Corinne Bailey Rae & Theaster Gates Discuss 'Black Rainbows' Album & Cultural Preservation
This feature is in our Dec. "Creative Arts" Issue. Click here to subscribe.
Magic occurs when two mediums come together. In the case of Grammy Award-winning U.K. singer Corinne Bailey Rae (@corinnebaileyrae) and decorated social practice installation artist Theaster Gates (@theastergates), their friendship further enriched the conversation of embracing the historical layers of Black culture. The pair met in 2017, and Rae learned about the Chicago native’s Stony Island Arts Bank. Describing it as a “cathedral of Black art,” she was inspired to create her emotionally gripping fourth album, Black Rainbows.
Corinne Bailey Rae PHOTO BY KOTO BOLOFO
“WHAT IS MY ART MAKING? IF IT ISN’T TO BE FULLY HONEST AND FULLY FREE, WHAT AM I WASTING MY TIME DOING?” -CORINNE BAILEY RAE
I was honestly blown away by this album. Some people may think it's a departure from the music that you've put out before, but I feel like it's stepping away from what people may deem as the “easier” or “breezier” music that you've put out before. You've been in an alt-rock band when you were a teenager. So I'm wondering if this new music feels like like a full-circle moment for you.
CBR: Yes. With this record, the music feels very familiar to me and my favorite responses is from [people who] say, “I know this music has been in you for a really long time.”. So I feel at this moment, like everything is coming together I feel like I'm able to show a full spectrum of myself. The title of the record Black Rainbows is also in reference to the way that I am able now to bring all of these different parts of myself to this moment and to respond in all these different musical waves to what is it really fascinating collection of objects and very sort of stimulating a series of encounters. So bringing Black punk music or indie music or some things that are more influenced by jazz opera feels like an extension of what I have always done.
CBR: I saw an image of Theaster Gates. At that point, I didn't know who he was. I saw him surrounded by all this art. I thought, “Who is this Black artist whose work is not paintings of people and it’s not line drawings?” As you said, I saw this picture on the Pinterest board. My friend sort of runs it like a magazine. I think there's so many platforms now where people can curate their own content. I was learning a lot about her. I was learning about the Black Sault Collective. I was learning about Black female drummers and contemporary art and vintage Black glamour. She was pulling of all these wide images from across the Internet and curating them in the form of this magazine, which happened to be presented on Pinterest.
But yeah, seeing the face of this person who had so much self-possession and confidence. I don't know if you remember that photo been taken Theaster, but there’s so much stillness in you. There’s this rested, solid sort of connectedness and confidence in your practice and yourself. So I was really engaged with that. With this whole project, I've been really pulled in by photographs and moments in photographs. But yes, I saw Theaster. I researched the Bank online and I found it was this meeting point of interest in social development and art for the community in the preservation of the Black archive. I wanted to go there. Then when I was playing in Chicago, I reached out to someone who reached out to someone else who eventually found the Theaster and we were able to connect for one show. Then he brought me to the Arts Bank. I was just amazed by going into that building and being in this cathedral of Black art.
Corinne Bailey Rae’s Black Rainbows album is inspired by the artwork, objects and historical archive at Theaster Gates’ Stony Island Arts Bank. PHOTO BY KOTO BOLOFO
Theaster, when you first met Corinne, did you feel like you had a shared energy?
TG: So we were at the Music Box, this great venue in Chicago. I was invited to come backstage and meet Corinne. This was never in my wildest dreams what I had imagined meeting someone who I've admired for so many years. Like many people, she's a part of my young adulthood and those songs are a big part of my soul. We met and she shared that she was very interested in the work that I was doing. And I couldn't believe it. It was just at the time when we were really trying to figure out how could we expand our reach, expand the use of our archives and do more interesting things. So I invited Corrine and Steve in the family. Wherever we would be in the same place, we would just say, “Hey, I'm gonna be in Basel” or “I'm gonna be in LA”. So we just started seeing each other all over the world and we became friends. We were friends before the archive, so the archive and the album, were a manifestation of our care for each other and our belief in each other's abilities.
Print artifact from the collections acquired by Theaster Gates and housed at the Stony Island Arts Bank PHOTO: COURTESY OF THEASTER GATES AND STONY ISLAND ARTS BANK, CHICAGO
Corinne Bailey Rae. PHOTO: BY KOTO BOLOFO
CBR: Straight away, I was really drawn to Theaster’s warmth and also just generosity in saying “Look, I'll open this door. I'll introduce you to this person.” I found that just magical things were happening with and around Theaster. I was getting to meet all these brilliant artists and people through the Black artists retreat, people who are deeply invested in the work that they make, and it's very self-driven. People listening to the things that keep them awake at night and saying, “I'm thinking about this while I'm in bed. I'm thinking about this when I first wake up in the morning, this is obviously my work, this should be my labor.” I enjoy being around people who are driven in that way. And it normalized my own obsessiveness.
