Portrait of Gladys Bentley
Long before Hollywood manufactured the rebel as a spoilt white kid slouching in a windbreaker, a group of African-American women were breaking taboos and living hard rebellious lives as queer Blues divas during the 1910s and 1920s. On every level, these women: Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter and Gladys Bentley could have given that poor sulky white boy a reason for rebellion.
They were black in a segregated and racist America; they were women in a sexist and patriarchal world; they were queer when being lesbian, gay or bi-sexual was considered by many as anathema. Each one of these women were genuine rebels, who were a heck of a lot more rebellious than anything promoted by our anodyne pop culture these days.
When you hear Ma Rainey sing “Prove It On Me Blues” you know she doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks, she is just telling it how it is:
They said I do it, ain’t nobody caught me.
Sure got to prove it on me.
Went out last night with a crowd of my friends.
They must’ve been women, cause I don’t like no men.
The song refers to incident when Rainey was busted for indecency at an all girl party in 1925. Rainey was the “Mother of the Blues,” who discovered Bessie Smith—the “Empress of the Blues” who went on to eclipse her mentor, and save Paramount records from going bust with such risque songs as “Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl”. While Alberta Hunter lived openly with her lover, and Gladys Bentley was a “bulldagger” who dressed in a white tuxedo and top hat and “flirted outrageously” with the women in her audience.
T’Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s is a short documentary that examines and careers of Rainey, Smith, Hunter, Bentley and co. Made in 2011 by Robert Philipson the film documents how:
The 1920s saw a revolution in technology, the advent of the recording industry, that created the first class of African-American women to sing their way to fame and fortune. Blues divas such as Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Alberta Hunter created and promoted a working-class vision of blues life that provided an alternative to the Victorian gentility of middle-class manners. In their lives and music, blues women presented themselves as strong, independent women who lived hard lives and were unapologetic about their unconventional choices in clothes, recreational activities, and bed partners. Blues singers disseminated a Black feminism that celebrated emotional resilience and sexual pleasure, no matter the source.