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#AAMAM: “Black and Proud” – Celebrating Black LGBT Musical Pioneers (LISTEN)

Written by Good Black News

June 28, 2020

by Jeff Meier (FB: Jeff.Meier.90)

As June is both African-American Music Appreciation Month and Pride Month, and today is the anniversary of the beginning of the landmark Stonewall Riots marking the unofficial launch of the gay rights movement, Good Black News today brings you a musical playlist celebrating some of the Black LGBT musical pioneers of the contemporary music era.

Just last year, rapper Lil Nas X made history in multiple ways when his genre-bending country/rap tune, the infectious ‘Old Town Road’ (which, in remixed form, included country star Billy Ray Cyrus), launched on TikTok and headed straight to #1, where it stayed for 19 weeks.

In the process, the 1:53 minute song (which was the shortest song to hit #1 since the mid-1960s), literally became the longest running #1 in chart history, outlasting the 16 week #1 runs of  Mariah  Carey & Boyz II Men’s ‘One Sweet Day’ and Luis Fonsi/Daddy Yankee/Justin Bieber’s ‘Despacito’.

One year ago during Pride Month, in the middle of the song’s #1 run on the charts, Lil Nas X revealed himself to be gay and joined what has become a burgeoning scene of LGBTQ artists among the Gen Z crowd, many of them African-American. Frank Ocean, Kehlani, Brittany Howard, Azealia Banks, Janelle Monae, and Big Freedia are just some of the other artists that have broken through the pack in recent years, publicly claiming their respective LGBTQ identities even as their careers were still on the rise. 

And musically-talented TV personalities such as one-time reality star Todrick Hall, the now notorious, but nevertheless pioneering ‘Empire’ star Jussie Smollett, ‘Glee’ co-star Alex Newell and ‘The Flash’ co-star Keiynan Lonsdale have also helped pave the way, bringing Black, openly LGBT faces into millions of homes.  

Hopping around Spotify in the search for Black LGBT artists now leads to not just these artists, but dozens of other openly LGBT independent artists making it happen in rap, dance, soul, and pop.

It wasn’t always this way, however. So in today’s playlist, we are celebrating 15 significant, pioneering LGBT artists who got their starts between the late 1950s (when the contemporary pop/rock music era began) and the end of the 20th century. The truth is that we’ve always been watching and listening to LGBT artists – the general public just may not have known it at the time.

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Some of these artists we’re celebrating in our list were loud and proud right from the start. With others, we didn’t publicly know they were part of the LGBT community until after they passed away.  

The goal with this list is not to stir up controversy, but rather celebration and re-interpretation – so we’re steering away from the numerous popular artists about whom there are simply rumors.  Perhaps time and the history books will reveal more about the stories of many other artists from an era of music in which most prominent artists remained in the closet.  

For now, it’s interesting to look back at these 15 Black artists and see the array of musical and personal journeys, and examine them anew. We present the artists in roughly chronological order of their career prominence, and feature five songs from each – trying to include early work, a big hit or two and something recent if they are still making music.  

We hope this playlist will both introduce you to some talented but unheralded artists, and help you re-evaluate some artists you may already know and love – and can now see in a new light.  

Little Richard – Nearly 65 years before the rise of Lil Nas X, another flamboyant showman with a diminuitive nickname hit the charts in a big way – Little Richard. Richard Penniman, who passed away just last month at the age of 87, had performed drag in vaudeville shows before merging the pompadoured hair and pancaked-makeup style of a blues performer named Billy Wright with the gospel shouts of Clara Ward – and in the process becoming one of the originators of Rock & Roll.

Throughout his life and career, Little Richard veered back and forth between a life of rock hedonism and one dedicated to religion (he became an ordained minister in the early 1960s).  Mirroring that dichotomy, he gave interviews casually discussing his gay life – only to subsequently declare, in later interviews, an LGBT lifestyle as wrong in the eyes of the church.  Our list includes a couple of early hits, a gospel song, an early ‘70s return to rock and one of his last records, a ‘90s performance with Tanya Tucker that demonstrates he still had strong performing chops into his 60s.