So other people have this [feeling] as well. Maybe I found it in music, but maybe not. It tends to be not how people think about the music, especially having been in music labels for so long. I think I'd definitely got into a place where I was policing my own creative thought and trying to think commercially, instead of just thinking. What if I was to follow the things that I'm interested in rather than following something that I think might be a hit or not a hit or work on the radio. So it was really nice to be outside of music. Sometimes I don't find being in music that inspiring, listening to things other people have already done. It feels like a series of closed doors to me. When I hear something brilliant, I think, “Oh, well, they've done that now.” That doesn't inspire me. I don't think, “I want to do something like that.” So being in visual art and being in a world of looking, led me to wanting to make sound so much more than being in a world of listening.
Corinne Bailey Rae PHOTO BY KOTO BOLOFO
Did you notice that you had either shared or different perspectives when it came to the Black experience?
TG: Corrine, if I could, if I could take this first. Corrine was always explaining to me that there were gaps in the way that Blackness was portrayed in the UK. What I found with my own friends abroad is that in the ‘90s, my friends were like, “Theaster why are you always talking about this Black shit? Can't you guys just get on with it and just be American?” It feels like maybe Great Britain had done a better job in their colonial attempt at making the Caribbean and Black World of the UK feel more British and the racism in the 90s was rarely spoken [about] unless you were radical. It was mostly like, Britain is a land of opportunity.
But, when I started to spend time with Corrine, I started to feel like the way that Blackness plays itself out in London and Leeds is so interesting. There are similarities, like both Corinne and I have a religious background where we sang in choir. Corrine has an amazing appetite for literature and tremendous curiosity. But her brain and her intellectual rigor weren’t the things that were always foreshadowed in the music. We were able to develop conversations around what's happening in the contemporary art world. It was just amazing for me to learn more about the music world from her and for her to learn more about contemporary art.
I have a band called The Black Monks. We're more like an improvisational band. Corrine can speak to this more, but she would see us wylin’ out. It was wild, but it also had its own structure. And even though it was spiritual music, it was also house, jazz and punk. So it was free music. I feel like just seeing that freedom also opened Corrine up. Then, me seeing her discipline made me want to lock in more and be more focused.
Books and objects from the collections acquired by Theaster Gates and housed at the Stony Island Arts Bank. PHOTO COURTESY OF THEASTER GATES AND STONY ISLAND ARTS BANK, CHICAGO
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PHOTO COURTESY OF THEASTER GATES AND STONY ISLAND ARTS BANK, CHICAGO
CBR: That's very generous of Theaster to say. My experience has been that I feel like I've learned so much from being around Theaster and especially the Black Monks and the improvisational nature of that art music. There's a deliberate throwing off of the need or urge to entertain, which is really intriguing to me. Sometimes I'd watch the Monks and [they would] undo expectations of the song form as being short, repetitive, instantly digestible or possibly reminding of something else. That's so limiting for music and for music makers. And of course, that means that the music [on the album] is definitely less commercial. Although ironically, BBC Radio 6 played my record so much more than they played the last one. It's hilarious and baffling to me.
There's two things I think about. One is freedom. The other thing is death. I'm 44 years old, I have had success in music and have been so lucky and gone on private jets to Oprah and won Grammys and toured around the world to play my music. But I'm also an adult at this point. What is my art making? If it isn't, to be fully honest and fully free, what am I wasting my time doing? I want to challenge myself. When I was 25, I wanted to write about how crazily in love with my husband and how I've never known this feeling before and learning stuff about myself. But that's not what I want to say when I'm this age nearly 20 years later having different things to say. So yes, it was an example of freedom, but sort of a permission to freedom as well.
Corinne Bailey Rae and Theaster Gates PHOTO BY KOTO BOLOFO
As you mentioned, it is about commercialization. “Put It Down” is the record’s highlight for me because it feels like a release. There’s a liberating feeling about not thinking about a digestible song structure. It bridges the gap between music and art and reflects the relationship that you both have.
CBR: I really appreciate that. That song came out of the Arts Bank. We went to a dance party on the second floor and we all had to write our woes in this pot that Theaster made. We danced it out with this three or four hours with [DJ] Dwayne Powell and the Frankie Knuckles archive. And at the end of it, when those words were set fire, I did feel a release. I felt the lightness of the burden.
