Given the dominance of Bob Marley and Bunny Wailer et al, female reggae artists don’t get a lot of love. Let’s change that by discovering the best female reggae artists below.
In this era of post-feminism, the power of women seems well in the new order. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Spice Girls, Charlie’s Angels, Whitney Houston, or Taylor Swift, the feminine stamp has its place everywhere in popular culture. Sounds like a good time to sing “I like being a woman”!
Women have risen to the top of the international music scene. A quick check on Billboard shows artistes like Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, Elvis Presley, Madonna, and more feature in the Top 10 Hot 100 Artists of all Time.
In contrast, in the reggae scene, if you look at either roots reggae, lovers rock, or dancehall, it seems to be a club for men only. Only a few women seem to have successfully scrambled through the famous door of popular culture, albeit, underreported by the media. Here, we have some of the female reggae artists you need to hear once – from the legends to the modern artists.
The Essential Female Reggae Artists List
When you think about “reggae”, most people think about Bob Marley. Maybe a few discerning fans will mention Dennis Brown or Bunny Wailer. But for most, the reggae world starts and stops at Bob Marley.
Which is a shame because there is a whole world of fantastic female reggae artists that needs discovering, such as:
1. Senya (Ta-Teasha Love)
Olive “Senya” Grant is a talented songwriter and vocalist who started her career in the 70s. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Senya’s lyrics speak of perseverance and struggle. They have their roots in the base of social conscience.
Her musical development and learning began at a very young age, it was Bunny Wailer who discovered her with her voice. Bunny listened to a demo that Senya had recorded and brought to Harry J’s studio in the hope that some producer would listen to it and want to record with her. But they ignorantly felt her songs made too many references to the word JAH.
After listening to the demo, Bunny had the idea of taking her to meet her mentor: Aston “Family Man” Barret, bassist of The Upsetters, The Hippy Boys, and The Wailers.
Senya learned for a time with those who were at the foundations of roots music and what is called “foundation reggae”.
In 1974, she entered “Randy’s Studio” to record, under the name “Ta-Teasha Love”, several hits produced by Family Man and Clive Chin. The Wailers was the band that accompanied Senya on these recordings. Tracks like “Oh Jah Come” and “Children of the Ghetto” echoed the voices of the oppressed eloquently.
Must listen: “Oh Jah Come”, “Children of the Ghetto”
2. Marcia Griffiths
Marcia Griffiths is known by many as the most successful woman in reggae. This nice lady recently celebrated her 70th birthday a year ago. But she still stands with as much pride and style on stage, as on her 20th birthday.
Jamaican Marcia Griffiths, known as the Queen of Reggae, began in the sixties as a backing vocalist with the I-Threes, the choir that accompanied Bob Marley and The Wailers. In the 1980s, she also broke through as a solo artist with her hit ‘Electric Boogie’. All over the world, people have gone crazy for the Electric Slide, the dance that was created to accompany this song.
At the turn of this century, she began to be regarded as the most influential female artist in the history of Jamaican music. She was also honored in 2014 with the Jamaican Order of Distinction. As of now, Marcia Griffiths’ sultry voice is still on top of her game and she still ranks as one of the top female reggae artists ever.
Must listen: “All My Life”
3. Judy Mowatt
Judith Veronica Mowatt is a Jamaican solo singer, author, songwriter, and producer. She helped turn the Marley recordings into lasting classics. She has worked alongside artists such as Jimmy Cliff, Peter Tosh, Freddie McGregor, Pablo Moses, Big Youth, U-Roy, and The Wailing Souls.
Her solo albums, including Black Woman in 1980 and Only a Woman in 1982, make her one of the most powerful spokespersons for Rastafarian culture and feminist causes.
She was born in 1952 in Gordon Town, Jamaica, and was part of the most influential female trio in reggae music: The I-Threes.
During her childhood, she sang in church choirs, and while a little older, she joined a dance group.
In 1967, she formed the group The Gaylettes, also known as The Gaytones, along with two of her dance group partners, Beryl Lawson and Marla Clemenson. This group was a mixture of R&B and Jamaican music, based on Motown and groups like The Marvelettes, The Supremes, and Gladys Knight and The Pips.
The trio separated in 1970 when Lawrence and Clemenson emigrated to the United States and Judy decided to start her solo career. She is associated with Bunny Wailer and writes several songs for him under the names Juliann and Jean Watt.
She was the first woman to be nominated for a Grammy Award in the category of reggae music, for her album “Working Wonders” in 1985.
Judy, with her head held high as a member of The Twelve Tribes of Israel, recognized in an interview that she considered Marley as a Messiah who came to feed the spirit of his disciples and to carry the message of Rastafarianism to the four corners of the world.
Judy Mowatt is a very important part of the history of women in reggae both as a spokesperson for women, for Rasta culture and as a pioneer in the self-production of her compositions. She is a strong defender of the female gender and shows it in her lyrics and statements.
Must listen: “Black Woman”
4. Susie Cool and her band, PEP and WOW (Works of Women)
Susie Cool, whose real name is Susan Trewick, had her first band in Jamaica in 1972. She didn’t even have a band name at first. However, her friends Robert Davies, Anne Pilgrim, and Joy Mackie joined her on the stage to perform a song titled” One More Day,” written by Joy.
The band, like many others at the time, composed Easter and Christmas songs for different shows. Robert Davies taught Susie some guitar chords as well as songwriting techniques during this time.
In 1974, Susie created another band with two of her friends at the time, known as Kate Davies and Ainsley Deer. Ainsley played guitar and sang, while Kate played the flute and also sang. The band played for local television on a show where Ainsley hosted Jeff Cobbham, who played the classical guitar. This group would receive the name of “Melting Pot”.
