Dukureh singing Tharpe's lines in "Vegas" by Doja Cat. Image: screen cap. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QZp2biJul1c

The Godmother of Rock ‘N Roll Who Made Elvis Possible Featured in Music Video & Movie

I have a lot of reservations about watching the upcoming Elvis biopic by Baz Luhrmann. On the lighter end of things, Luhrmann’s films are hit-or-miss for me in general. While I enjoyed Romeo & Juliet, Australia, and The Great Gatsby at the time I watched them (all when I was a teenager), I tried Moulin Rouge for the first time ever, right before the pandemic, and was not a fan. This might sound like the end of the world to some people, but these are slight differences of opinion. However, Elvis Presley was very chummy with Richard Nixon and started dating his future wife, Priscilla, when she was a 14-year-old child, and he (already famous) was a 24-year-old man. That’s a hard “no” for me.

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My longtime frustration is that Elvis is getting into this big, glamorous film when most people don’t know or refuse to recognize his popularity came from playing “race music” (a.k.a. how Black music was described at the time, and now it’s called urban music) as a young white man. His success laid out a formula for cultural appropriation of Black art in the age of mass media (specificity is important because some versions existed before). This would continue with the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and other boy groups, even through today. (Yes, I’m looking at K-pop.)

Basically, I’ve kinda come to the conclusion that I’ll probably wait until this movie is streaming to even decide whether or not to engage with it. That final decision is going to come down to the response from Black reviewers, especially those who write about music history. That being said, something I learned last night has given me an ounce more optimism—that is that Sister Rosetta Tharpe will be portrayed in the film in some capacity and is homaged in the main music video “Vegas” from Doja Cat.

Who is Sister Rosetta Tharpe?

Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton (a.k.a. Sister Rosetta Tharpe) was a gospel and blues singer whose rockstar-like touring, expert guitar licks and pickin’, and famous hits would make for the foundation of rock ‘n roll music in both the U.S. and, later, U.K. scene. In the years leading up to her 1945 single “Strange Things Happening Every Day” (a.k.a. what’s considered the first rock ‘n roll song), she performed guitar battles at The Apollo, beating out men regularly. One of her songs, “Hound Dog,” would, decades later, be recognized as one of Elvis’ biggest hits.

Despite being cited by so many musicians as an influential source of inspiration, she would largely be lost to history until the 2010s, when a must-watch BBC documentary premiered about her life. In 2018, Tharpe was inducted into the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame posthumously, and in 2021, her story was shared on Drunk History U.K.

When I came across “Vegas,” I was immediately reminded of Tharpe once again. This looked totally intentional, as the camera gave attention to the Black woman repeating this phrase. Turns out the woman singing in the music video, Shoka Dukureh, will be portraying Tharpe in the film.

Regarding the music video itself, it seems to follow Luhrmann’s style of mixing genre, style, and time. Dukureh belts “You ain’t nuthin’ but a hound dog” in-between Doja Cat’s rapping about a player in a contemporary sense. “Vegas,” directed by child., of Little Minx, does this with visuals, too. They could’ve sampled Tharpe and called it a day, but I loved the inclusion of Dukureh, who shows these gospel traditions continuing. Also, Dukureh got her first major performance credits in this film and the Coachella performance.

While IMBD is not the end-all-be-all of movie facts (especially before the film is out), it is concerning to see that only two Black cast members (Kelvin Harrison Jr. as B.B. King and Alton Mason as Little Richard) make the top billing. I know this is Elvis’ movie, but Elvis and his other inspirations would simply not exist if not for her, and I hope they put respect by that.

(featured image: screencap)

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Author
Alyssa Shotwell
(she/her) Award-winning artist and writer with professional experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. She began her career in journalism in October 2017 when she joined her student newspaper as the Online Editor. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time drawing, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Baldur's Gate 3 & Oxygen Not Included.