Johns Hopkins University Press
  • “Their Mind Is Sex, Y’know?”: Little Richard Shades the Authenticity Debate

For many who came of age during the 1980s, our introduction to the not-so-subtle arts of shade came when the Black queer rock legend Little Richard effectively snatched the wig off the American music industry during the 1988 Grammys telecast. Invited onstage to co-present the award for Best New Artist, alongside David Johansen of the New York Dolls, Richard instead brought the audience to their feet by castigating the Recording Academy’s failure to ever give him an award, a fault he proceeded to remedy by repeatedly announcing himself as the winner of Best New Artist 1988. As Johansen (then in his Buster Poindexter persona) grew increasingly uncomfortable standing beside him, Little Richard clutched the unopened envelope tight, delighting in the suspense he was creating, and exulted in taking up the space to remind the pop music luminaries gathered in New York City’s Radio City Music Hall, and the viewers back home, how he was the architect of rock and roll whether they knew it or not. He even took time to throw a little shade at Johansen, whose retro rockabilly bouffant, Richard pointed out, merely recycled styles he was rocking in the 1950s.1

Little Richard’s performance at the 1988 Grammys became a pop culture legend long before YouTube would allow millions to place it on endless repeat. This was both because of the supremely diva move of giving oneself an award long denied by a racist and homophobic music industry but also because the particular award, for Best New Artist, enshrined the logic of disposability through which Black musical creativity had long been rendered an exploitable, renewable, resource. Pop’s endless quest for the latest and most profitable thing feeds into a dynamic that the performance studies scholar Shane Vogel terms “black fad performance”: novelty songs, styles, dance moves that can be quickly consumed by a white audience (and copied by white performers) before being as quickly forgotten.2 The media theorist Kara Keeling, drawing on the musicologist James A. Snead, points out how the Black radical imagination in music works against this dynamic of corporate exploitation at a formal level. “Black culture,” Keeling writes, “tends to admit elements of repetition, while [End Page 145] European culture strives to cover them up.”3 Newness as a commercial value within racial capitalism, in other words, works as an accumulation strategy, one that the repetitions and recombinations in Black aesthetics subvert. In parodically presenting himself as Best New Artist of 1988, Little Richard drew on the aesthetics of a Black radical tradition that refuses the “cover up” of the music industry, even as it insists on an interplay between musical generations as the real source of collective innovation. And so in the end, once he had given himself his due, Little Richard relented, and announced the soul diva Jody Watley the Best New Artist of 1988.

Watley won the recognition over another nominee, Terence Trent D’Arby, whose debut album Introducing the Hardline According to Terence Trent D’Arby was lauded by the Village Voice for combining “black consciousness and pop ambition.”4 A brilliant and mercurial musician, D’Arby’s blend of funk, rock, and soul bore an acknowledged debt to rock ’n’ roll pioneers like Little Richard, even as D’Arby found his crossover career pinioned by the same cultural contradictions that prior generations of Black musicians had struggled against. But, as the blues historian Marybeth Hamilton has pointed out in a shrewd essay on the sexual politics of Little Richard’s crossover success, D’Arby initially couched his critique of music industry racism in scathingly gendered terms, telling a music magazine in late 1987:

Any black act in the States who has been a massive quote-unquote crossover success has had to emasculate himself to some degree. Prince has had to play the bisexual image, cast aspersions as to his dominant heterosexuality, [Michael] Jackson’s had to be asexual . . . it’s like it’s in the contract, it certifies them to a free plastic surgeon visitation, guarantees them a makeup artist at all times to lighten ’em up for photographs if you sell more than two million albums, and these guys wouldn’t do or say anything which would lose them one record sale.5

Reflecting on this complex and problematic quote, one imagines what went through D’Arby’s mind, just months after giving it, as he watched Little Richard—in pancake makeup and every inch a queen—halt the Grammy proceedings instead of announcing the category in which D’Arby was nominated. Did D’Arby see a “sissified Sambo,” as Hamilton describes how some Black people came to respond to Little Richard’s persona: “an updated version of the feminized buffoon of blackface comedy”?6 Or might D’Arby have recognized in Richard, however unconsciously, an essential strand of his own musical and performative DNA, one that a conscious determination to push queers and women out of his masculinist assumption of who counts as a “black act” in America militated against? [End Page 146]

