Brie Haynes and Zahra Ismail sit down with Corinne Bailey Rae to discuss her latest album, Black Rainbows, and her approach to music & life.
(Interview has been edited for clarity.)
Zahra Ismail: Hello! Do you mind introducing yourself for the record?
Corinne Bailey Rae: Hi, I’m Corinne Bailey Rae.
Zahra Ismail: Perfect, thank you! How are you enjoying Dallas?
Corinne Bailey Rae: Yes! I am! We had a day off yesterday, but I didn’t really get around too much. We were kind of in and out of the hotel, we stayed at a hotel called The Canvas. But yeah, today was good, getting to do the show and be in this historic theater.
Zahra Ismail: Nice! I’m going to pass this off to Brie (hands phone).
Brie Haynes: Hello! So can you tell us a little bit about your podcast?
Corinne Bailey Rae: I do have a podcast coming out, but I’m in many talks about the record, there’s so much to say about it. I’m really happy with the songs, the stories are really rich and long, and you know, I got to tell some of those stories tonight. But there’s so much behind every song, and I really enjoyed researching the album because of that. It reminded me of being in university, and I always used to hate the part where you have to write the essay. So this was great to be able to do all this research but then, have it turn into a song. I also spoke at Yale with Professor Daphne Brooks regarding this album.
Zahra Ismail: On that note, how important was it to you that you preserved these Black stories that you are featuring on this album? I know you touched a little on this in your concert as well, but you had said that our history is kind of deleted or recreated without any control on our part. So I just wanted to ask for you, for this album, how important was it for you to preserve those stories and keep them?
Corinne Bailey Rae: It was really important to me. I mean, when I went to the Arts Bank, I didn’t go with the intention of writing a record. It was just the subjects were so fascinating to me and they really went into me and I guess they came out as poetry in the songs, but I guess for another person it would come out in a different way. But some of the stories—I mean, Ebony Magazine was really interesting to me because it was kind of like, showed this parallel version of history in America. So you have the mainstream version as a British person, that I would receive like the sort of Live Magazine version of American history. And then you have Ebony Magazine running around alongside it, which was kind of like Live Magazine for Black people, so I felt that there was a real, deep engagement with Black subjects at the time in Ebony Magazine that were there for all to read. And their readership was Black and so it stayed within the community. Then when that film Hidden Figures came out a few years ago and it was about the Black women at NASA, it was news to us in England that there’d been Black women in NASA in the 60s. It wasn’t news to Black America because they had been covered extensively in Ebony Magazine. There’s countless moments like that in a magazine where there’s knowledge that’s held but it’s held within the community. And for whatever reason that knowledge either crosses over and has a wider moment, but then is forgotten within a generation. You know, I think a lot about Harriet Jacobs story that I was telling about her retreat and her seven years hidden away, to then escape. She was a very well known abolitionist in her time, but then over the years her story was eroded and erased because it was presumed that she as Black woman and an enslaved woman couldn’t’ve written a story. That it was perhaps Maria Childs, who was a white woman, who had written the story. That Maria Childs must have made this up because how could it possibly be true? How could this woman hide out for seven years? Like, how could she? And so, the story, you think it might have ended up on school curriculums and been celebrated and passed down. But of course, you know, there was a particular moment where that story was seen as apocryphal, and it was the work of an academic, a work of an academic called Jean Fagan Yellin, who brought that story back to the forefront. And when I got the book, it was in the 90s. And it was obviously a reissue of the classics. So, it’s interesting to me that a story can be true and verified and celebrated in its moment, but there are lots of reasons why it doesn’t get passed onto the next generation. And just like a building being knocked down, like the Arts Bank—you know, the bank would’ve been.. being possible in only one generation would it slip away where, maybe a parent would say, “I’m sure there used to be a building—I’m sure there used to be a gothic building there. And then the children would just walk past it and see flat, just like the rest of Stoney Island. You know, strip malls and chicken shops and where to do your nails, a massage place. You know, somewhere to buy phone cards. And they wouldn’t’ve known of this architectural grandeur, so it’s really interesting to me how history can be erased, the political reasons why it’s erased. And then the moments to kind of retell those stories. I think they’re really valuable and so it wasn’t kind of like I thought, oh this would be a worthy project. It was more that they—the stories hooked me and I wanted to tell them. And then, in telling other people, I’d be surprised that they didn’t know them either. You know, not just other British people, but maybe other American people. And not just other American people, but maybe other Black American people. Because, how do you know a story unless someone tells you?
