The most popular American music genres start with Black performers. The music and entertainment industry is greatly touched by remarkable singer-songwriters, comedians, composers of the African-American community over the years. Genres like jazz, soul, rock, gospel, and R&B have been transformed by black artists.
But did you know that some of these prominent figures in the performing history were actually queer? Now it is time to honor that fact.
Here are the 7 Queer Black American Music and Entertainer you should know:
Gertrude Pridgett “Ma” Rainey:
Ma Rainey is recognized as the first great professional blues vocalist. She was born on n April 26, 1886, in Columbus Georgia. Rainey died on died December 22, 1939, in Columbus. She is an early American-African blues singer known as the ‘Mother of the Blues’ and one of the generation of blues singers.
At the age of 14, she made her first stage appearance in a locally produced musical revue in 1900, Columbus, Georgia. In 1920, she began touring after traveling tent shows and vaudeville acts and in 1920, she introduced blue number into her act. Most of her songs mention sexuality refer to love affairs with men. In 1923, signed a contract with Paramount records. Rainey became one of the first recorded blues musicians, she almost records 100 songs between 1923 and 1928.
Speaking of Queer Black American performers, Bessie Smith widely renowned during the Jazz Age, a popular African American singer during the 1920s and 1930s. Her soul Jazz and powerful voice won her countless fans. Bessie also earned her the title “Empress of the Blues”. She was a successful black vocalist.
In 1912 she began her career by singing in a show with Ma Rainey. She made her first recordings, “Down Hearted Blues” in 1923 February. The classic Downhearted Blue established as the most successful black vocalist, with enormous success in selling more than two million copies. More than the performance, she was responsible for introducing blues into the mainstream of popular music of America. Her original three recordings have been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton
Willie Mae Thornton, an influential African blues singer as well as a songwriter. She was born on December 11, 1926, in Montgomery, Alabama, and died in 1984. She was called “Big Mama” for her size as well as her powerful voice.
In 1952, she made her first to record Leiber and Stoller’s “Hound Dog”. In 1953, her recording became her biggest hit, and on the Billboard R&B chart, it stays number one up to seven weeks. Her recording also sells almost two million copies and her other recordings included the original version of “Ball and Chain” and more than 20 blues songs.
Gladys Alberta Bentley, a well-known American blues singer, pianist, and entertainer is another Queer Black American performer you should know. She was born on August 12, 1907, in Philadelphia and died on January 18, 1960. She was taunted as a child for being an overweight tomboy. But in a few years, her trademark white tuxedo and top hat, the 300-pound gravelly-voiced singer and piano player flaunted her reputation as a “bulldagger” or butch lesbian.
She began her blues career singing at all-night rent parties and became well known for her voice, boyish apparel, and performing popular songs of the era. In 1920, her career skyrocketed when she appeared at Harry Hansberry’s Clam House in New York (the most well-known gay speakeasies). In the early 1930s’ she headlines as the top entertainer during Harlem Renaissance. She dresses up like a man, openly flirted with the women audience, and took popular songs of the time. In 1920, she began a 20-year recording career but sadly it does not include any of her bawdy lyrics.
Billy Strayhorn, another crucial Queer Black American figure, was a jazz pianist, lyricist, and arranger who built a musical partnership with Duke Ellington. He was born on November 29, 1915, in Dayton and died on May 31, 1967, in New York.
He spent his entire career in collaboration as amanuensis to the composer and bandleader Duke Ellington. His all-time favorite classics compositions include “Take the ‘A’ Train”, “Chelsea Bridge”, “A Flower Is a Lovesome Thing”, and “Lush Life. So while you may not be recognized by his name but his talents and arrangements you may be recognized.
Jackie ‘Moms’ Mabley:
Loretta Mary Aiken, the dynamic queer comedian was an American stand-up comedian and actress. She was the first black female comedian to gain widespread recognition by her stage name as Jackie “Moms” Mabley. Jackie was Born on March 19, 1894, in North Carolina. She died on May 23, 1975, in White Plains, New York.
In the 1920s’, Jackie begin her career on the theater stage. She became a veteran entertainer of the chitlin Circuit and late-night talk show. After she recorded a comedy album and appeared in television and Films including The Ed Sullivan Show and the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. In 1939, she became the first female comedian while to perform at The Apollo. She became an internationally known entertainer whose career spanned five decades.
Lastly, another well-known Queer Balck American artist is Alvin Aley. He is a dancer, director, choreographer, as well as the founder of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT). She was born on January 5, 1931, in Roger, Texas, and died on December 1, 1989, in New York City.
Ailey excelled at language and athletics. But after seeing the performance of the Ballet Russe de Monte performance, he inspired to pursue dancing. In 1949, he start to study modern dance and joined Horton’s dance company. In 1954, he made his debut Short-lived musical house of flowers debut in Truman Capote. And also he appeared in the Carefree Tree. While in New York, he also had a chance to study dance with Martha Graham as well as acting with Stella Adler.
In 1958, he founded his own dance company and achieved the greatest fame. All over the world, his signature work performed such as “cry” and “Revelations”. In 2014, he posthumously awarded for his influential work and bringing dance to underserved communities
Also Read: Ten Black American Heroes You Should Know