In the context of a forum on authenticity, these questions of blackness and queerness in popular performance—questions illuminated in a key recent American Quarterly article by Tyina Steptoe—cut two ways.7 On the one hand, the anxiety displayed by an up-and-coming “black act” like D’Arby over the meaning and value of the artistic legacy of fabulous and flamboyant figures like Little Richard may suggest the presumption that the queer is inauthentically Black, with D’Arby relying on the familiar homophobic posture that real blackness is straight and uncut and that both homosexuality and transgender experience are “a white thing.”8 Interestingly, however, this familiar homophobia does not seem to have been the primary source of D’Arby’s outburst. This is especially evident when one considers that his own musical persona could also be described as flamboyant and even sexually ambiguous. His vocals transgressed every conventional binary of the “male” versus “female” voice, and he even included a song on his second album, Neither Fish nor Flesh (1989), that was quite queer-inclusive for its day.9

What D’Arby’s comments reveal, rather, is a second strand of concern over inauthenticity, which is that some Black performers are inauthentically queer. Strange as this sounds (for who would want to assume the public stigma of queerness in a homophobic society if there was some other choice?), the inauthentic queerness line of argument is one even Little Richard himself would appeal to over the years. It held that Blackqueer performers10 enjoyed greater success at musical crossover in white America because they were not seen as the same threat to the Black–white racial hierarchy as “openly straight” performers were. Beneath this line of argument is the idea that Black men are queered by white America as the price of survival (an idea I explored in my recent book Afro-Fabulations, where I discussed how the white female avant-garde film director Shirley Clarke became convinced that her Black gay subject, Jason Holliday, was a “made up homosexual” who found “a particular way to adjust” to white supremacy by making queerness “part of his act”).11

In a 1999 interview republished in Kandia Crazy Horse’s germinal Black rock collection, Rip It Up: The Black Experience in Rock ’n’ Roll, Little Richard made a similar claim about his own early years in rock and roll:

“They didn’t like it ’cause the white girls was screamin’ over me, and they put [Pat Boone] out to block that. With way bigger promotion. That’s the reason I started wearin’ makeup, so that they wouldn’t feel threatened when I was in clubs, around the white girls, ’cause they think you’re comin’ ’round to get them, when your mind ain’t nowhere like that. Their mind is sex, y’know?”12 [End Page 147]

There is more than a little creative revisionism in this version of events, since Little Richard’s own authorized biography, first published in 1984, makes clear that he was performing—not only in makeup but in drag—for Black audiences well before his rock ’n’ roll crossover years.13 Attributing his queer stage persona as a way to deflect the attention of hostile whites, whose minds were on “sex” while his was only on the music, was a convenient fiction. But like many an afrofabulation, it contained some truth within its misdirection. White girls did scream over the young Little Richard (not in spite but because of his stage transgressions of racial and gender propriety), and the white-dominated music industry did seek to expropriate Black musical ingenuity by placing white musical cover acts like Pat Boone in direct competition.14 But the notion that Blackqueerness was an inauthentic response to this situation was an almost textbook example of ideological mystification: the imaginary resolution to a real contradiction.15 Deploying it revealed that the two uses of inauthenticity ultimately braided into one, with the notion of the Black performer as inauthentically queer generating its plausibility from the notion of the queer as inauthentically Black.

There is much more to be said about these questions than I have space to say in this present context. Perhaps it will seem strange to many twenty-first century readers, or indeed any readers affected by the field-transformative interventions of Black queer studies, to encounter a historical moment when two aspects of a single identity were held in such tension.16 To the contrary, it is much more common today to understand authenticity as only arrived at when individuals are able to embrace all aspects of themselves. In the historical research I am conducting now, however, I am trying to attend to how performers like Little Richard experienced authenticity in multiple but contradictory ways, and found themselves facing circumstances that called for camp, shade, signifyin’, and fabulation rather than sincere identitarian statements as ways to navigate those contradictions. This might, then, be thought of as a third strand of authenticity, a Blackqueer one. That is to say, cultural and musical history can reveal an “authentic” tradition of Blackqueer resistance to homophobia and racism, a tradition that is “authentic” in the sense that it originates in the Black community and is repeated (with constant revision) from one generation to the next—not through reproductive futurity and the family romance, but in performative moments like that astonishing scene at the Grammys, which cannot be understand as anything other than a refusal and embrace of the role Little Richard had been consigned to, and made so inimitably his own. [End Page 148]

Tavia Nyong’o

Tavia Nyong’o is William Lampson professor and chair of theater and performance studies, professor of American studies, and professor of African-American Studies at Yale. His first book, The Amalgamation Waltz: Race, Performance, and the Ruses of Memory (University of Minnesota Press, 2009), won the Errol Hill award, and his second book, Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life (New York University Press, 2018), won the Barnard Hewitt award. He is currently embarking on a study of critical negativity in twenty-first-century black thought, and another on the expressive capacities of black transqueer vocality.