Zahra Ismail: And how did you get to pick these stories? Because there’s so many, but they’re all worthy of being preserved.
Corinne Bailey Rae: I feel like they just sort of picked me. It was just—I just couldn’t move around for, you know, seeing an object or seeing a thing, or you know, the erasure I had seen. I had seen this little sculpture of a boy, I thought was a sculpture anyway, and when I went to pick it up, this little lead sculpture, it’s a boy and he had an open mouth and he was sitting on a potty. It was like a toddler on a potty, you know, trying to go to the bathroom. And he’s in pain, you know, so something is happening. Maybe he’s finding it hard to go to the potty. It’s a really sympathetic sculpture as I read it, and then when I picked it up, the potty part was left behind. And I researched it and some of the other objects like that in the bank and realized it wasn’t a sculpture, it was an ashtray. And the point of this boy with his mouth open was that you would put out the cigarette into the mouth of the boy, or you could put out the cigarettes on the teeth. You’d put out the cigarette and put it into the throat of the boy, and I thought, if this violence has been enacted on this inanimate object for white amusement in public, like a party, what is happening behind closed doors? What’s happening in private? So it really, it shocked and disturbed me. And you know, the piece is made in Chicago. It wasn’t made, like, deep in the South, you know, a long time ago. These objects were in circulation in the 70s and 80s when people collected them. So the layers of the stories—who would’ve made it and why? Who would’ve used it? Who would’ve taken it out of circulation? All those things really fascinate me and, you know, the objects are really problematic to look at. You have to kind of look through things. And there’s definitely an argument that says, you know, shouldn’t this all just be in a bonfire somewhere? It’s very—it’s still corrosive and still has pain. But at the same time, it’s evidence of how widespread this kind of anti-Black thinking was, and where it was made. You know, not just in the South. And who had it, not just bad people. You know, just everyday people writing on the back of postcards of racial violence on the front, and on the back it’s: “Hi Mom and Dad, I’ve just arrived in Georgia. The peach trees smell beautiful through the train window. Kiss a dog for me.” So very kind of touching, sentimental light stories on the back that don’t engage with what’s on the front because it’s so normal. And yeah, that was probably the reason I wanted to write the record. It’s just to say, you know, that I have been in the raw moments [where you’re] swimming in the water. We can’t tell the narrative so widely accepted that we don’t question it. And that’s, I imagine, what this moment must have been like. When you can buy a lynching postcard from, you know, a chemist, and feel no shame or embarrassment or even refer to it in what you write in the front on the back.
Zahra Ismail: I think that’s—to follow up on what you’re saying, I think that’s really the burden of now looking back on those years and trying to re-expose the public to all this painful history is that it’s almost like the burden of knowledge that, as soon as you know, there’s so much pain that comes into your heart. And I also appreciate that you decided to take that and share it instead of just kind of holding on to it and letting it destroy you within. Because that is something that happens within academia and Black scholars in general is that, once you know all of it and you study it from an academic point, it kind of erodes you personally. It can be really corrosive.
Brie Haynes: So I do want to know what it was like writing an album that was so different from your previous works? Especially in the sense that it’s pro-Black.
