I saw Joan Jett and the Blackhearts in concert earlier this year.
I have been waiting a lifetime for that. Growing up in apartheid South Africa we were reliant on various sources for our music news. There were the UK weeklies like the Melody Maker and NME, but there were also other sources for a young girl desperate to find out about what was happening in the outside world.
Television was only introduced into South Africa in the mid-1970s and the radio stations were mostly controlled by the government, so a music lover like me had to rely on unlikely sources.
One of the unusual sources of music news was Personality magazine. Personality targeted white housewives with a mix of fashion, beauty tips, recipes and updates on what Miss South Africa was doing. I would scour my mother’s magazine, flipping through the make up tips, desperately looking for any music news that sometimes made it into the latest Personality.
One day I was paging through the Personality, not expecting much when a picture of five young girls immediately caught my attention. The caption noted that this was a band based in Los Angeles and that they were known as “The Runaways”. I remember staring at the black and white photo of the girls, I was dumbfounded, I couldn’t believe that there was a girl rock band.
I remember being a bit angry because this revelation of seeing girls rocking collided with my Christian National upbringing, “How dare they? Girls don’t play rock”.
My reaction might seem strange now, but as the academic, Assoc. Prof. Christi van der Westhuizen has written, white South African women during the apartheid era were both oppressor and oppressed. According to her, the Nationalist government in South African suppressed females, sexual minorities and black people, in order to maintain control.
Gazing at the photo of the Runaways, two girls stood out from the rest. Blonde Cherie Curry, demurely gazing at the camera, she must have been around 15 years old at the time.
But, the girl who really caught my attention was the dark haired one, the one with attitude. She stared defiantly at the camera, eyes heavy with eyeliner. She looked so young, she looked so rock. She was Joan Jett.
I tried desperately to find out more about the Runaways, but unfortunately they never really made it into the UK magazines. Without an internet to resort to, this all-girl band remained a mystery to me.
Later I read about how the Runaways had been pilloried by the mainly male music press. The band eventually split up in 1979. South Africa was not the only country that had a problem with sexism, it seems.
Joan Jett has spoken at length about how inherently sexist the rock music scene was at that time. The girls were called “sluts” and were never taken seriously. Eventually they broke up.
Read about Joan Jett battled sexism in the music business here.
That picture of the five teenaged girls remained with me. It inspired me. In the midst of the apartheid era that photo gave a young female South African teenager hope for a better world.
Apartheid South Africa was a very patriarchal society. Girls were expected to be demure and pretty and to not play in rock bands! The “fuck you” attitude on display showed me that other girls were challenging the rules around gender stereotypes. I knew that it was a matter of time before equality, both racial and gender would reach South Africa too.
I didn’t know until much later that there had been an all girl South African band. Leopard, a punk rock band from Durban had been featured on Benjy Mudie’s Six of the Best. Read about Leopard here
In 1982 I became reacquainted with Joan. By then the Runaways had split up and Joan had formed the Blackhearts, who released the song “I love rock ‘n roll”. This song spent 7 weeks on top of the US charts. Most people only know of Joan because of ILRNR. However she has been a massive influence on numerous female artists since 1982.
She was actively involved in the Riot Grrrl movement during the nineties. In 1994 she produced an album by one of the seminal bands of that era, Bikini Kill. She founded her own label, Blackheart Records that has most recently released the latest L7 album.
Although Joan has been an inspiration for girls and women, male rockers also recognise her status. Billie Joe Armstrong, of Greenday has spoken of his feelings when he first saw Joan in action, “I want to be the male version of that.”. Dave Grohl is also a massive fan. Rolling Stone magazine included Joan Jett in their list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time. In 2015 she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
So, all hail Joan Jett-an inspiration for not only a young South African teenager, but an icon to so many female musicians over the last four decades.
May she never stop rocking!