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How Tina Turner helped Black girls and women feel free

From Nutbush, Tenn., to the rock hall of fame, the iconic performer followed no path but her own and gave many of us the courage to do the same.

Tina Turner, circa 1975.Echoes/Photographer: Echoes/Redferns/Ge

Before she escaped her abusive marriage, fashioned a career comeback for the ages, and forever claimed the mantle of the Queen of Rock & Roll, Tina Turner set a little Black girl free.

I wasn’t the only one.

To hear Turner, who died Wednesday at 83, sing on the radio or on a record was exhilarating. But to see her on television, to watch her, was an epiphany, a life lesson taught at 170 beats per minute. For those of us who spent our single-digit years mostly in the 1960s and 1970s, the Supremes were the standard for Black women performers and represented what I was supposed to aspire to be — elegant, refined, polite. I loved them and knew every word to every song.


But that Motown-branded nary-a-hair-out-of-place perfection always felt too pristine. What I longed to see was a woman perform with the same abandon allowed for male singers like James Brown. Or, as Turner said on her scintillating spoken-word intro to “Proud Mary,” a woman who shunned “nice and easy” for “nice and rough.”

So when I first saw Turner on television, I sat in silent wonderment. Then the dazzling centerpiece of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, Turner, and the singing and dancing Ikettes, bounded onto the stage like athletes running from the tunnel to the field with dizzying energy.

Tina Turner performed in Zurich on Nov. 23, 1972.Keystone/Getty Images

Theirs was a singular lexicon of style and motion, a language all their own. Forget about glittery gowns. Turner preferred dresses that stopped well above the knee with lots of fringe to better accent every stride, kick, dip, and her famously gorgeous legs. She wasn’t afraid to sweat. With that magnificent voice in full roar, her arms would be pumping, her hips swinging, and her wigs would be “raising hell,” as my mother used to say.


Like that great getting-up moment when spirit meets rhythm, it felt sanctified. Turner wasn’t just performing. She was soaring. And for years I would use a bath towel as my pretend wig, affixed to my head with one of my father’s ties, and imitate Turner’s “Proud Mary,” arguably the greatest cover song ever made. Written by John Fogerty, it was originally a Credence Clearwater Revival song — but not after Turner got through with it.

“She turned it into a movement, a little mini-opera — and I liked both ways, the slow and the fast,” Fogerty said in a CNN interview after Turner’s death. “What a concept. It was an incredible record.”

In performance Turner was always smiling, nearly levitating with delight. But what I didn’t recognize then was that perhaps the stage was the only place where she felt truly safe from her violent husband, even though he was playing guitar just a few feet away. What looked like pure joy to her audience might have been for her a moment of sweet relief.

“I came from the grit of the earth,” Turner, born Anna Mae Bullock and raised in rural Nutbush, Tenn., said in a 1986 interview. “Black people are close to the earth, close to the beginnings, and this is why we still know how to enjoy ourselves.”

To enjoy ourselves — and survive the tribulations always tossed in our way. Turner gave little Black girls space to imagine a life on our own terms. And when she revealed the brutality she endured in her marriage, she inspired other women to walk away from dangerous situations and save their own lives.


In expanding her repertoire from soul and R&B to rock — she even made a country album — Turner refused to be pigeonholed. She would not be denied the career she believed she deserved, even after a record executive in the early 1980s reportedly berated a producer for wanting to work with “this old [n-word] douchebag.’”

Undeterred, Turner did something that once seemed impossible for a woman in her 40s. She redefined her life and became one of the one of the most beloved stars in the world. Turner would go on to receive 12 Grammys, sell more than 100 million records, and be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame twice. From Debbie Harry to Cher, from Chaka Khan to Beyoncé, she influenced nearly every female artist who followed her.

Oprah Winfrey, a longtime friend, said of Turner, “She encouraged a part of me I didn’t know existed.” That’s what Turner did for so many Black girls and women. She was a light, a path, an oracle. And one of the best performers ever. For what she endured, for how she rescued her life and her career, and for how she blessed us for more than a half-century, Tina Turner has earned her rest — in power, peace, and nice and easy, at last.


Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her @reneeygraham.