Johnny Mathis – On the opposite end of the musical spectrum from Little Richard lies the smooth romantic vocals of Johnny Mathis, one of the most successful recording artists of all time, with over 70 albums hitting the Billboard charts between the late 1950s and his most recent release in 2017 (on which he covers Pharrell Williams, Adele, Keith Urban and R. Kelly, among others). Throughout his most successful years from the ‘50s through the ‘70s, Mathis was not out. After revealing a ‘homosexual’ lifestyle in a magazine article in the early 1980s, he retreated again to not discussing his private life following threats after the magazine article was published. Now 84, he’s been more open in recent years.  

It’s interesting to re-listen to his biggest hits from throughout his career – and realize that most of the love song lyrics are gender neutral, never really using ‘she’ or ‘her’. Johnny appears again with a sixth song on our playlist as part of a duet with another artist.

Billy Preston  – A church organ prodigy from a young age, Billy Preston released his earliest records at just 16 (after getting noticed on tour with none other than Little Richard). With his organ skills catching the attention of none other than The Beatles, Preston played on their hit ‘Get Back’ and signed to the group’s Apple Records. His first album there, ‘That’s the Way God Planned It’ featured not only George Harrison, but also Eric Clapton and Keith Richards.  By the mid ‘70s, Preston had a string of funky hits and sentimental ballads, including ‘Will It Go Round In Circles,’ ‘Nothing From Nothing,’ ‘You Are So Beautiful,’ and his duet with Syreeta, ‘With You I’m Born Again.’ 

Preston only revealed his LGBT status shortly before his 2006 death (at age 59) from a series of health problems including kidney disease and hypertension. But Preston’s personal struggles with his homosexuality were only extensively revealed to the public after his death. Reportedly abused multiple times as a minor (including by a local pastor), Preston himself was at one point accused and arrested for sexually assaulting a 16 year-old boy. He also struggled with drug and alcohol addictions and arrests.

Throughout his life, he nevertheless kept close ties to the church and to gospel music, often including gospel songs on his records and even performing organ in the short-lived ‘90s church-based sitcom ‘Good News’.

Labi Siffre – Although this month is ‘African-American’ Music Appreciation Month, we’ve taken the liberty on our list to include a few Brits and a South African of note.  Labi Siffre is a British folk rock/soul/jazz singer-songwriter who started in the late 1960s, and produced a series of British hit singles and acclaimed albums in the early ‘70s. 

In the US, he is most notable for his ‘80s anti-apartheid comeback hit ‘Something Inside So Strong’ – and for the use of samples from an instrumental section of his ‘70s song ‘I Got The…” by rappers, including most prominently, Eminem.

Siffre was open about his sexuality throughout his career, with a nearly 50-year relationship with his partner that began when he was just 19 and lasted until his partner’s death in 2013. In 2005, as soon as it was legal, he entered into a civil partnership in the UK. After another long hiatus, Siffre, now 75, just released a new song last month called “(Love Is Love Is Love) Why Isn’t Love Enough?” that fits perfectly with a career full of thoughtful, politically-infused lyrics matched with warm melodies. 

Nona Hendryx – It’s tough to know chronologically where to place 75 year-old Nona Hendryx in this list. As one of the members of Patti Labelle & The Bluebelles, she was recording music by the time she was 18 in the very early 1960s. But it wasn’t until the quartet became the trio Labelle in the early ‘70s that Hendryx really found her ‘voice.’ With a powerhouse vocalist like Patti Labelle at the front, Hendryx continued singing backup and harmony vocals on most Labelle songs – but, at the same time, she became the group’s main songwriter. Hendryx penned mystical sister songs for Labelle about nightbirds, space children, gypsy moths, voodoo, chameleons. 

After Labelle broke up in the mid-’70s, Hendryx continued on a musically adventurous solo career that has continued to the present day, her most recent full-length album being a tribute to the experimental rocker Captain Beefheart. In 2001, she revealed her bisexuality in a magazine article, and has become an active advocate for LGBT rights since.

