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Celebrating Queer Voices in Black Music History

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 1231400
Ethel Waters, 1928; Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division; Image ID 1231400

Kiani Ned, our Communications Intern, pays tribute to some of the greatest black queer musicians of all time in her latest blog post in honor of Pride Month and Black Music Month:

This month the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture celebrates Pride Month and Black Music Month by recognizing black queer musicians in the archive. Housed in our vast collection of materials and resources on black LGBTQ identity, which includes the In The Life Archive, are the portrait collections of blues singers Gertrude Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters, and Bessie Smith in the Photographs and Prints Division.

On the Black Queer Voice

In her book Blues Legacies and Black Feminism, Angela Davis posits that embodied in the voices of queer blues singers, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, was the newfound freedom of black folks to define their own lives and thus their romantic and sexual experiences after emancipation. Smith and Rainey sang about existing outside of gender norms. Their lyrics were sexually provocative and bold. They sang in detail about their sexual desire and tumultuous love affairs with men and women.

Both Smith and Rainey were at first condemned by record labels and black folks alike for their blues—music, lyrics, themes, and voices. Smith finessed the lyrics of her song with her incredible booming contralto. Rainey delivered an evocative moan. Their dynamic and robust voices were misunderstood and pigeonholed. Coincidence or not, the immensely powerful voices of these women weren’t sufficiently captured in their original gramophone recordings.

Even so, it was the voice of Bessie Smith that helped James Baldwin to reconcile his black and queer identities. When he fled the United States for France in 1948, he took with him a stack of Bessie Smith albums and played them daily on a portable Victrola. Life According to the Beat: James Baldwin, Bessie Smith, and the Perilous Sounds of Love by Josh Kun discusses how her voice was the quintessence of the black, queer, American identity that he was running from.

In Sounding Like a No-no, author Francesca T. Royster considers the voice as a space of gender transformation because the vocal chords and the throat exist in bodies despite one’s sex. One can use his or her voice to maintain or destroy norms of gender or sexual identity. The voice as a space of transformation is, too, an empowering space of self-discovery. 

Explore our Resources on Black LGBTQ Musicians at the Schomburg Center:

In this sound recording housed in the Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division, Billy Strayhorn—talented composer, pianist, peer of Duke Ellington, and openly gay black man—discusses his career and music.

Listen to the powerhouse voices of Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, and Ma Rainey for yourself in our Moving Image and Recorded Sound Division.

Portrait collections of Josephine Baker, Johnny Mathis, and Ethel Waters can be found in the Photographs and Prints Division.

Other archival materials by and about same gender loving and LGBT black folks can be found in our In The Life Archive, a collection created to aid the preservation of these cultural materials. A non-comprehensive list of In The Life Archive collection can be found in our subject listing under “Gay and Lesbian Studies.” Please visit the Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Books Division for more information.

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