Up for a Blues Award, Oakland’s Terrie Odabi Advocates for Black Women in the Genre

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Terrie Odabi. (Courtesy of the artist)

It’s not that Terrie Odabi doesn’t appreciate her nomination for best soul blues female artist in the 42nd annual Blues Music Awards. The Oakland vocalist loves standing in contention alongside the formidable women who helped pave the way for her, including Bettye LaVette and Dorothy Moore.

But when the Memphis-based Blues Music Foundation presents its virtual awards ceremony on June 6, Odabi will keep her focus on a bigger picture. Since the advent of the pandemic, with no gigs or even rehearsals on the horizon, she’s been gathering online weekly with a cadre of women blues artists to talk about the state of the industry. And like much of the country is starting to confront racist legacies in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Odabi and her peers are pushing for a blues reckoning.

Often overlooked by labels, under-booked by clubs and marginalized by American blues festivals, “Black women find it very difficult to make any headway in the blues scene,” she said. “It’s not a billion dollar industry, but you can make a living. We wanted to do something to try to change it rather than complaining.”

The women have organized around the petition “Artists, fans, allies for equity and equality in the blues,” written by Toronto blues artist Shakura S'Aida and Annika Chambers, a rising blues star from Houston who’s also up for a Blues Music Award in the same category as Odabi. With some 1,300 signatures so far, the petition outlines the music’s deep and abiding roots in African American culture while detailing a series of steps that would help level the playing field for Black women on the blues scene.

It’s a broad and deep agenda, covering the history of exploitative recording contracts and non-payment of royalties, the need for blues-centric music education in grade school, and the importance of allyship. In a plea to non-Black colleagues, the petition encourages them to speak out and stand up for Black artists, especially when they see them excluded from lineups. “Labels, agencies, promoters, managers, DJ’s and distributors must make it a priority to ensure that they are representing an equal percentage of Black musicians on their rosters,” the petition reads.

If it sounds counterintuitive that Black women are marginalized on the blues scene, Odabi and Chambers both describe numerous conversations with festival promoters who’ve told them there’s no need to book another Black woman because they’ve already got one on the program.

“The blues has been hijacked,” Odabi said. “Promoters are quick to tell you that blues is not Black, and it’s not unusual for them to book an all-white blues festival. They glorify the blues artists who are dead, but living Black blues artists get no love.”

They’ve focused a good deal of their attention on the Blues Foundation because of its central role in telling the music’s story to the general public and promoting blues artists. After decades of avoiding politics, the organization has taken more forthright stances in recent years, most visibly in March when it rescinded Kenny Wayne Shepherd’s nomination for blues rock artist of the year in response to his use of Confederate flag imagery. (Shepherd responded to the Blues Foundation with a statement that said, “I condemn and stand in complete opposition to all forms of racism and oppression and always have.”)

The foundation, which also produces the talent-promoting International Blues Challenge every January, is now under the direction of Patricia Wilson Aden, who took over as CEO in October after helming the African American Museum in Philadelphia. She has been talking with Annika Chambers about the petition.

“We need to listen and respond,” Aden said. “Our statement against racism, which we issued over the summer, provided some guidelines for how we can immediately respond, and in many instances respond very directly to some of the issues in the petition.”

Numerous artists with deep Bay Area ties are also up for Blues Music Awards on June 6, including Rick Estrin, Elvin Bishop, Charlie Musselwhite, Chris Cain, drummers June Core and Derrick “D’Mar” Martin, guitarists Christoffer “Kid” Andersen and Laura Chavez, saxophonist Nancy Wright and pianist Jim Pugh.

Odabi dedicated herself to the blues after participating in the Blues Music Foundation’s annual International Blues Challenge in Memphis in January 2014. In 2016, she released her debut album, My Blue Soul, which kicked off with the defiant response to the police being called to quell drum circles at Lake Merritt, “Gentrification Blues.”

By the time My Blue Soul came out, Odabi had been hailed as Bay Area blues royalty by scholar Lee Hildebrand. The region’s foremost chronicler of the blues scene over the past 50 years described her as “easily the most dynamic blues and soul woman to have emerged in the Bay Area since Etta James came out of San Francisco’s Fillmore District in the ’50s.”

Generous in sharing her spotlight, Odabi has thrived without the support of a label or management. She’s played a series of sold-out shows at Yoshi’s (including a 2018 concert that introduced Annika Chambers to the Bay Area). She’s performed at European festivals, and has been an essential ingredient in trombonist Steve Turre’s annual celebration of Rahsaan Roland Kirk at San Jose’s Café Stritch.

Odabi knows that speaking out on racial issues has often cost Black artists opportunities (and not just artists, see: Kaepernick, Colin), but she and her Zoom group colleagues are looking at the future.

“If anything could come of this it’s a refocus on the importance of the blues and what the music represents,” she said. “We go to Europe and Brazil and all over the world, and the blues is revered and loved. It’s here in the U.S. where we have the lack of recognition and lack of respect.”