Record of the Week: Corinne Bailey Rae’s ‘Black Rainbows’

Black Rainbows is a departure from Corinne Bailey Rae’s previous work. She almost didn’t put her name on the album to create some separation between the jazz-tinged, sunny pop hits people are used to hearing. But she wanted share what her passion has been for the last several years, the objects inside Stony Island Arts Bank on the South Side of Chicago. An almost side project became a record where she exercised her artistic freedom in the most powerful and challenging ways.

“I remember pitching it to my team I was like, ‘I saw this museum in Chicago, and I want to write an album in response to the objects from the archives,’ and I remember them being like, ‘Hmm.'” Bailey Rae laughs, then goes on. “In my head I was like, ‘It’ll only take me a year or maybe it’ll only be five songs.’ But instead, it became my absolute obsession. As my teams changed, I felt like I was working with people who understood it and the landscape changed. I think artists are doing lots more unusual records at this moment. I was very grateful that I found a team of people who understood what I was doing with the record.”

“But I still thought about it as a side project…[thought] ‘I’m not going to use my name,'” she tells me. “It was only when I saw the album cover, when we commissioned it to be made by Manu Schibli and he’d written my name in that crazy font. I’d intended for him to just write Black Rainbows almost like it was a band. I saw my name and it just made sense. That’s my name and this has been my obsession for the last seven years. I should claim this thing as my own and put it out,” said Bailey Rae. “I felt free in that way. I made it independently of a label, so that made me free in another way. I wasn’t thinking, ‘Are they going to want to market this?’ so that made me feel free, too.”

In 2017, she saw a photograph of the Arts Bank in conjunction with visual artist Theaster Gates. An old bank built in 1923 was at risk of being demolished before Gates saved the building and it only cost him dollar back in 2012. He would eventually raise millions for the bank and turn it into a space filled with Black art: objects that range from music, books, fashion, and even collections of “negrobilia” that make use of stereotypical images of Black people.

Celebratory of Black culture, but also featuring some frightening images, the space was one that Bailey Rae wanted to pay a visit. While on tour in Chicago, she found Gates, and he came to her show. She asked him if she could see the bank the following day. Gates, who had to be at Barack Obama’s 50th birthday later that day, agreed to meet Bailey Rae at 7:30 in the morning.

I remember walking in from the street with a strip mall on one side and some cars going past,” she says. “Going into this Greco-Roman bank from 1923, going through the doors and having them close behind me. Being in this vast, tall building, it felt like a cathedral. Instead of being full of money, it was full of art from mostly Black and brown people.”

Bailey Rae found the Arts Bank filled with sculptures, paintings, and drawings on the walls. She recalls going into the exhibitions on the second floor with thousands of books which were collected by the Johnson family, who owned Ebony and Jet magazines, also Negro Digest. This encompassed all types of art, dance, literature, poetry, music, entertainment, history.

On the third floor, Bailey Rae saw the record collection of “The Godfather of House Music,” Frankie Knuckles, which was given to the bank after the iconic DJ/producer passed away in 2014. While all this discovery sounds joyous, the artist also saw difficult objects from America’s past and derogatory, anti-Black propaganda from newspaper articles, photographs, postcards and cartoons. This experience was eye opening, but also inspiring.

“When I went in, the feeling I had was so dizzying,” she says. “It was, ‘Wow, look at all this contemporary Black art, which I know nothing about.’ Look at all these books, I know moments of these books, I know some of these writers, I know Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, W.E.B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, but look how much else there is. I couldn’t believe the volume of literature on these Black subjects and then finding all these historic objects and being able to look through them. Everything from troubling images of racial violence to endearing images from the ’60s. Adverts and sewn Black dolls that were made pre-emancipation era and thinking, ‘Who made these, who touched these, what was the purpose?’ I just felt like when I left, I had so many questions. I found myself writing poems and songs and found myself wanting to get to the bottom of these stories. It turned into the record Black Rainbows.”

She described the first piece of art she saw to draw inspiration for the record, which was a sculpture made out floorboards from an abandoned police station in Chicago.

“I thought, ‘What have these floorboards been witness to,” recalls Bailey Rae. “Imagining the moments when people come into a police station. Imagining people who were pacing the floor, the stories that those objects hold. I think in many situations, objects are silent witnesses to many things that happened in history. We’re told a version of history; sometimes it’s completely accurate, other times it’s told for the benefit of the person who tells the story. Information is sometimes withheld, distorted, erased, or silenced. We know this about history.”

“When I left, I found myself writing a poem. It was called, “You Who Have Walked These Floors In Fear.” It’s a poem that’s on another part of Black Rainbows, a part two of it that I haven’t finished yet. But that was the first thing that got me going. These objects in many cases are older than me. They’re from the ’60s, 1860s even, they go far back. Someone touched them, someone commissioned them, someone painted them, someone designed them. What were the intentions of all those people and how do they work now in our modern world?”

