy but not sluttish, confident but not contrived. On the cover of 1974's They Say I'm Different, she gives Parliament and Earth, Wind & Fire a run for their money, costumed in a one-piece tunic with a sort of extraterrestrial Egyptian thing going on the inner fold depicts her in a Cleopatra-like portrait, looking very much indeed like the incarnate of the goddess Isis.
Looks weren't all Davis had going for her, however. She backed up her outrageous fashion with outrageous music that still sounds raw today, even by funk standards. "I think she's a missing link in a lot of ways," Wang muses. Davis, he says, bridged the gap between the blues, funk, and rock: "She was a fusion artist before it became trendy."
Davis is best known for the Afro-feminist anthem "Anti-Love Song" and the titillating "Shoo-B-Doop and Cop Him" (which some may recognize as an Ice Cube sample). But songs like "Game Is My Middle Name" and "If I'm in Luck I Might Get Picked Up" add weight to the argument that she macked as hard as her male counterparts. Maybe even harder. Check out "He Was a Big Freak" (reportedly inspired not by Miles, but Jimi) a matter-of-fact description of kinky, emasculating role-playing that squares the score on years of male booty-call tunes in one fell swoop.
Yet for all of Davis' provocation, Wang says, "You never got the sense that she was selling herself." While comparisons to Lil' Kim might seem apt, Davis comes off as titillating whereas Lil' Kim is just tawdry. "Betty Davis was coming from a burlesque point of view" while "Lil' Kim is a product of a porn age," Wang speculates.
It's ironic to think that, in the midst of the sexual revolution, when women burned bras and began popping the Pill, that Betty's take on sexuality may have been too much. "I don't know if the idea of feminism in that respect coincided with what Betty was putting out," Wang says. Other black female singers in the '70s casually let slip that they felt like making love, or simply wanted respect, but Davis had no need for such subtleties. Her tendency to wear her clit on her sleeve was problematic for circumspect black organizations such as the NAACP, which initiated a campaign against one of Davis' songs, "Don't Call Her No Tramp," claiming it was pro-prostitution, not pro-woman.
"Betty was tapping into the idea of an empowered black woman," Wang says a notion that scared the shit out of many people, even soul brothers. You say you're right on and you're righteous/but with me you'd be right off, she sings in "Anti-Love Song." Here, finally, was the female answer to Jimi's "Foxy Lady" or James Brown's "Papa Don't Take No Mess" a no-bullshit statement that still seems compelling today.
The reasons for Davis' withdrawal from the music world remain a mystery Wang says several interviews with the reclusive diva revealed no clues. Yet the reemergence of some of the funkiest discourses on bedroom politics ever can only be a good thing not just for '70s revivalists but for anyone interested in strong women with unique artistic voices.
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