QUEER, BLACK & BLUE: EMPRESS BESSIE SMITH’S REIGN
March 28, 2019
Regardless of your beliefs or affiliations, one cannot fight the fact that the Black church is responsible for building and shaping decades of musical eras, and providing all those eras with icons. Some of the most powerful singers in history lent their voices to the booming pews of Sunday worship before they threw voices across tents, clubs, pubs and eventually, concert halls. One alum of the Black church choirs was Elizabeth “Bessie” Smith, the Queer Empress of the Blues.
Bessie started out as a chorus dancer in a traveling troupe that housed another jazz great, Ma Rainey. Under Rainey’s tutelage, Bessie transitioned from dancer to singer and her talent astounded to the point that she was soon headlining her own shows. Bessie Smith already filled almost any room she sang in as she traveled the country, before settling down in Philadelphia where she was discovered and signed by Columbia Records in the early 1920s. “Downhearted Blues” was her first commercial hit, serving as the introductory chapter to a 165-song, 2 million record-selling career that would have her heralded as the most successful Blues singer of all time. Ma Rainey and Bessie were two Black women earning amounts unheard of to Black women in their day. Bessie made so much money that she would travel around in a private train car, riding her luxurious self through the South and all over the limited expectations of her day.
Any description of Bessie Smith is bound to be a nuanced variation of the assertion that she was absolutely singular in talent and influence. Smith was a Black woman who became one of the first jazz singers to ever appear on records. She broke them too. Heralded as the best Blue singer of her generation (or ever if we’re going to keep it real), Smith managed to sell all those records with a voice that stripped you bare, leaving you exposed like an open wound. Her singing was not catharsis, but an almost unbearably human vocal translation of suffering without glamorizing or justifying it. It just was — and when coursing pain dripped from every note, all you could do was follow suit, let it wash over you, and just be. Be hurt. Be merry. Be in love, requited, unrequited and rapturous.
The magic of re-visiting pioneers is the gift of having a perspective that has been colored in over the years by time and progress. You get to see old heroines in a new light and re-explore their legacy with fresh meaning. This is how I felt when I found out Bessie Smith was Bisexual. Suddenly the pain and longing imbued in the haunting vibrato of Bessie’s voice had taken on new, technicolored emotion. It was not that she could have been singing about anyone, but more that she was singing about men and women. Unbeknownst to the masses, bisexual love songs capture them all, each and every one, gay, straight and beyond. It’s important to highlight and distinguish these truths now so as to undo any narrative that sought to erase the fact that love is love is love is love is love.
Activism in its purest form is brutal and unflinching honesty. Though Bessie and her contemporaries did not get onto stages to organize in a traditional sense, they put a microphone to the razor blade at the heart of constant trauma and survival that often made the act of breathing a laborious affair. And she took your breath away, unknowingly — or, perhaps, knowingly — undoing any claim heteronormativity had on love, as the entire world had been conditioned to understand it before theb. From Black to white and beyond, she captured her audience and she made them sit with her joy — and also with her pain. New Orleans musician Danny Barker once told NPR, “[Bessie] just upset you.”
That, in so many words, was the power of Bessie Smith. She sang and you just felt the part of existence that was too powerful to be boxed in by imposing and limiting labels, and she discarded and defied those labels in her life but most passionately through her music. For an hour or two, during sweltering summer nights in Birmingham or Memphis, Atlanta or Savannah, audiences would be reduced by her power to their most basic human selves, lured in by Smith’s powerful familiarity. White people felt the pain and anxiety of racism while being blind to the true nature of their newfound moving misery. Straight men and women were enveloped by the fear of existing as a queer person in 1920s America, while the veil of heteronormativity kept them blind to it.
Her Queer, Black Womanhood was her power and she used her voice to spread it far and wide, even when the world was too backward to see its full glory. She crooned about her attraction to women and men and she vocally lamented the woes of both. In person, she was boisterous and extravagant — a braggadocious Black artist of the 1920s. Her shows were large affairs with 40 performers involved. She knew what she could achieve and she demanded her full worth, taking her freedom from the very clutches of oppression. She knew about the sharp edges of existence and she used her gift to soften edges of her own, to a point. Although alcoholism affected her life and poisoned her career, it did not stop her — and had she not lost her life to injuries sustained in a car accident in 1937, she would have gone on to dominate for decades.
The power of Black queer women at the turn of the 20th century is obscured behind a thick veil of whitewashing and heteronormative historical revisionism. But, true to Black womanhood, legends are too good to be ignored or forgotten. To be able to remember — and re-remember — all of Bessie is the privilege and responsibility of the queer community and the world at large. She is one of its many voices and an artistic advocate for its experiences. All hail Bessie Smith, the Queer Empress of Blues.