Notes

1. On Little Richard, see Charles White, The Life and Times of Little Richard (New York: Da Capo, 1994); Marybeth Hamilton, “Sexual Politics and African-American Music; or, Placing Little Richard in History,” History Workshop Journal, no. 46 (1998): 160–76; and Tyina Steptoe, “Big Mama Thornton, Little Richard, and the Queer Roots of Rock ’n’ Roll,” American Quarterly 70.1 (2018): 55–77.

2. Shane Vogel, Stolen Time: Black Fad Performance and the Calypso Craze (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).

3. Kara Keeling, Queer Times, Black Futures (New York: New York University Press, 2019), 147. See also James A. Snead, “On Repetition in Black Culture,” Black American Literature Forum 15.4 (1981): 146–54, doi.org/10.2307/2904326.

4. Evoking the “elements of repetition” through which Black musical innovation occurs, the Voice critic went on to identify the “best cut” on the album to be “Who’s Lovin’ You,” a Smokey Robinson cover that “you’ll think is his own until you check the fine print.” See Robert Christgau, “Christgau’s Consumer Guide,” Village Voice, December 1, 1987, www.robertchristgau.com/xg/cg/cgv12-87.php.

5. Quoted in Marybeth Hamilton, “Sexual Politics and African-American Music; or, Placing Little Richard in History,” History Workshop Journal, no. 46 (1998): 174.

6. Hamilton, “Sexual Politics and African American Music,” 173. In her recent article on Little Richard and Big Mama Thornton, Steptoe usefully traces the “emasculation” thesis to the Black sociologist E. Franklin Frazier (“Big Mama Thornton, Little Richard,” 65).

7. Steptoe, “Big Mama Thornton, Little Richard.” The essential reference in this field remains E. Patrick Johnson, Appropriating Blackness: Performance and the Politics of Authenticity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004). See also Gavin Butt, “Stop That Acting! Performance and Authenticity in Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason,” in Pop Art and Vernacular Cultures, ed. Kobena Mercer (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 36–55.

8. See Johnson, Appropriating Blackness, chap. 2. See also Robert Reid-Pharr, Once You Go Black: Choice, Desire, and the Black American Intellectual (New York: New York University Press, 2007).

9. The song, “Billy Don’t Fall,” is sung from the vantage point of a straight boy who discovers his best male friend has a crush on him. Rather than respond with homophobic panic, the lyric “I” urges Billy not to fall in love with him while reassuring him that “it can’t be wrong to be what you are.” While this song certainly falls into the category of “straight but not narrow” performative allyship, such allyship was also a remarkably rare occurrence in mainstream Black pop in the 1980s. And the tender falsetto ballad also blends or blurs the identities of the two boys, who clearly have a strong emotional bond, and thus it allowed its youthful listeners a space to work through the agonies and ecstasies of first crushes.

10. Blackqueer is a useful term I pick up from the work of Ashon Crawley, particularly suited to thinking queerness that emerges out of the Black southern church. See Crawley, Blackpentecostal Breath: The Aesthetics of Possibility (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017). Crawley has also written movingly about the grief entailed in Little Richard’s repeated disavowals of Blackqueerness, another dimension to authenticity—emotional authenticity—that has been understudied in relation to Black performers routinely denied complexity and depth. See Crawley, “He Was an Architect: Little Richard and Blackqueer Grief,” NPR Music, December 22, 2020, www.npr.org/2020/12/22/948963753/little-richard-black-queer-grief-he-was-an-architect.

11. Tavia Nyong’o, Afro-Fabulations: The Queer Drama of Black Life (New York: New York University Press, 2018), 66.

12. Quoted in Andy Gill, “Ten Questions for Little Richard,” in Rip It Up: The Black Experience in Rock ’n’ Roll, ed. Kandia Crazy Horse (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), 2–3.

13. Charles White, The Life and Times of Little Richard (New York: Da Capo, 1994).

14. On the omnisexual appeal of Little Richard, see Ann Powers, Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black & White, Body and Soul in American Music (New York: Dey Street, 2018).

15. On ideology as the imaginary resolution to real contradiction, see Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982).

16. On black queer studies, see E. Patrick Johnson and Mae Henderson, Black Queer Studies: A Critical Anthology (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005); Rinaldo Walcott, “Black Queer Studies, Freedom, and Other Human Possibilities,” in Understanding Blackness through Performance: Contemporary Arts and the Representation of Identity, ed. Anne Cremieux, Xavier Lemoine, and Jean-Paul Rocchi (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 143–57.

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6490
Print ISSN
0003-0678
Pages
145-149
Launched on MUSE
2021-03-31
Open Access
No
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