Black Women Helped Build House Music. Their Credit Is Often Left off Records.

CeCe Peniston and Martha Wash, among others, speak out on their challenges and triumphs

Renee Jarreau
Published in
6 min readJul 10, 2020


Graphic illustration of CeCe Peniston during a live performance against a fuchsia background with red light effects.
Photo illustration; Image source: Aaron J. Thornton/WireImage/Getty Images

In the early 1980s, house music emerged as a new musical force emanating out of Black gay clubs such as Chicago’s Warehouse and Muzic Box and New York City’s Paradise Garage. Evolving out of disco, house took the soul, funk, and gospel roots of that music stripped them down and adapted them to the new technologies of synthesizers and drum machines to make the dance floor jack. While many of the men who pioneered the genre like Frankie Knuckles, Ron Hardy, and Larry Levan have had their tales anthologized, the stories of Black women who helped usher in the new music as DJs, producers, and vocalists have often been sidelined, their credit left off of records and out of histories.

Dance divas whose powerful voices had dominated underground discos since the 1970s, such as Loleatta Holloway, Jocelyn Brown, and Martha Wash were frequently remixed and sampled by the pioneering DJs of the movement. “The music just evolved,” Wash says. “The DJs that I was familiar with at the time, Frankie Knuckles and another guy who had remixed some of my songs, Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley, they just started creating their own sound and was calling it ‘house music.’ More drums, more bass. Everybody was getting excited about it. I liked it myself.”

“Either you created new vocals for it or you took other vocals already out there and created your own house track. So we’ve always been important. You want good music and you want a good vocal.”

As house music reached the mainstream in the late 1980s and early 1990s, these singers now heard their voices dubbed into international hits that reached well beyond the club. But they found themselves erased even as these songs found massive chart success. Holloway took legal action after her vocals were sampled without clearance into Black Box’s “Ride on Time” and Brown similarly followed suit after she was used as an uncleared sample on Snap!’s “The Power.” Wash recorded original vocals for C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” and another Black Box hit “Everybody, Everybody” under the auspices that they were demos for other singers, but was…