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Rock N’ Roll Heretic by Sikivu Hutchinson
It’s the late 1970s, and ex-Pentecostal Black female electric guitarist Rory Tharpe navigates the cutthroat world of corporate rock, dive bars, dusk-to-dawn recording sessions, and shady contracts as she travels the nation in a dilapidated tour bus with her bickering, boozing all-male band. Much-imitated and little-credited, Rory is in a late career tailspin when she goes on tour with international superstar Jude Justis, a white woman blues-rock singer who has built a turbulent mega-platinum career out of stealing from Black musicians. Broke and frustrated by the racism, sexism, and ageism of the rock boys’ club, Rory warily joins forces with Jude. She then takes a detour through the painful past she shares with childhood nemesis Divinity Mason Mulvaney, a maverick pastor at the helm of the mega church enterprise Revivals, Inc. A homage to pioneering guitarist Rosetta Tharpe, Rock ‘n’ Roll Heretic is a bracing look at the power politics, heartbreak, and hypocrisy confronting a queer Black woman visionary at the intersection of music and commerce, faith and heresy, in a segregated music industry that eats its Black artists.
Chick Lit Cafe Book Review
Rock N’ Roll Heretic by Sikivu Hutchinson is a gritty, passionate, and sometimes tender tale about an extraordinary woman, as she struggles against one hurdle after another while looking for her place in a world that doesn’t want her on her terms.
Rory Tharpe is a woman who is destined to have the world work against her. She’s a Black, queer woman playing blues/rock guitar in the 1970s, working tirelessly to gain the respect due to her as a music pioneer, while trying to outrun her difficult childhood. Just one of those aspects would make life complicated but despite it all, somehow Rory finds the guts and determination to keep pushing forward. Rory is a child musical prodigy, cutting her teeth on performing gospel music with her talented, unpredictable mother, Katy. Leaving the church behind for the world of blues and rock n’ roll and the ruthless corporate industry that rules it, Rory has early success and builds a small but loyal fan base. Now older and world-weary, she’s relegated to traveling the country as a honky-tonk singer with her ragtag all-male band, scrounging studio time with her last dime, and having to witness her music being commandeered by white artists. Adding a layer of complexity to an already complex situation, Rory finds herself entangled with Sid, a precocious, damaged young girl, and feuding with a childhood rival, Pastor Divinity Mulvaney.
There are no soft edges in this book, and yet it’s approachable. I found myself pulling for Rory throughout the whole book. She’s completely dedicated to her music and she’s aggressively unapologetic about how she lives. However, underneath is a vulnerability and a fierce drive to protect those few people who are important to her. You can’t help but admire her sheer grit and determination to live life on her terms and play her music, no matter the obstacle. The story is also a broader commentary about the struggles of Black musicians maintaining access to their music and getting equal respect and rights within the music industry, and society at large.
Ms. Hutchinson has written a complex story about genuine people and situations but above all, I see this as a story of love, and eventually, acceptance. The intricate, and even difficult, relationships that the characters have with one another are genuine, leaving the reader with feelings as complex as the story itself. Chick Lit Café highly recommends this amazing, powerful and inspiring book, Rock N’ Roll Heretic by Sikivu Hutchinson!
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