black biography

BESSIE SMITH 1894–1937

One of the greatest American singers of the 20s and 30s, known for her powerful delivery and often called “The Empress of the Blues.” Her parents had both died by the time she was a teenager, and to earn money, Smith began performing on the streets of Chattanooga with her brother. In 1912, she joined a traveling troupe that boasted the successful blues singer Ma Rainey—Rainey would become her good friend and mentor. Though she started as a chorus dancer, Smith soon developed her own act, and in 1923 she signed a record deal with Columbia, releasing the first album on their new “race records” series. With the popularity of her song “Downhearted Blues,” she became the most successful blues singer of the time, earning enough to live lavishly and travel town to town in her own private train. She married her husband Jack Gee around the time her first album was released, but it was a rocky relationship, with affairs on both sides. Most of Smith’s infidelities were with other women in her troupe, which sparked frequent fights, and when Smith discovered her husband had been sleeping with another singer, they separated. During the Great Depression, the recording industry took a hit, as did Smith’s career. She started to make a comeback by transitioning into swing music, but it was cut short when she was killed in a car accident. For years her grave was left unmarked, until Janis Joplin bought her a tombstone in 1970.

Michelle Obama: A Life by Peter Slevin

An inspiring story, richly detailed and written with élan, here is the first comprehensive account of the life and times of Michelle Obama, a woman of achievement and purpose—and the most unlikely first lady in modern American history. With disciplined reporting and a storyteller’s eye for revealing detail, Peter Slevin follows Michelle to the White House from her working-class childhood on Chicago’s largely segregated South Side.  [book link]

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“My music is addressed to my people… deliberately to provoke this feeling of ‘Who am I? Where did I come from? Do I really like me, and why do I like me? And if I am black and beautiful, I really am and I know it, and I don’t care who says what.’ That’s what my songs are about…Though I hope that in their musical concept, and in their musical form and power, that they will also live on after I die.” - Nina Simone, 1969

From Alan Light comes a biography of incandescent soul singer and Black Power icon Nina Simone, one of the most influential, provocative, and least understood artists of our time. WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?, the essential companion to the Oscar-nominated Netflix documentary, is available now everywhere books are sold. Read an excerpt and get the book here.

[Photos courtesy of the Estate of Alfred Wertheimer]

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“Life and death, energy and peace. If I stop today it was still worth it. Even the terrible mistakes that I have made and would have unmade if I could. The pains that have burned me and scarred my soul, it was worth it, for having been allowed to walk where I’ve walked, which was to hell on earth, heaven on earth, back again, into, under, far in between, through it, in it, and above…”
Gia (1998)

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Why Hendrix Still Matters

Historical revisionism and the endless stream of tired imitators that followed in his wake sometimes makes it difficult to appreciate what a radical listening experience the music of Jimi Hendrix was and still is. Yet for those with the ears to hear, his influence is everywhere in contemporary rock.

In the Stone Roses and their guitarist John Squire’s polychromatic action-painting style of playing. In My Bloody Valentine, a group which has worked with Roger Mayer, the guy who invented effects boxes and distortion pedals for Hendrix. In Loop’s noise symphonies. In Sonic Youth, whose unusual tunings would not have been possible without Hendrix’s reinvention of the guitar. (Drummer Buddy Miles, who played with Hendrix, recorded an album called Expressway to Your Skull in 1968. Nineteen years later Sonic Youth recorded a song with the same name.)

In the wah-wah heaven of Dinosaur Jr. In the raga free-form folkadelic blitz of Husker Du’s “Recurring Dreams” on Zen Arcade. In the wigged out, apocalyptic, nouveau acid rock of the Butthole Surfers. (Think of their “Jimi” as a fin de siecle version of Hendrix’s “Third Stone From the Sun.”) In the oceanic rock of A.R. Kane. In the black rock of Living Colour and 24-7 Spyz. In the thrashing metal-funk of the Red Hot Chili Peppers (who covered Hendrix’s “Fire” and inherited his febrile hypersexuality and imitated his bad-ass virility). Not to mention obvious examples like Prince and George Clinton.