Joan Armatrading – The multi-talented Black Brit Joan Armatrading has been a unique force in the rock/soul/folk singer-songwriter space since the mid-1970s, with a fervent army of fans worldwide for her eclectic mix of genres and influences. Though she’s really only touched the singles chart here in the US with her driving, new-wave era hit ‘Drop the Pilot,’  her numerous albums before and after that song reveal a thoughtful, poetic lyricist with a subtly emotional delivery.  

Armatrading has steadfastly refused to discuss her private life – and insists that most of her songs are not about her, but rather her observations of others. However, most of her songs do not choose gender pronouns, addressing subjects firsthand as ‘you’ – and she has not denied the public reporting that she entered into a civil partnership with her girlfriend in 2011 – even participating in magazine articles/interviews that have detailed that fact.

The Dynamic Superiors –DC-based group The Dynamic Superiors were musically not unlike many other solid soul vocal groups of the ‘70s – part of the same musical space as groups like The Delfonics and Stylistics. After a long local run starting in the late ‘60s, they were a well-practiced unit by the early ‘70s when signed by Motown – where they were lined up with the writing and producing team Ashford & Simpson.  Their five albums spawned a half dozen chart hits, including the hummable ‘Shoe Shoe Shine’ and ‘Leave It Alone.’

The difference between The Dynamic Superiors and those other vocal groups was lead singer Tony Washington, openly gay and with a flamboyant stage personality often featuring makeup and gender-bending attire. As part of their stage act, the group turned Billy Paul’s biggest hit into ‘Me and Mr. Jones,’  and the once conservative Motown broke ground with album covers that showed off Tony’s makeup – and made evident that there was something different about this group. 

Ahead of their time image-wise, The Dynamic Superiors never quite reached the chart heights their vocal skills merited, and they broke up in the early ‘80s. Tony Washington died in 1989.  

Sylvester – During the same era as The Dynamic Superiors, another man was breaking ground across the country in the experimental playground that was early ‘70s San Francisco. Aware of his homosexuality from a very young age, Sylvester left his unapproving family and church behind in Los Angeles as a teenager, heading north to join a troupe of underground drag performers where he initially performed classic blues/torch/jazz songs of Billie Holiday and Josephine Baker.

Two early albums under the name Sylvester and the Hot Band featured a mixture of these standards and covers of rock classics by James Taylor and Neil Young, done in pioneering soulful rock style.  (The song we’ve included from this era, a Sylvester composition entitled ‘Why Was I Born’, features fellow Bay Area scenesters The Pointer Sisters on backup vocals and Journey’s Neal Schon on guitar.)  

But it wasn’t until Sylvester merged his glamorous drag persona and falsetto vocals with rising disco genre that the magic musical formula was achieved. Disco standards like “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’ and ‘Dance (Disco Heat)’ hit the charts. And, a decade plus before RuPaul, this glamorous, unapologetic gay man ended up with national exposure on shows like ‘American Bandstand’ with Dick Clark. 

In the process, Sylvester’s back-up singers, nicknamed the Two Tons of Fun later became The Weather Girls, from which member Martha Wash also became a dance music icon. Their live cover of Patti Labelle’s ‘You Are My Friend’ demonstrates the powerhouse vocals of Sylvester and the ‘girls’ – and conveys the fervor of what Sylvester in concert must have been like. Sylvester died of AIDS-related conditions at the age of 41 in 1988.

Nell Carter – Anyone 40+ likely remembers Nell Carter from her TV sitcom roles on “Gimme A Break” and “Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper.” But Nell Carter’s career actually started in musical theater, where she broke through on Broadway as a featured cast member of ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’.  Around the same time, she also appeared in the movie version of ‘Hair’ – and was reportedly originally cast as Effie during the development of the musical ‘Dreamgirls’ before she left the project because of a TV role. 

Intertwined with her TV career, Carter always returned to the stage in between, performing with orchestras, and in cabarets – if you only saw her sitcoms, you didn’t experience the full range of Nell Carter’s talent – which is hopefully demonstrated by the songs here. Raised in the church, she converted to Judaism – and we’ve included her rendition of a Jewish traditional in the playlist.  

