During the month of February, AfterEllen.com highlights the queer black women who continue to overcome obstacles in the entertainment industry and society, ultimately finding success. These women not only face discrimination for being queer in such an image-oriented profession, but for being black as well. Regardless of how you sexually or ethnically identify, let’s celebrate these bad-ass individuals!
This week’s spotlight: queer black women behind the mic.
The famous bulldagger of the Harlem Renaissance, Gladys Bentley was a lively, piano-playing blues and jazz singer. Hailing from Trinidad, Bentley performed at speakeasies (including Clam House, the most notorious gay speakeasy) across the country, clad in her famous tuxedo and top hat, boasting her sexuality, raunchy lyrics, and play on gender identity. Bentley penned a memoir, If This Be Sin, joining the ranks of other queer black intellectuals and performers in Harlem, including Langston Hughes and Ethel Waters.
Bentley married a white woman, garnering an uproar of gossip and media attention over miscegenation. However, after recording music for more than 20 years and performing with drag queens, she felt the heat of McCarthyism, being harassed by the police and publicly scorned for her gender presentation and sexuality. Trying to save her career, Bentley published an article in Ebony, claiming that she had been “cured” of lesbianism and was a “woman again.” The singer tragically passed in 1960, but her legacy lives on.
A creative force who has thrived in the music industry for 20 years, Me’Shell Ndegéocello, prodigal bassist and masterful songstress, continues to shape music and entertainment, all the while challenging the boundaries of gender, sexuality, and race. In the ’90s, Ndegéocello was signed to Madonna’s record label, after which she joined the Black Rock Coalition and later appeared with artists ranging from Alanis Morissette and Chaka Khan to John Mellencamp. (“Wild Night” is a personal favorite.)
Releasing eight studio albums to date, her current album, Devil’s Halo, encompasses all of the influences, dichotomies, and musical elements that have made her who she is today: a musical and sociopolitical visionary, transgressing any labels or boxes made for her.
Perhaps best known for being part of Labelle (formerly Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles), Nona Hendryx is a high-profile queer black musician with a prolific career to back it up.
In addition to Labelle’s success, including the hit single “Lady Marmalade,” Hendryx embarked on a solo career, marked by fusions of soul, hard rock, and funk, scoring her a Grammy nomination for The Heat’s “Rock This House,” featuring Keith Richards. Her biggest commercial hit, “Why Should I Cry?” from the album Female Trouble, reached the top five on the R&B charts and #58 on the Billboard 100. Hendryx, too, joined the Black Rock Coalition.
In recent years, Hendryx discussed her bisexuality with The Advocate, appeared with Betty on The L Word, and joined the True Colors tour in 2008. That same year, she and Labelle released their reunion album, Back To Now, followed by a successful tour. Hendryx’s work and LGBT activism continue to be in high demand.
Check back next week for another post celebrating out black women this month.