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  • “Their Mind Is Sex, Y’know?”: Little Richard Shades the Authenticity Debate
  • Tavia Nyong’o (bio)

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...


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pp. 145-149
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