And then there’s heavy metal as a genre. If Hendrix paved the way for this music, it was because he showed that the blues could be blown up from a porch-side lament into a mountain range. Hendrix invented the “air guitar,” not in the sense of an imaginary instrument played by hair farmers in front of their bedroom mirrors, but rather in the sense of a guitar that refused to be bound solely by earthly roots, a sound that grew wings and took flight. An aerial guitar, if you will.

The Hendrix influence on rap is also profound, and not just in the way that boho homeboys like De la Soul and A Tribe Called Quest dress. Hendrix samples on rap records include Digital Underground’s “Who Knows?” the Beastie Boys’ “B-Boy Bouillabaisse,” A Tribe Called Quest’s “Go Ahead in the Rain,” and Monie Love’s “Just Don’t Give a Damn.” Moreover, every rap use of rock comes via Hendrix, from Run-DMC to Schoolly D. Rap’s dissonance is Hendrix’s guitar still reverberating and feeding back.

As SPIN colleague Nathaniel Wice puts it: “He dominates both Yol MTV Raps and Headbanger’s Ball. He fathered both, dominating everything that music has become. Not only won’t he die, but it’s impossible to imagine how to kill him off.”

There’s even a case to be made that Hendrix is responsible for that hideous mutant jazz-rock. But we’ll pass discreetly over that, except to mention Hendrix’s profound influence on Miles Davis’s brilliant late-‘60s and early-'70s work.

Jim Morrison may be the subject of Hollywood mythmaking, but Hendrix is not a corpse to be resurrected. Hendrix is the living, breathing soul of today’s rock'n'roll.

Initially framed within traditional white ideas of what black music meant (black as incarnation of the id, un-repression, instinct, the body, soul, et cetera), Jimi Hendrix was nicknamed the “Wild Man of Pop” and compared to a Borneo savage. As critic Steven Perry has pointed out, such noble savage stereotypes have been used historically to undermine the aesthetic achievements of blacks. Hendrix is interesting because of the damage he did to such racial stereotypes. He wanted to transcend the borders and barriers between races, male and female, and even (at his most mystic) to transcend the human condition all together to become star child, to become male mermaid (as on “1983/A Merman I Should Turn to Be”). Indeed his whole career can be seen as an attempt to reconcile and/or explode such standard oppositions as black versus white, male versus female, the dandy versus the savage, voodoo (the blues) versus Christian salvation (soul), roots versus rootlessness, earthy versus cosmic, tradition versus avant-garde, bohemian art rock versus funk/soul razzmatazz.

Setting himself against the narrow conceptual biases of what constituted “real” black music, Hendrix transformed and transcended the limits of what a black musician could and should be. Among the first, if not the first, African-Americans in pop to lay claim to the status of artist rather than entertainer, he did his apprenticeship in soul review bands (most notably the Isley Brothers, Little Richard, and Curtis Knight and the Squires) on the “chitlin circuit,” but chafed at the strictures, discipline, and show-biz protocols that were expected of him. Hendrix opened up the possibility for black musicians to be — imagewise and soundwise — messy and self-indulgent. In this he was the polar opposite of James Brown, disciplinarian band leader and the professional servant of a popular audience. In contrast, Hendrix was an aural aristocrat with musical laws unto himself — a solar flare with solo flair, a quality that got him kicked out of many soul bands before his eventual success in the U.K. For his efforts, he was branded a psychedelic Uncle Tom. A more unjust accusation in the history of rock criticism is difficult to imagine.