That’s what sparked the name of this record, Bailey Rae’s fourth full-length. Being in the Arts Bank and seeing all the Black art and culture, from the celebratory to the devastating, was like an array of colors creating a Black Rainbow.

She spoke about the “wide range and the full spectrum of emotions” in encountering objects and artifacts at the bank. Such as seeing “a smiling 17-year-old Black woman, Audrey Smaltz, winning a beauty competition that I’d never heard of and finding out that she goes on to have this incredible life” and “finding out about the Black pioneers going west or discovering Betye Saar, who is an incredible contemporary artist. So that was joyous.”

“The problematic things obviously had a range of emotions. Everything from defiance that these stories are finally being told, despite the way they’re trying to be discredited. And then horror looking at all these different erasures and silences,” continues Bailey Rae. “But similarly, there’s a spectrum of sound on the record. I’m singing in all these different ways. I’m making music that [is] seemingly all these different styles. I’m feeling like I’ve got permission to respond to the objects in any way. That might come out as something squelchy, funky, and psychedelic, or it might come out of something elegiac and operatic, or something that’s like a punk track. I like the idea that a rainbow really is a full picture and you’re able to go to more extremes.”

Sonically this record does depart from the sound people might expect from Corinne Bailey Rae. From Jazz to Afrofuturism to Rock, on Black Rainbow she explores different sounds based on the story she is telling in each song.

“When I was writing ‘Erasure,’ and I was encountering all these awful objects, and it was making me have these feelings of incredulity, shock, disbelief and horror,” she says, “I felt like those feelings could only come out in a squealing, raging, shouting, unbridled sort of thing. Similarly, when I heard the story of Harriet Jacobs, I thought of her in her hideaway. She makes it seem like she’s escaped from slavery, but she’s hiding away on a plantation for seven years in this very small space. So [I thought about] the stillness of waiting for seven years, the smallness of one’s world… I felt like the music had to slow down and stretch out and have all this space. That’s why there’s just a piano and a vocal for that song. Every single response was clear straightaway. When I’m writing about the rock churches of Lalibela, it has to be grand, open, and inspiring just like those buildings.”

On the song “New York Transit Queen,” she takes a trip socially to her punk days from back in the ’90s. (Corinne Bailey Rae was in a riot grrl band!) She was inspired to write this song by seeing an Ebony magazine from 1954 featuring a picture of model Audrey Smaltz.

“She was wearing a bathing suit just hanging off the back of a firetruck with firemen’s boots rolled down, looking at her shoulder with this innocent, playful, sort of cheeky expression,” says Bailey Rae.

Bailey Rae did some research on who this woman was and found out that Miss New York Transit was a competition hosted by the Black Transit Workers of New York. There was Miss Subways, which ended in 1976 and before starting back up in 2017. But around 1954, Miss Subways wasn’t open to Black women. The Black transit workers got together and made their own competition. It was a beauty pageant, but it also had a talent portion where competitors had to show what you were able to do. Everything about Audrey Smaltz’s story was inspiring to Bailey Rae.

“Audrey Smaltz was an artist and she brought along her sketchbook,” she says. “I was able to find out about her and found out she was the righthand woman for Eunice W. Johnson, who ran Ebony magazine. She would fly to Paris with Mrs. Johnson to get couture clothes for the Ebony Fashion Fair, which is still the world’s largest traveling fashion fair, and it went to over 150 cities across the U.S. She was on Wall Street, she has her own fashion company, and she’s still going strong.”

“I had this feeling from her from photographs and it reminded me of those posters you would get for riot grrl bands in the ’90s. You’ll see a picture and it might be a lady washing the dishes or a woman in a bathing suit, like a male gaze kind of set-up. But then the text on the poster would be subversive. It’d be like, ‘Forget the dishes, come out tonight and see Raging Feminist Power at 9:00.’ And it would be all these female-fronted bands, and just loads of women screaming. It was fun to be part of that scene…When I saw the photograph [of Audrey Smaltz], I immediately turned it into a band poster in my head. And just the title, ‘New York Transit Queen,’ it straightaway had its own rhythm to it.”

Bailey Rae says this album was a break from writing from her own personal perspective. Instead, she channeled her emotions in response to these objects at Stony Island Arts Bank and the stories were coming to her as she was writing them. The stories on Black Rainbows as she says her obsession. This album is an artistic statement and another explain of an artist finding new ways to share their passion creatively.

“It was a real change for me to be not talking about myself for the first time and imagine myself as being a 17-year-old beauty queen, or a young Black girl traveling west as a nanny for a family or imagine myself in those cathedrals in Ethiopia,” she says. “It felt good not just telling my own story and being able to focus on something else. Everything comes through the prism of self, I understand that. But it was nice to not be, ‘These are my thoughts, feelings and experiences.’”