It wasn’t until she died in 2003 at age 54, leaving her two adopted sons and estate in the care of her female life partner, that the public learned Carter was living an LGBT life. Carter had not had an easy personal path to get to that hopefully happy point. A rape during her teenage years resulted in the birth of a daughter, her only biological child. Even as her career thrived, Carter faced numerous struggles including drug addiction, a suicide attempt, two marriages ending in divorce, additional failed adoption attempts, and two bankruptcies. 

Included on our list is Carter’s duet with Johnny Mathis on the iconic Broadway smash from ‘Rent’, ‘Seasons of Love’- a rendition that takes on added meaning with an understanding of their personal stories.

Brenda Fassie – This South African superstar on our list got her start in as part of a group called Brenda & The Big Dudes. Their ever-so-1986 synth-driven hit ‘Weekend Special’ got released worldwide – and made the case that African musicians didn’t just sound like Fela, they could make contemporary R&B songs. By the early ‘90s, Fassie was dubbed the ‘Madonna of the Townships’, as one of Africa’s biggest hitmakers.

With success came excess and scandal, however, peaking when Fassie was found in a drug haze lying next to the dead body of her overdosed female lover in a hotel. She took a break, cleaned up and came back with a more African-sounding Kwaito musical style – subsequently reaching new career peaks over the course of the next decade, before again succumbing to drugs, herself dying in 2004 after a coma caused by an overdose, with members of her family and her female partner by her side. 

Frankie Knuckles – After disco ‘died’ in the early ‘80s, dance music simply went back underground to the gay and Black audiences that had always supported it. New York-born Francis Nicholls, later known by the DJ name Frankie Knuckles, rose through the DJ ranks in NY with good buddy Larry Levan at popular NY nightclubs The Gallery and the Continental Baths before moving to Chicago in the early ‘80s. As a popular DJ there, he helped shape the mix of sounds that became ‘House’ Music (named after the nightclub, The Warehouse, where he performed) – and was subsequently dubbed The Godfather of House Music.

Popular house music under Knuckles own name included hits like ‘The Whistle Song’ and ‘Too Many Fish’ (featuring Adeva), but Knuckles also became a prolific remixer of artists ranging from Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, and Luther Vandross to Pet Shop Boys, Ace of Base and more.  Openly gay, Knuckles was inducted into the Chicago Gay & Lesbian Hall of Fame in 1996.  He died in 2014 of diabetes complications at age 59.

RuPaul – Back in 1987 when I worked in college radio, I remember a new, independently- produced record arriving to the station with a dramatic low-budget cover of a gender-bending drag queen wielding a machine gun, spoofing ‘70s Blaxploitation, with the title ‘RuPaul Is StarrBooty’. 

Little did I know at the time that we were just a couple years away from the worldwide dance music breakthrough of ‘Supermodel (You Better Work)’ a song that became the full realization of the ‘RuPaul’ character that RuPaul Charles (who turns 60 this year) created and has now performed for more than 30 years, never more successful than in the past decade as the Emmy-winning host behind ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’.  

Although never closeted, it’s still clear to most that Charles the individual and RuPaul the stage persona are two different entities. Professionally, RuPaul has created a larger-than-life, glamorous, funny media superstar character, that while not exactly a chart-topping singer, has nevertheless released more than a dozen dance music albums and numerous remixes across now four decades – the most popular of them having been fueled by his TV success.

While the original ‘Starbooty’ release is not available on Spotify, Charles revisited the character in the early 2000s – and we’ve included that song, as well as duets with Elton John and former Sylvester back-up singer turned dance music icon herself, Martha Wash.

Also not available on Spotify, Wash and RuPaul had at one point also done a remake of ‘It’s Raining Men’ in the late ‘90s that notably also successfully journeyed up the Dance Music charts.  A true novelty of his day, RuPaul Charles could have been a one-hit wonder – but has stuck with it, and the world has caught up.