Corinne Bailey Rae: It was really different. The main difference is obviously the subject matter and the sounds’ different. And the sound is in response to the subjects I guess. You know, with erasure, it just felt like an aggressive guitar song. I wanted it to be like, 50s film soundtracks that then gets interrupted. Transit Queen really reminded me of those 90s Riot Grrrl posters when I saw her 50s photographs. But I thought it was a side project for all the time I was making it. So I felt really free. I thought, it doesn’t have to be like anything I’ve done before. It’s me and I’m spreading my wings. I’ll call it something—it won’t even have my name on. So that felt really good, and then I guess as it’s come out, I felt more responsibility to claim it as my own and show that this has been my interest and obsession for the last seven years. I think there’s a throughline between what I’ve done before and you know, even “Put Your Records On”, which is kind of my most popular and lightest song, still has that emphasis on self-acceptance and a Black self-acceptance. It’s kind of a big heart of the story. When I’m singing “plum red lipstick, Black hair kinking”, it links back to “gotta love that afro hair-do, go ahead let your hair down.” They link, they make sense to me. As well as, you know, I was in an indie band when I was a teen so that all makes sense to me.
Zahra Ismail: Do you feel that documenting these stories and sort of, like you said in your past eras of always continuing this idea of self-acceptance and being proud of who you are—do you feel like this era of Black Rainbows contains Corinne Bailey Rae from the past in some capacity?
Corinne Bailey Rae: Yeah, absolutely. I think it contains my interest in research, which I guess I had when I was a student. I did English Literature, I didn’t study music. I studied music as a kid but it wasn’t what I did in school. And I guess it contained my interest in Black originated rock music and punk music, so I guess that’s my background. And also, I think it continues my interest in history and art and contemporary art. You know, getting to meet all these brilliant visual artists definitely informed how I make music and how I think about myself. You know, like the freedom, the permissions I give myself.
Zahra Ismail: Do you feel that archiving those stories from the past—you know you were saying women from Ethiopia and New York City Transit Queen and the history behind that, do you feel that understanding them a little bit more has helped you understand yourself as an artist and as a person?
Corinne Bailey Rae: Yeah, I think it’s funny when you look at things, you’re always looking through your own eyes. It’s clear to say that all my other records have been personal and that they’re about my relationships and my thoughts and my feelings and my experiences. This, in a way, is a personal record too because these were the stories that I was interested in and I’m bringing them through my prism or whatever. They’re refracting through my imagination and personality. So yeah, I think sort of within there is me. I was pulled to the stories of women, I was pulled to the stories of children. I was pulled to the stories which I felt brought a link to contemporary stories. Especially the Tamir Rice Pavilion on the grounds of the Arts Bank, and I thought about the erasure of the Black childhood and you’re wading through 200 years of propaganda about how Black children aren’t really children and they’re dangerous and they’re forced into sexual situations or romantic situations. And that’s just normal and it’s when you’re buying a product to clean the house or when you’re reading a newspaper or when you find a postcard, it’s just many cultural moments it’s reinforced that Black childhood is not a childhood to be valued. And then seeing the life of a Black child taken away—there’s a link between them. There’s a link between what happens when we’re swimming in that water, when we’re full of a false narrative and how it really impacts on real people’s lives, real children’s lives. So yeah, I think the cruelty of it really struck me and that’s part of the reason why I picked some of these stories.
Zahra Ismail: This is the last thing I’ll say, then I’ll pass it to Brie. I just wanted to thank you for this album and for all of your previous work. I think the way that you speak about the contemporary art that you used to create this album, I think is how a lot of people in my generation feel about you and what you represent. Yeah, there is sort of this desire to archive the women before or the Black women before us and you’re very certainly that person to us.
Corinne Bailey Rae: Wow. Thank you, that is very kind!
Brie Haynes: I think that’s all the questions I have, too. I just want to say I love your music so much so it’s just great being able to interview you.
Corinne Bailey Rae: Thank you, and thank you for coming out to the show!
A full review of the concert can be found here.