The Popular Journey

Alberta Haynes is one of the most important character on television right now.

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There would be no Beyoncé without Alberta Haynes.  

Period.

The majority of Black History has a history of being swept under the rug.  From our roots in Africa, to European, Caribbean, and American enslavement of African people, to reconstruction and Jim Crow, to even modern days struggles regarding disparities in the housing community, the education system, and to in the relationship between authority and the Black community, Black experiences, be that struggle or success is usually met with an asterisk or might even be appropriated by other cultures without giving credit to where it is due.  Music is the ultimate example of this.  Much of today’s popular music such as hip hop, pop, rock and roll, and R&B is influenced by blues and jazz, particularly pieces composed during the 1920s.  The Harlem Renaissance brought about a wave of creative genius in the African American community and music was a heavy factor in the liberation of Black people during that time and introduced the world to Jazz legends that would forever be etched into history through the influence of their music and lyrics.  

One of the factors that make modern day female artists so dang popular is how honest they can be.  It is not uncommon to turn on the radio, or in my case, shuffle on Spotify, and find music by female artists that speak to the struggle of love, the need for liberation, and the power and strength of the female spirit.  Songs like “I’m Every Woman” by Chaka Khan, ”Sorry”  by Beyoncé, “Rhythm Nation” by Janet Jackson, and “Good as Hell” by Lizzo, inspire women to be independent and confident.  This started with women of Blues and Jazz in the 1920s. Women like Bessie Smith, Mamie Smith, and Ma Rainey.  Many singers were also songwriters and composers, like Lovie Austin and Alberta Hunter,  and often used their experiences as fuel for their art.  At the time, jazz was considered to be lawless, loud music, full of life and fun.  And behind all the synchronized instrumentation were lyrics that were simple yet involved the complexities of love.  Women jazz singers often wrote and performed songs that were sometimes a bit dirty, and typically were about a current or past love.  The subject in just about each of these compositions has been wronged, mistreated, abused, is looking for love, or is commiserating a lost love.

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Women like Alberta were not afraid to speak their minds at a time when there were still unspoken rules and expectations about a woman’s role and how she should present herself.  Jazz and Blues music wasn’t afraid to push boundaries when it came to both subject matter and language.  For example, “Crazy Blues”, written and performed by Mamie Smith in 1920, contained many euphemisms that often spoke to something taboo.  Alberta had spoken to many failed and unhealthy relationships in her time.   She was probably not afraid to push the lyrical boundary to speak her truth, however raw it was.  

Much of what makes female performers so dang mesmerizing is how they present themselves.  In our visual-obsessed society, looks are almost as important as talent, if not more so.  As such, it is not uncommon to see popular singers wearing daring outfits and wearing their hair in all sorts of styles, lengths, and colors, thus pushing the fashion rules as far as they can, taking much of those fashion cues of their 1920s predecessors.  The Jazz age was also characterized by leaps in fashion and hair care.  Black hair has long been a point of identity for the Black woman.  During slavery, many Black women suffered from alopecia, dandruff, severe shredding, breakage, etc. due to the harsh environment and the extreme pressure put on the body due to long hours of physical labor, not to mention the psychological damage from violence and terrorism, abuse and rape that the Black woman had to endure.  Enter the 1920s and due to the Great Migration, Black women have found themselves in major northern cities such as Chicago and New York.  The Harlem Renaissance is in full swing and the Black middle class is growing.  African Americans now have access to the luxuries denied to them in the South and in many other parts of the country and they are excited to show it off, particularly in dress and in how they did their hair.  Thanks in part to the invention of the hot comb, the hair care education and products developed by America’s first self-made millionaire Madam C.J. Walker, and the creation of the hair relaxer by Garret A. Morgan, Black women now had more options in styling their hair.  Alberta wore her hair in a short bob, known as “flapper-esque”  that were cut at the ears and framed foreheads with short bangs were very popular with Black women.  These hairstyles were created to accompany an era of cultural rebellion in response to social norms.  

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These rebellious styles accompanied  a more liberal style of dress.  Shorter, and/or looser dresses were popular as were bright colors, and all the accessories one could hope for.  It was not unusual for Jazz singers, like Alberta,  to wear glamorous dresses in a straight silhouette, accented with fringe, tiered, or handkerchief hems, bejeweled brooches, sparkly earrings, strands of pearls, and all decent outfits were always accented with a cloche hat, headwrap, or headband.  This style of dress spoke to the growing freedom of women as well as an ease with dancing and performing.  Jazz was energetic and its performers had to be able to move around freely.  Turn on any television or click any YouTube video of a famous singer and you’ll find that more often than not, she is wearing clothing that makes dancing, playing instruments, and performing on stage easier and more liberating.  It is the artist that dares to often push the envelope and that started with Alberta Haynes.  

