I was originally enticed by Eartha Kitt’s quirks and unmistakable timbre, but the more I read and listen, the more I recognize her immense intelligence and depth of interpretation. She was an accomplished polyglot and formidable actress, and though categorized as a “pop” artist in her day, her erudition and singularity render her unrecognizable from most of today’s pop singers.
In an era when black female activists were even more demonized than they are at present, Kitt was a courageous fighter for women’s and civil rights. Early in her career, Kitt advocated for impoverished youth; as her star rose, she continued this work and grew into extremely vocal anti-war activism. At the height of the Vietnam War in 1968, Kitt took the podium at a televised White House luncheon (under the Johnson administration) and spoke candidly against America’s militaristic, racist patriarchy. Ladybird was reduced to tears, and Kitt was shown the door. Conservative America seethed; the CIA branded Kitt a “sadistic nymphomaniac;” and her American career was effectively demolished. She found success in Europe and returned to Broadway in the late 1970s.
“I wanna be evil” comes from That Bad Eartha (first released 1953). The music video (whose origins are not readily apparent) is an essential companion. The song itself is a work of thinly veiled and multifaceted feminism. It opens with a semi-spoken intro depicting the gilded cage of a young starlet’s career, problematizing the cruel irony that a sex symbol still ought to be virginal (per 1950s American mores, and maybe today’s). By continually equating female freedom with “evil,” Kitt encodes the message that there’s something rotten about our society’s double standard for women.
“I wanna be evil” – Eartha Kitt, That Bad Eartha (1954)
This gem of classic Italian jazz came to me from a dear conductor friend in Rome. (He specializes in baroque repertoire, but no matter.) I’ve had trouble finding sheet music for it, or any information at all really, but its lulling, languid mood never fails to enchant. Jula de Palma is an Italian singer whose early career was closely associated with Lelio Luttazzi, a performer and composer of many stripes who made a decades-long career in Italian radio and television.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Jazmine Sullivan stands among my favorite singers alive. Her raw vocal dynamism and flawless technique are matched by an incisive lyricism. Her songwriting feels both old and new—jazz, motown, R&B, and hip-hop meld with electronic production, often in the context of unconventional structure. Jazmine was prodigious (here’s a video of her belting the Wiz, supposedly aged 11) and her genius endures. I’ve been trying to see her live for years, and I can’t wait for her next album—though, like most good things, I think it’ll take a while.
I failed to find a favorite track. There are too many masterpieces. I chose “Stupid Girl” for today’s post. The song comes from Sullivan’s most recent album, Reality Show (2015), and keeps with the album’s adamant, nuanced feminism. Lyrically, the protagonist acknowledges her twin flaws of reliance on male affirmation and tolerance of male abuse. Simultaneously, however, she criticizes the objectification of women and exhorts other women to “L-L-Learn from my mistakes, because it isn’t too late / For you to get up and run, please just don’t be dumb / Cause you have a choice, t-to run after them boys or take over the world.” (This verse also features Sullivan’s signature “stutter” inflection, the origin of which I’m itching to discover.)
Here is a particularly stimulating live rendition. NPR films Sullivan singing “Stupid Girl” with a lone guitarist in a barbershop, effectively taking to task the denizens of an emblematically male space.
“Stupid Girl” Jazmine Sullivan, Reality Show (2015)
I first heard Anita Rachvelishvili with my grandmother in a Met simulcast of Carmen. (I share a love of opera with both my grandmothers, for which I’m eternally grateful.) A year later, I was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed first-year masters student at Juilliard, stumbling around YouTube in search of repertoire, and I found Rachvelishvili’s powerful rendition of this Rachmaninov warhorse, “Ne poy, krasavitsa, pri mne.” Pushkin’s text begins, “Don’t sing, beautiful girl, to me / Your sad songs of Georgia.” (That’s Georgia, the country just south of Russia.) It’s a wrenching depiction of nostalgia that reflects Pushkin’s own exile when he ran afoul of the Russian gentry. His overarching rhetoric is that the misery of separation outweighs the joy of remembrance. I’ll let Rachmaninov’s perfect setting sing for itself.
Notable fact: Pushkin was mixed race. His great-grandfather, Abram Petrovich Gannibal, was a black African. Per Wikipedia: “Kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery, Gannibal was taken to Russia and presented as a gift to Peter the Great, where he was freed, adopted and raised in the Emperor’s court household as his godson.”
“Ne poy, krasavitsa, pri mne” – Rachmaninov/Pushkin
Anita Rachvelishvili, mezzo-soprano
David Aladashvili, piano
Blending R&B vocals with innovative electronic production, and citing influences from Janet Jackson to Björk to Betty Carter, Kelela represents, in my estimation and that of the New York Times Magazine and The Guardian, a new musical forefront. Unfettered by convention and meticulous in her production, she speaks directly to a marginalized black, queer audience about empowerment and self-determination. Kelela crafts lyrics with a unique ear and honesty, draws on the pluralistic vocal currents of R&B, and collaborates with experimental producers to shatter conventional structures and sonorities. What results is a discography of warm, shimmering, cerebral, and irresistibly danceable tracks that leave the listener ecstatic.
In “Frontline,” the first cut off her recent debut album Take Me Apart, Kelela describes the first, raw moments after a break-up. She walks to her car, head spinning, wounded but buoyed. The soft, synthy production and organic whispers hypnotize us; listen for the half-time relationship between the opening of the song and its outro. Kelela’s probing vocals remind us that “we’re going in circles” as we succumb to the album’s labyrinthine spirals. Consider her recursive syntax, chained almost like lines in Dante:
“I’ll tell you what, there’s no luck, it’s all me. / I’m staying up; don’t wait up, ’cause they’re betting on me / Coming up with the sun around me. / Fire me up; now I’m up and I won’t be taken / Down on my luck; tell you what, it’s all me. / I’m staying up; don’t wait up ’cause they’re betting on me / Coming up with the sun around me. / Fire me up, now I’m up and there’s no coming down.”
“Frontline” – Kelela, Take Me Apart (2017)
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