Ammons’ CD ‘re-imagines’ Gladys Bentley
Gladys Bentley was an early 20th century pioneer of the blues, but unlike her contemporaries Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and others, Bentley’s contributions are largely forgotten. In the 1920s, Bentley (1907-1960) performed in clubs and speakeasies in New York and became part of the music and art movement now called the Harlem Renaissance.
A documentary by Robert Philipson titled “T’ain’t Nobody’s Bizness: Queer Blues Divas of the 1920s” (which screened at this year’s N.C. Gay and Lesbian Film Festival) pays homage to Bentley and other blues artists’ boldness not just in music but in sexual freedom. Bentley, a vocalist and pianist, was public about her lesbianism, performed in men’s formal wear, and was known for writing bawdy lyrics to popular songs.
Durham poet, songwriter and musician Shirlette Ammons’ debut CD “Twilight for Gladys Bentley” takes its inspiration from Bentley. Ammons has written 13 original tunes that she describes as “a re-imagining” of Bentley’s work and legacy. Ammons and German hip-hop artist Sookee will perform music from the CD Thursday at The Pinhook.
Ammons read about Bentley in editor Delroy Constantine-Simms’ anthology “The Greatest Taboo: Homosexuality in Black Communities.” After reading about Bentley “I started doing my own personal research and just got enthralled by her story,” Ammons said in a phone interview. Ammons, who is gay, was fascinated with how Bentley managed to be open about her sexuality in the 1920s. “From those thoughts and questions I just started asking, What would Gladys Bentley look like in 2013?” in a hip-hop context, she said.
The new disc has several parallels to Bentley’s time. Today, hip-hop is “the music of prowess and posturing, like the blues was in her day,” Ammons said. And while Bentley was a pioneer in African-American popular music, that music drew a wide and diverse audience. Gays and lesbians felt welcome by Harlem’s tolerance, and whites would come to Harlem to hear Bentley and other musicians play blues and jazz. Ammons said she hopes the music on ‘Twilight’ also addresses issues important to the LGBTQ community as well as appealing to a wider audience.
The recording has a full band, with keyboards, who provide infectious grooves and beats that underpin Ammons’ poetry. These are songs of affirmation as much as protest. In the track “Twilight” she proclaims, “In this land of milk and filth and honey / We all need someone who more than understands / More than loves.” The tune “Gut Lightning” has a powerful bass and funk beat appropriate to the title and lyrics: “I need reverb and microphone / The feel of nickel strings / The crowd swaying like an audience of hurricanes / I need a living dream….” The tune “Take a Chance” is a humorous play on words and commentary on poetry: “Similes ain’t for poets / ‘Cause poets see things as they is / Not as they like,” she sings.
Thursday’s performance marks the beginning of Ammons’ second tour with Sookee. Earlier this year they played seven cities in the Southeast. Ammons first met Sookee when she asked her manager about doing a remix of a Sookee tune. Her manager knew Sookee and put her in touch and they developed a strong friendship during the tour, Ammons said.
Ammons is writing a song for Sookee’s new record. Ammons also has a volume of poetry titled “Matching Skin” (Carolina Wren Press). She has performed with the groups Mosadi Music and the Dynamite Brothers.
Poetry and hip-hop are closely related, she said. “I consider myself a product of hip-hop culture,” Ammons said. “When I’m writing poetry, I try to pull upon my poetry brain, although there will be elements of hip-hop that show up. … I love pushing rhyme schemes and not being so predictable.”
She grew up in Mount Olive, N.C., in Duplin County, where the church was an important musical influence. She sang in the church choir, and had to memorize a verse of scripture for every Easter service. “In some ways that was my introduction to poetry … and internalizing certain cadences,” Ammons said.
Growing up in the church still informs her sense of fellowship in performance, as well as call-and-response phrasing, along with her hip-hop influences. She has come to terms with being gay and growing up in a church that traditionally frowns on being gay. “I would prefer a larger deity holding me accountable for living my true self,” Ammons said. When she accepted that fact, she said she became comfortable with her self.
“When I think about the ease with which I present what I do, it’s because of trailblazers like Bentley,” Ammons said. “I’m living the benefits of the risks that she took. Hopefully, the next generation of queer hip-hop artists from North Carolina will live the benefits of the risks I’m taking.”
WANT TO GO?
WHAT: Shirlette Ammons, with Berlin hip-hop artist Sookee, performing Ammons’ debut CD “Twilight for Gladys Bentley”
WHEN: Sept. 5, 9 p.m.
WHERE: The Pinhook, 117 W. Main St., Durham
ADMISSION: $8. For information, visit thepinhook.com