In 1978 Susie goes to university in Scotland, where she will form a new group. They called it “Best Forgotten”. The group included Brian, Rod, and Bob Garrioch (who wrote the song, “Rainbow Song”). They mainly covered songs by Cat Stevens and Bob Dylan.
RDuring 1986 and 1987 and after a small reorganization, PEP was renamed WOW (Works of Women).
She continues to be active in composing and her music is very well received by the Florida public, counting among the most important female reggae artists.
5. Queen Ifrica
Queen Ifrica was born in Ventrice Morgan and is the daughter of Derrick Morgan, a ska legend. Ifrica is a social activist. For example, she has helped negotiate peace between rival gangs in some of the toughest areas of Kingston, just as she has also worked to end the violence in St. James.
In her lyrics, the empowerment of women is very present, as you can see in “Lioness on the Rise”. Although perhaps one of her boldest singles has been “Daddy,” which addresses the taboo subject of incest, a song that was banned from Jamaican radio. However, “Daddy” got an audience that really appreciated her message. Because of her song, new legislation that imposed very strict laws in protecting children were made.
Queen Ifrica is also part of the organization of the Rebel Salute, a two-day reggae festival held every January in St. Ann, Jamaica, founded by her mentor Tony Rebel. However, only a few of the artists scheduled for the yearly editions are women.
Must listen: “Daddy”, “Times Like These”
6. Phyllis Dillon
Born December 27, 1944, in Jamaica, Phyllis Dillon is a reggae and rocksteady singer who recorded in Duke Reid’s studio (Treasure Isle) in the late ’60s and early ’70s. She is considered by many as the queen of rocksteady.
Phyllis started singing at school, at church, and a little later in a band called The Vulcans. She was mentored by American singers such as Patti Page, Dionne Warwick, and Connie Francis.
She was 19 years old when during a concert at the Glass Bucket Club with her group The Vulcans, ska and rocksteady guitarist Lyn Taitt was captured. Taitt was the one who at that time adapted the compositions of Duke productions for concerts.
Phyllis was a fresh, talented young woman still living with her parents when in 1965 she signed with Reid and Tresure Isle. She never recorded for any other Jamaican producer, which was unusual as many of the Jamaican artists went from Reid to Bunny Lee to Coxsone Dodd.
Dillon’s first recording for Duke Reid was in late 1966 and was called “Don’t Stay Away”, written by her. It was a mix of fine rocksteady with soul and pop, which was described as perhaps the best female performance of Jamaican music.
A succession of successful singles carved her legend and turned her into The Queen of Rocksteady. Phyllis recorded duets with Alton Ellis, whom she cites as someone who supported her career and professionalism, alongside Hoperton Lewis.
Another original Dillon song is “It’s Rocking Time” which would later become the Alton Ellis hit “Rocksteady.”
Must listen: “It’s Rocking Time”
7. Hortense Mahalia Ellis
Hortense Mahalia Ellis, born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1941, was a housewife and daughter of a railway worker who sold fruit in the market, to support Hortense and her six brothers.
She worked with top producers such as Clement Dodd, known as “Coxsone” and Lee Perry, known as “Scratch.”
Ellis began playing on a local talent show in 1959 at the age of 18. She jumped in the pool with a cover of Frankie Lyman’s song “I’m not saying not at all,” thus winning the contest.
At that time, her brother was already known for the song “Murial” that launched the duet to fame.
In 1961, Hortense was touring between the Bahamas and Trinidad with Byron Lee and The Dragonaries. She began working with some of the best producers on the island.
Together with Ken Lack she recorded “Hell and sorrow,” “I shall sing”, and “Brown girl in the ring” (a song that became an international hit by Boney M.), with Coxsone, released “I’ll come softly” in 1963. At that time, her brother Alton was working for Dodd, and Dodd was producing female adaptations of Alton’s songs, for which
Hortense recorded a version of her brother’s song called“ I’m just a guy ”, under the title of “I’m just a girl.”
With Duke Reid, she recorded “Now and Forever,” “Midnight Train”, and “True Love” a duet with Stranger Cole.
In 1964, she won the silver cup for the best Jamaican female vocalist, this was repeated five years later.
During the 70s, much of her production was with Bunny Lee, with whom, in response to the hit “Up Town Top Ranking” by Althea and Donna, she recorded “Down Town Girl” under the name Queen Tiney.
During her time, Hortense invested a lot of time in her children and is forced to substitute her tours at times in the studio.
The dawn of the Lovers Rock genre in the late ’70s and early 80’s allowed Hortense to cover many popular classic soul songs. After her divorce, she spent part of the ’80s living in Miami and New York. Upon her return to Jamaica in 1989, she began to suffer from health problems but continued with her occasional live concerts.
After several trips between New York and Miami, the disease forces Ellis and her family to decide whether to continue with treatment in Miami for the throat cancer that had been diagnosed or return to Jamaica, which Hortense loved and longed for. She decided to end her days in Jamaica, where she arrived to be directly hospitalized in critical condition.
She died on October 19, 2000, at the Kingston hospital due to a stomach infection, leaving behind eight children, a large family, and a productive career.
Must listen: “Peace of My Heart”, “I’m Just a Girl”
Over to you
Admittedly, we’ve had many male legends that shaped the reggae and music industry in general. But there are and have been women who have made their marks in this industry – from legends such as Hortense to Senya.
Apologies if your favorite female reggae artiste didn’t make it. It’s yet another testament to the fact that there are many more female reggae stars than what the media tell us.
Header image credit: Natash Connell at Unsplash