When discovering the arts, some of the feelings were complicated, because I thought there's all this richness here, but I didn't know about it. I'm like, “Why don't I know about these particular moments in radical Black artistry in the ‘60s in the ‘70s?” I was cut off from it, I'm not aware of it, it hasn't been celebrated in popular culture in Britain where I am [from]. I'm aware of Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner Beyonce and Michael Jackson. These are all giants in popular song, but there's a limit to what they do because it has to be entertaining to be valued, instead of being an exploration of freedom.
So to circle back to these moments and see all this sort of weirdness for weirdness's sake and all this ancestry link. It’s so expanding in terms of what a person can do and what's been done in Black spaces. And to see women working in those spaces and making those performances that shifted my consciousness a lot.
Corinne Bailey Rae PHOTO BY KOTO BOLOFO
What do you think is the importance of preserving Black spaces?
TG: I feel like Corinne has opened a new Black space, where she's she's—through this new album—given girls and boys, men and women, a road from early creativity to later creativity. That road allowed for a pivot and it required courage. The new album actually holds space in an interesting way because it says, “You don't have to remain confined to what the first hit did or what the second hit did. If you imagine yourself as an artist, if you're courageous enough to take the leap, then people will follow you.”
That space-making is as important as the creation of the Arts Bank, the creation of Retreat cafe, or the creation of Black cinema house. The more that I build physical spaces, the more I realize that I'm actually still involved in both concrete space and abstract space. This work of making magazines, having these conversations and making new music allows young kids to imagine that they can occupy and advance similar spaces.
It's coming back to Blue Dune, Sun Ra, Katherine Dunham, and Merce Cunningham. Even when I say that I'm improvising, I'm not f–king improvising from nothing. I'm improvising with the Black sermon, the deacon board, the choir and street poetry in my pocket. So by the time you're 50 years old, what feels like generic improvisation is, in fact, the last 200 years of Black space, of Black musical tradition of Black auditory tradition, of speeches and sermonic devices.
When that comes out, even in this phone call, it's like, “Oh, my brain has rhythm. The way that I think about strategy and conjuring thought is with cadence.” We have to say that more as a counterpoint to the bridge, and as the hyper three minutes 27-second song. That song might be the whole 23 minutes of the first side of the f–king album, let it rip. That might be truer to form to who we are and how we think. And if we have the courage to share it, it might actually be the thing that transformed the industry.
Corinne Bailey Rae PHOTO BY KOTO BOLOFO
CBR: It's a good question Bianca because I feel like those two things are really innately linked. The idea of abstract space and safe space is something you can carry within you. But you can't underestimate the power of going into an actual physical space. I often talk about libraries. I was at the University of Leeds and they have prestigious libraries and visited Oxford’s libraries. There's a grand jewel that I associate with a library of just being around this volume of learning. But they would be places that I would experience as white spaces.
I would go and read a Shakespeare play or something by Marlowe or Virginia Woolf and feel this sort of hallowed-ness of the space. But if I wanted to find Black literature, I might be going to my local community hub, where you also go and pick up your check from the government. You also go [there] to pick up a prescription if you're sick and maybe there's a daycare center and this kid screaming in the background. Therefore your experience with that literature would be a different experience.
But being able to go into the Arts Bank and say, “Look at all this marble, look at this stillness, look at the way these archives have been treated, look at the arrangement of Ebony Magazine bound with gold embossed on the side.” Being able to see these things with true value makes people feel a different way.
Because Black stuff is just tossed to the side. We liked dancing to that 10 years ago, but now we're tossing you to the side and everything you stand for and all your work was entertaining to us. Culture is only about the moment, and there's no investment in history. I it's only about being hip in that moment, and then the next person replaces you, if it's only disposable, then what does it say about Black people and the value of our lives?
Those two things that you rightly picked up— the abstract space and the concrete space—re particularly important, as well as the impact on the mental is very strong. That’s what it was like at the Arts Bank. Look at this special place for our things that have value. Maybe the way I think about it has value, maybe analyzing it has value, maybe the history around it is valuable too. It can't be underestimated in terms of making spaces for stillness and beauty. They have a big effect on people's sense of self and a community's sense of where they can be.
Typewriter from the collections acquired by Theaster Gates and housed at the Stony Island Arts Bank PHOTO COURTESY OF THEASTER GATES AND STONY ISLAND ARTS BANK, CHICAGO