On Saturday, Queen Latifah delivered what was easily the strongest, most major performance of her career in the HBO original movie Bessie. Latifah portrayed the “Empress of the Blues” and gave viewers a glimpse at Smith’s rise to become the most provocative and critically acclaimed blues woman of her time–child abuse, bisexuality, rocky marriage, corn gin and respectability politics included.
Ma Rainey played by Monique—who made a thunderous comeback performance and ruled every scene she appeared in—told a young Smith, “The blues is not about people knowing you, it’s about you knowing people.” Smith, like Rainey, wrote the rule book on Blues singing 101. First lesson: know the people. Second lesson: Sing it how you live it. And my, my did Smith live it! She also wrote it with rawness and authenticity.
A closer look at Smith’s lyrics spanning 25 years uncovers prose filled with pain and longing. Smith’s song lyrics, like generations of singing Black women — Aretha Franklin, Mary J. Blige and we’d venture to argue K. Michelle–reveals the angst of a young Black woman in America navigating racism, inter-racial sexism, domestic violence and feelings of not belonging. The kind of lines women listening can not only rock to, but it’s a powerful and transcending experience of relating and being.
Here’s 10 of Smith’s most provocative and badass lyrics!
1. “Empty Bed Blues”
He’s a deep sea diver with a stroke that can’t go wrong / He can stay at the bottom and his wind holds out so long.
2. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”
My heart’s sad and I am all forlorn, my man’s treating me mean / I regret the day that I was born and that man of mine I’ve ever seen.
3. “Aggravatin’ Papa”
Aggravatin’ Papa, don’t you try to two-time me! / Just treat me pretty, be nice and sweet! / I got a darn forty-four that don’t repeat.
4. “See If I’ll Care”
The time is comin’ when you won’t feel like you do now / You’re gonna call my name you know that you’re to blame / And you won’t be the same then see if I’ll care.
5. “Put It Right There (Or Keep It Out There)”
The rooster gets the worm, and brings it to the hen / That oughta be a tip to all you no-good men / The groundhog even brings it and puts it in his hole / So my man has got to bring it, doggone his soul / He’s got to get it, bring it, and put it right here / Or else he’s gonna keep it out there.
6. “Don’t Cry Baby”
Honey, please don’t cry, listen to me / There’s no reason why we shouldn’t agree / If I hurt your feeling, I apologize / You’re the only one that I idealize.
7. “Mama’s Got the Blues”
Brown skin’s deceitful, but a yellow man is worse / Brown skin’s deceitful, but a yellow man is worse / I’m gonna get myself a black man and play safety first.
8. “Dirty No-gooder’s Blues”
Did you ever fall in love with a man that was no good? / Did you ever fall in love with a man that was no good? / No matter what you did for him, he never understood.
9. “Outside of That”
I love him as true as stars above / He beats me up, but how he can love / I never loved like that since the day I was born / I said for fun, I don’t want you no more.
And when I said that, I made sweet papa sore / He blacked my eyes, I couldn’t see / Then he pawned the things he gave to me / But outside of that, he’s all right with me.
10. “You’ve Got to Give Me Some”
Loving is the thing I crave / For your love I’ll be your slave / You gotta give me some, yes give me some / Can’t you hear me pleading, you gotta give me some.