Yet many of his more fervent supporters seem to add fuel to this charge. Alvin Lee from Ten Years After once said, “Hendrix wasn’t black or white. Hendrix was Hendrix.” Hendrix was Hendrix, but Hendrix was black. In his excellent biography of Hendrix, 'Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky, David Henderson, an award-winning African-American poet, does a convincing job of debunking the misperception that Hendrix was an Uncle Tom who played exclusively to white audiences. Recalling a meeting between a group of blacks and Hendrix at TTG Studios in Hollywood, Henderson tells how the guitarist expressed concern about the lack of any black support for his music. Not so, said his fellow black musicians. Blacks did buy his records and go to his concerts, but they were rendered virtually invisible by the overwhelming popularity of Hendrix among the mass white audience.

What was true was that black radio did not play his records. Since so much of black radio was white-controlled at that time, that’s hardly Hendrix’s fault. Moreover, when he jettisoned his all-white band, the Experience, for the all-black Band of Gypsys, it was met with much resistance from his management. But the suspicion still lingers that Hendrix was a disgrace to the race, especially in his refusal to become too closely aligned with black revolutionary movements. Hendrix was a pacifist who refused to give the Black Panthers the explicit gesture of support that they expected from him and got from other entertainers. But as Robert Wyatt, ex-drummer and vocalist with Soft Machine, says, Hendrix didn’t “have to go around making political statements. … he was living a political life of great importance.”

Hendrix didn’t need to comment on the issues of the times, racial or not, because the times were in his music. For instance, Hendrix was the soundtrack to Vietnam, for soldiers and for civilians alike. Both “Machine Gun” and his version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” are among the most profound works of American art ever made about the war. Vernon Reid once admitted to having mistakenly thought that Hendrix had served in Vietnam. And for the movie version of the real thing (Apocalypse Now), Francis Ford Coppola employed Randy Hansen, a Hendrix impersonator, for the soundtrack.

In 'Scuse Me While I Kiss the Sky, Henderson tells of the time in 1969 that Hendrix played a Harlem street fair. Hosted by a popular local radio DJ Eddie O-Jay (ironically another black DJ who didn’t play Hendrix’s records), Jimi performed “Voodoo Chile,” among other songs, which he referred to onstage as “Harlem’s national anthem.” And of course in a way Hendrix was right. With its explicit evocation and celebration of the supernatural powers and magical transformations at the heart of African religion, “Voodoo Chile” is at least as “black” (if such distinctions are important to you) as James Brown’s “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud.” So much for Uncle Tom.

After Hendrix finished his show, he was approached by a black nationalist who said, “Hey brother, you better come home.” Hendrix replied, “You gotta do what you gotta do, and I gotta do what I gotta do now.”

BAYARD RUSTIN 1912–1987

American civil rights organizer and activist, and one of the key figures behind the March on Washington. He began fighting for civil rights at a young age, and when he moved to Harlem in 1937, he made his living as a nightclub singer while devoting himself to a number of causes. He organized a protest against segregation in the military, was beaten and arrested for refusing to give up his seat on a bus over a decade before Rosa Parks followed suit, and when he refused the draft in WWII on religious and moral grounds, he spent two years in prison, where he sought to desegregate the dining halls. A devoted student of Gandhi and Quakerism, he helped shaped Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophies of nonviolence and civil disobedience. In 1963, with years of experience behind him, he became the chief organizer for the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom—but there were many by this time who wished to distance Rustin from the Civil Rights Movement. He had been briefly affiliated with the Communist Party in the 30s, and in 1953 he had been convicted of “sex perversion” after he was caught with two men in the back of a parked car. Detractors used these facts as a way of discrediting the movement, which meant Rustin was considered a liability who needed to be kept out of the spotlight. Still, he never felt shame about being gay, and though he sought to keep his sexuality private, he was open about it to his friends. In 1977, he met his life partner Walter Naegle, whom Rustin eventually adopted as his son in order to legalize their union in lieu of marriage. It was Naegle who urged him to take his sexuality into the public sphere, and in 1986, Rustin testified on behalf of New York’s Gay Rights Bill. Though Rustin’s politics veered more conservative later in life, dividing him from some of his former colleagues, he continued to fight for a broad number of social justice causes until his death. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013.