Meshell Ndegeocello – A generation after the musically adventurous Nona Hendryx and the musically adventurous Joan Armatrading, came Michelle Johnson. Raised among the Washington, DC go-go scene, it was clear from her early career she wasn’t going to be boxed in musically when she tried out for a vacant guitarist role with the Black rock band Living Colour – not at that time a traditional route for a Black female performer.

Rechristening herself with a Swahili inspired surname (meaning ‘free as a bird’), Ndegeocello helped usher in a sonically adventurous wave of  ‘90s neo-soul with her first album “Plantation Lullabies” on Madonna’s label, Maverick Records.

Throughout the decade, her mixture of genres, her poetic sometimes spoken word like vocals, and her androgynous persona created a recording artist who was unmistakably unique – and in heavy demand both to contribute songs to neo-soul soundtracks like ‘Love Jones’ and ‘Love & Basketball’ and to collaborate with other artists ranging from Chaka Khan to John Mellencamp to the Indigo Girls and The Blind Boys of Alabama.

Ndegeocello is bisexual and currently shares her life with her wife, whom she married in 2005.

Rahsaan Patterson – A child star in the late ‘80s as part of the cast of TV show ‘Kids Incorporated’ (which spawned such celebs as Fergie, Shanice, and Martika, among others), Rahsaan Patterson was singing from an early age. 

By the late 1990s, he was part of a burgeoning neo-soul movement and had released his major label debut, an acclaimed self-titled release that produced multiple chart hits. Since then, Patterson has continued to steadily release soul music both on major labels and independently, briefly forming a group, SugaRush Beat Company, in the late ‘00s that yielded some fun retro soul/pop songs during the Amy Winehouse era. His most recent release, ‘Heroes & Gods’ came out in 2019.

Several generations removed from Johnny Mathis, Rahsaan Patterson is able to make mainstream, romantic soul, while also being completely open about his LGBT status.

Tonex/B. Slade – Born Anthony Williams, the final artist on our list perhaps personifies the difficult back and forth between Black LGBT artists and the church. Like Little Richard and Billy Preston before him, Anthony Williams’ music was steeped in church roots. But the church world couldn’t quite contain both Williams’ wider musical goals, and an honest declaration of LGBT orientation.

Performing under the stage name Tonex, Williams took the gospel music world by storm in the late ‘90s/early ‘00s with Prince-like stage outfits, soul-influenced songwriting, and powerhouse vocals on hits like ‘God Has Not 4Got’ and ‘Make Your Move’. 

But when he revealed his bisexuality in an interview, the ensuing fallout led to Williams abandoning the Tonex name, and and in 2010, he rebranded himself as B. Slade, the name inspired by a character from the movie ‘Velvet Goldmine’.

Since then, he’s continued to perform some gospel music at showcases and events, and on occasional releases.  But he’s also embarked on a prolific slate of independently released cross-genre funk/dance/rock/pop/soul/folk music – including multiple albums’ worth of material on Spotify just in 2020 alone.

Carl Bean – We close this list with a single bonus song by gay LA-based minister/singer Carl Bean.  Interestingly, again, the once conservative Motown Records was a pioneer in the Black LGBT space with a song called ‘I Was Born This Way’, the first major label song to explicitly embrace a gay rights message. 

The label released the song to minimal success initially by an artist named Valentino in 1975 (not available on Spotify). But believing in the message, Motown produced the song again in 1977, as sung by Carl Bean. A Billboard Club Play hit in 1978, the song has been remixed several times over the decades to renewed success, and has even been covered by British singer Jimmy Somerville. In 1982, Carl Bean founded the Unity Fellowship Church Movement, dedicated to providing a religious space for the Black LGBT population in Los Angeles, where he still resides today.

For today’s young Black LGBT artists, coming out is not nearly as difficult as in the past. Taking a look at the paths of the artists who have blazed this trail before them – all in their own ways, showcases new levels of meaning and understanding in their music and careers, but also illuminates a few of the ways that society has progressed in the last six decades. We’ve come a long way, with still a long way to go.

Original article source: | Article may or may not reflect the views of KLEK 102.5 FM or The Voice of Arkansas Minority Advocacy Council

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