From Blues to Disco – How Gay African-Americans Created Pop Music

29 Oct

Sometimes it’s tough, being a fan of Public Enemy. The tunes are great, the message is – for the best part – passionate and empowering, but every now and then they kind of lose it:

  • “Man to man / I don’t know if they can / From what I know / The parts don’t fit…”

That’s from Meet The G That Killed Meon the album Fear of a Black Planet. Here, Chuck D and friends voice a kind of pub-bore-style bafflement about how homosexuality actually works, and imply – later in the same song – that when a heterosexual catches HIV, it’s ultimately the fault of gay men.

Does it need saying that this man is not one of the world’s leading epidemiologists?

Now I can’t imagine I’d give many other artists the kind of free pass I give Public Enemy (it’s the tunes… I love the tunes) but even so, they’re far from the most homophobic act in hip-hop. GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) counted a total of 213 uses of the word “faggot” on VMA-winning rapper Tyler The Creator’s album Goblin, and the recent “coming out” of an artist like Frank Ocean was newsworthy on this side of the Atlantic, despite his relative obscurity over here, for this very reason. What’s amazing about all this is that without African-American gay, lesbian and bisexual singers and musicians, there wouldn’t be any such thing as hip-hop in the first place.

And no, I’m not talking about Dr Dre’s “Jheri Curl” phase.

And I’d go further than that. Without African-American gay, lesbian and bisexual artists, there wouldn’t be any such thing as popular music, full stop.

Oh, there’d be music that was popular, sure, but it would probably sound like that album of Elizabethan madrigals that Sting recorded a few years back.

Make it stop. Make it fucking stop.

First, let’s launch ourselves back to Chattanooga in the year 1894, and the birth of Bessie Smith. Smith is a giant of early blues music, with a personality every bit as big and feisty as her voice suggests. Her private life was turbulent – twice married, and with a string of affairs with other women, she paved the way for every troubled chanteuse since, from Billie Holiday to Amy Winehouse.

In this picture the main thing troubling her is some Old Timey racism.

Moving on a decade or two, you may have heard of Duke Ellington, widely regarded as one of the greatest jazz musicians and composers who ever lived, but it’s less likely you’ll have heard of his songwriting partner and left-hand man, Billy Strayhorn. Strayhorn had a hand in co-writing some of Ellington’s most famous tunes, including Take The A Train and the score to Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder. Strayhorn was openly gay at a time when his skin colour alone would have been enough to see him castigated and ostracized in many parts of the US. Through Ellington’s son Mercer, Strayhorn met jazz pianist Aaron Bridgers, and the two were partners from 1939 until 1947, when Bridgers emigrated to Paris.

Pictured (left to right): Bridgers, Strayhorn and Billie Holiday

Now, while Bessie Smith had the voice and the attitude, and Strayhorn had the intellectual heft and musical dexterity to revolutionise music, our next artist hit the 1950s like a bomb. A great big satin-coated bomb with backcombed hair, guyliner and a drawn-on moustache.

Who else?

To understand the impact Little Richard (born Richard Wayne Penniman) had on the 1950s, try and picture a scenario in which James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Prince got together and then, using their combined sperm and through some bizarre scientific experiment/pagan ritual created a hybrid baby and sent it back in time to Macon, Georgia in 1932, to be raised by mere mortals like some kind of funky, screaming black Superman. Listen to Little Richard singing Tutti Fruiti and you can maybe understand just why your grand- or great-grandparents were so shit-scared of this newfangled rock and roll.

And the version they heard was cleaned up considerably from the version Little Richard originally sang in clubs. Take, for instance, the line, “Tutti frutti, aw-rooty.” In his club version, this had been, “Tutti frutti, good booty.” And that wasn’t a girl’s booty he was singing about, neither.

For one thing, the official term for this is “boo-tay”.

Since then, Little Richard’s sexuality has been something of a mystery. In the mid-1990s he kind of came out of the closet, and then climbed back in again, and his private life is littered with lots of “long-time friends”. But seriously…

This is not the face of a heterosexual. It just isn’t.

So how do we get from a bunch of people born before World War II to the pop music you youngsters are listening to today? Well, easy. Without Bessie Smith, Billy Strayhorn et al, rhythm and blues as we know it wouldn’t have happened. Without rhythm and blues, there’s no rock and roll, and therefore no Little Richard. Without Little Richard, there’s no James Brown. (Seriously, go watch some early footage of James Brown. It’s like he’s auditioning as a Little Richard tribute act.) Without James Brown, there wouldn’t be funk. And what happened to funk when it hit the mid-1970s?

That’s right. In the 1970s funk and soul mutated into disco. Now, contrary to popular belief (or, at least, a popular belief that I just made up) disco was not invented by Barry Gibb, nor was it originally the weekend pastime of white-suited Italian-Americans. Oh no. Disco started life in the predominantly black corners of New York’s underground gay scene, a scene that was still exerting its influence on the pop music white folk were listening to over a decade later, when Madonna decided to copy purloin steal homage its latest dance craze.

The fact is, name any genre of music currently topping the charts, and you can draw its roots back to music in which gay, lesbian and bisexual African-Americans played a vital role.

Rock music? Well, that owes its existence to the blues. RnB? That’ll be rhythm and blues to us oldies. Hip Hop? Started life with a whole load of James Brown samples, and as we’ve already seen, without a (literally) screaming queen like Little Richard, there wouldn’t be any James Brown. And dance music? Why, that’s just disco’s gayby.

“We’re calling her Sylvester.” “Uh-uh. We’re calling her KC.”

So next time Eminem or Tyler the Creator or any other rapper rants about “faggots”, or Nicki Minaj declares “N****r, you softer than a homosexual”, maybe they should ask themselves where they’d be without the amazing African-American gay and lesbians artists who preceded them.

Author

David Llewellyn is the author of six novels, most recently Ibrahim & Reenie, which you can buy here.

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5 Responses to “From Blues to Disco – How Gay African-Americans Created Pop Music”

  1. Ben Gallivan October 29, 2012 at 9:10 pm #

    A very, VERY minor defence of Tyler, The Creator here. Yes he does mention the word ‘faggot’ quite a bit on ‘Goblin’ but I do get the feeling that it is used in a very tongue in cheek ‘trolling’ manner. The psychiatrist alter-ego (also Tyler) pulls him up on it quiet often and says that he shouldn’t be saying it. Actually I don’t know what I’m getting at here but if you listen to the opening (title) track, you might see what I mean.

    • thedaillew October 30, 2012 at 7:23 am #

      I think the problem here is that there’s clearly an imbalance, because while a black, heterosexual rapper can say he’s using the word “faggot” ironically, the chances of, say, a white rapper (gay or straight) using the word “nigger” – even ironically – and getting away with it are very slim. Chris Rock – not a rapper, admittedly – has a very funny skit about whether it’s okay for white people to use the N-word, and comes to the conclusion of “not really”, but the imbalance becomes clear when he then has another skit, in another show, in which he stands up for his pretty liberal use of the F-word. And I really like Chris Rock.

  2. Ben Gallivan October 29, 2012 at 9:15 pm #

    Either way – excellent post.

  3. alexlizard October 29, 2012 at 9:20 pm #

    For extra funzies, those lyrics are presumably the same Nicky Minaj who chucks on her “Ooh, I might be bisexual” hat when she fancies flogging a few more songs?

    • thedaillew October 30, 2012 at 7:24 am #

      And the same Nicki Minaj whose fanbase consists, almost exclusively, of homosexualists.

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