It is common to hear of popular artists often handling their own business, managing their own financial agreements, writing and producing their own music, and even extending their talent into other entertainment or business ventures. But it wasn’t always so. Often times, Black artists were exploited for their voice or for their musical abilities. They were hardly ever paid what they deserved. In the 20s, jazz and blues records were known as race records, and as they surged in popularity, record companies raced to find and sign as many Black artists as they could. But many times, these record executives, often white, would trick Black artists, especially those new to the music industry, into signing away their songs and any future royalties that might come from those songs. Ma Rainey was always just one step ahead of those executives, and was known for being a savvy business woman. She understood her worth and remained in control of her own finances. She demanded respect, and did so unapologetically. After she retired from singing, she went on to buy and manage several theaters in She spent the last years of her life managing several theaters in Rome, Georgia. She also sponsored shows to raise money for people in need. In a time when many Black artists were being swindled and had no idea how to manage their earnings, she was ahead of her time, a strategy that many current celebrities employ today. And I’m sure that had Alberta Haynes, she might have had similar ambition and intuition.

Finally, jazz gave African Americans a voice in a time where many people in America refused to acknowledge Black people as equal and as deserving of the rights shown to a White person.  This overarching theme of racism has plagued our country since the first enslaved Africans were brought to our shores over 400 years ago.  As I stated before, blues and jazz lyrics were real and raw, often speaking to the struggle of the singer and/or composer.  Many women of the blues and jazz, Alberta included, wrote about the Black experience and by performing such music, put the first spotlight on the issues that plagued the Black community.  They were the first to stand up and say that “Black lives matter.”  Songs like “Strange Fruit” by Billie Holiday spoke about the racism and the violence that Black people still endured in the South.  Because this music appealed to both white and Black audiences, it provided a space in which artists were extractable with their music.  For in the time of the performance, an artist was simply judged by their talents alone.  Poet and former jazz musician Stanley Crouch stated that “jazz predicted the civil rights movement more than any other art in America.”  Since the emergence of jazz as America’s main contribution to music, musicians have long used their celebrity and music to promote social justice and racial equality.  Beyoncé’s “Freedom” is a prime example that was released in 2016, in response to police brutality and shooting deaths of Black and brown people.  Alberta experienced racism.  She experienced discrimination and segregation.  She witnessed the tragedy of the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921. She saw how hard her father worked and how talented he was, yet he was not allowed to have his own restaurant business.  And being the strong-minded and outspoken woman that she was, Alberta would’ve used her voice and her music to speak out against this disease.

From top left clockwise, Lovie Austin, Alberta Hunter, Bessie Smith, Josephine Baker, Ma Rainey.

It is important to recognize and speak up for those Black female performers who were the trailblazers of modern day popular music.  Women like Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Ma Raisey, Mamie Smith, Lucille Bogan, Ethel Waters, Gladys Bentley, Love Austin, Lil Armstrong, Memphis Minnie… there are so many more, who dared to use their voices when women were told to be seen and not heard.  They sang, wrote and composed music  about what they wanted, what was important to them, what was important to our people, and in doing so, spoke truth to power.  And they did this all at a time when Jim Crow was getting people with dark skin lynched for doing absolutely nothing wrong.  At a time when Black people were living in despair and poverty.  At a time when having too much melanin in your skin meant that you couldn’t lay your head wherever you wanted, or eat where you wanted, or live where you wanted.  At a time when being Black was considered a curse and you didn’t deserve to be treated like a human because there were people in power who consider you less human.  These women risked a great many things just to perform on stage, to be given a shot to make something of themselves.  And many of them were not compensated for their skills.  They were used by white record labels and white managers who exploited their gifts for money and prestige, none of which most of these women saw.  And of course, they were never given credit for what they accomplished.  Alberta, and the woman of the Jazz age, are transformative, courageous, strong, creative, original, resilient, intelligent, brilliant, confident, and  imaginative.  They were storytellers. They were forged in the fire. They are legends. The birth of Alberta Haynes has opened the door to these brilliant Black women who were such forces in their time, yet time forgot about them. Alberta Haynes’ story has and will introduce generations to forgotten pioneers, to innovative trailblazers, to horrific histories, and stories of strength and perseverance . It is through Alberta Haynes, that our stories and our history will have a place at the table, where it’s always belonged.

So the next time you ask Alexa to play “Crazy in Love” or “Black Parade”, remember it was Alberta Haynes, and the women alongside her, who sang those songs first.

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