Honoring the Forgotten Through A.I.

Nettrice Gaskins. Grunge Queen, 2021. Creating using machine learning.

Tina Bell’s story is yet another in a string of many women, especially women of color, who’ve made significant contributions to the development of a genre only to be written out of the final account. Sister Rosetta, Betty Davis, Poly Styrene, Pauline Black.. the list is long.. — Scott Ledgerwood

Scotty “Buttocks” Ledgerwood reached out to me after I posted my DeepDream portrait of Tina Bell (see above), who has been referred to as the “Queen of Grunge.” Ledgerwood was Bell’s friend, bandmate, and manager in her final years. She fronted a Seattle-based band called Bam Bam in 1983 and they created the foundation for a new genre. Ledgerwood played bass, her husband at the time (Tommy Martin) played guitar and Matt Cameron played drums (he would eventually play with Soundgarden and Pearl Jam).

Bam Bam circa 1983: From left- Cameron, Bell, Martin, and Ledgerwood. Photo by John Seth.

Though women have played key roles in musical innovations over time, we tend to notice them in hindsight, and only if dedicated crate-diggers are meticulous in excavating the past.

The motif is especially apparent for Black women.

Grunge, an alternative rock genre and subculture that emerged during the mid-1980s in the Pacific Northwest fuses elements of punk rock and heavy metal. I knew of Grunge bands like Nirvana and Alice in Chains but I had never heard of Bam Bam or Tina Bell. In fact, in the wikipedia entry on Grunge there is barely a mention of them, even though the other more well-known bands knew about them and likely saw them play.

Nettrice Gaskins. “Big Mama,” 2021. Created using machine learning.

Big Mama Thornton was the first to perform “Hound Dog” in 1952 but most people only recognize Elvis’ version that came later. Her song “Ball ’n’ Chain” only became a hit after Janis Joplin covered it. Critics argue that Thornton’s lack of recognition in the music industry is a reflection of racial segregation. Others suggest that her lack of access to broader audiences, may have been a barrier to her commercial success as both a vocalist and a composer. Maybe so but Tina Bell joined Bam Bam decades after Thornton.

No longer hidden: From left — Darden, Jackson, Johnson, and Vaughan. Courtesy of NASA.

And this did not just happen in the music industry. Engineers Christine Darden and Mary Jackson, mathematician Katherine Johnson, and computer programmer Dorothy Vaughan, worked as “human computers” at NASA during the Space Race, and they played a vital role in helping John Glenn become the first American to orbit the Earth. “Hidden Figures,” a Hollywood film based on these women came out in 2016, when most had passed away.

Nettrice Gaskins. “Human Computer (Dorothy Vaughn),” 2021. Created using machine learning.

Every time someone shares her story or does an artistic tribute to her, she’s ‘that’ much closer to having her legacy realized. — Scott Ledgerwood

The legacies of pioneers such as Tina Bell, Willie Mae Thornton and Dorothy Vaughn are being realized more and more due to social media and the times we are living in. To keep it going I create and share my A.I. art, finding meaning in the processes of uploading content (photos) for a machine to learn based on algorithms. I work hard to keep from being marginalized, from being forgotten, with these women and their stories in mind.

Note: You can see my Tina Bell tribute with artwork by others here.

Nettrice is a digital artist, academic, cultural critic and advocate of STEAM education.