Bessie Smith And The Harlem Renaissance

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The program continues its series Tell Me More About Black History with reflections on the music and style of Harlem Renaissance singer Bessie Smith.


It's Black History Month, and we're remembering people and events that have played a key role in this country's history. As part of our celebration, editor and writer Kai Wright has been telling us about some exceptional stories. In his fourth installment, Kai tells us about the music of the Harlem Renaissance. Bessie Smith is one artist whose talent and character caught Kai Wright's attention. Tell us more about black history, Kai.

KAI WRIGHT (Editor; Writer): Thanks, Michel. When I last spoke with your audience, we heard from the voices of both white and black Americans in the immediate aftermath of slavery's falling apart as we walk through the front lines of the Civil War.

Today, we move into the 20th century, and hear from some of the young black artists of that era who were really the precursors culturally to today's hip-hop artists. We think that it's a new conversation, this debate about how black art and how black artists represent themselves, and whether or not it is an appropriate representation for our children and for the broader society. But that's been going on for a very long time.

And in the '20s, black activists like W.E.B. DuBois came up with a new way to challenge Jim Crow. He famously coined the term the Talented Tenth, which was about finding the cream of the crop of black society, supporting their striving and their achievements to give the lie to the racism that underpinned segregation.

And with that in mind, he and others supported many of the young artists that would be part of what would become to - known as the Harlem Renaissance. But those artists weren't particularly interested in that kind of conversation. Many of them took great offense to the idea that their art had to be a certain kind of way or to voice a certain kind of thing for white people or black people.

Langston Hughes famously wrote an essay in 1926 for The Nation magazine that was titled, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain." The title says it all - which he professes that he and his compatriots will, quote: If white people are pleased, we are glad. If they are not, it doesn't matter. We know we are beautiful and ugly, too.

I like to think that this started with Bessie Smith. Music historians may know more precisely, but I love the music of Bessie Smith as a really great, early example of this kind of defiant spirit. Bessie was a blues singer in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She was very well-known by Southern blacks at the time.

But before she started, most black music did not make it into the mainstream. The only thing that record companies would produce was minstrel singing. They, right around the early '20s, discovered that there was actually a market out there for authentic black music from actual black voices, and Bessie stepped in as one of the biggest-hit sellers in that genre.

(Soundbite of song "T Ain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do")

Ms. BESSIE SMITH (Blues Singer): (Singing) There ain't nothing I can do Or nothing I can say...

WRIGHT: She produced her first album in 1923, sold a million copies, and what was lovely about her is that she stood almost in exact contrast to the stereotype of a black woman at the time. She was boisterous. She was unapologetically sexual. Many historians say she was openly bisexual. She refused to back down. She loved to stand up in people's faces when they crossed her. And the song that most embodies that is the famous "Taint Nobody's Bizness If I Do" where she says things like, if I should take a notion.

(Soundbite of song "Taint Nobody's Bizness If I Do")

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) If I should take a notion...

WRIGHT: To jump into the ocean.

(Soundbite of song "Taint Nobody's Bizness If I Do")

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) To jump into the ocean...

WRIGHT: Taint nobody's bizness if I do.

(Soundbite of song "Taint Nobody's Bizness If I Do")

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) Taint nobody's bizness if I do...

WRIGHT: If I go to church on Sunday, then just shimmy down on Monday.

(Soundbite of song "Taint Nobody's Bizness If I Do")

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) If I go to church on Sunday Then just shimmy down on Monday Taint nobody's bizness if I do...

WRIGHT: That's Bessie Smith, doing her wonderful "Taint Nobody's Bizness If I Do." Thanks, Michel, for bringing that to your audience.

MARTIN: Thanks, Kai. Kai Wright is editor of "The African-American Experience," a compilation of black history and culture through speeches, letters, editorials, poems, song and stories. He joined us from our studios in New York. We'll hear Kai each week this month in our series "Tell Me More About Black History."

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(Soundbite of song "Taint Nobody's Bizness If I Do")

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) If I give him my last nickel And it leaves me in a pickle...

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