A year’s worth of canceled concerts and furloughed fests may have left music fans across the country stuck at home and streaming. But for those who hail from coastal Virginia, the pandemic offers an opportunity to better appreciate their local musical heritage.
Though it rarely gets the same attention as recording industry epicenters like Detroit or Nashville, Hampton Roads has produced some of the biggest trailblazers in modern music. Portsmouth alone gave us Ruth Brown, America’s first R&B superstar, and—a generation later—hip-hop legend Missy Elliott, who was the first female rapper inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. (And while we’re talking Portsmouth women, Sissieretta Jones, who became the first Black opera singer to headline Carnegie Hall in 1893, was born there, too!)
The region is responsible for rock’s leather-jacketed rebel swagger and has influenced Vegas’ swinging lounge style (Wayne Newton was born in Norfolk). Its mega producers have shaped the sounds of pop icons from Justin Timberlake to Snoop Dogg.
In short, Hampton Roads is a big deal. And the president of the African American Historical Society of Portsmouth, Mae Breckingridge-Haywood, has a theory on why a laidback region better known for beachfront resorts and maritime history has produced so much game-changing talent.
Its under-the-radar status gives artists the space to dream up something truly original, away from the pressure of the mainstream, she speculates.
“There’s just this fresh talent that’s looking beyond, looking to be real, and to not copy what else is out there,” says Breckenridge-Haywood, a cousin of Brown.
With live performances largely paused due to the pandemic, use your favorite streaming music service to take a deep dive into five Hampton Roads music legends.