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Corinne Bailey Rae melds art and anthropology on latest album "Black Rainbows"

Koto Bolofo

“Yes! During Black History Month!” A fan yells in the SF Jazz Miner Auditorium. On the stage, Corinne Bailey Rae is talking about her experience at the Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago, which inspired her latest album Black Rainbows that she’s performing in its entirety. The Arts Bank is a hybrid gallery, media archive, library, and community center housed in a restored savings and loan bank rescued from demolition. Its collection includes periodicals from the Johnson Publishing Company, publisher of Jet and Ebony magazines; the personal vinyl collection of the godfather of house music, Frankie Knuckles; and a collection of objects of “negrobilia” that use stereotypical images of Black people as collected by Edward J. Williams in an effort to remove them from public circulation.

“Seeing those objects and poring through them got me thinking about these objects that are kind of a white-imagined blackness,” she said during an interview. “The boogie man, the thing to be frightened of, the monster, or the grotesque or the other. All of those themes pop up over and over in those subjects, adverts, newspapers, postcards, photographs, physical objects for the home. I just couldn't look away at these things.”

The questions and curiosities that she had around her experience at the Arts Bank became the multi-genre project that is Black Rainbows, which was such a departure from her previous albums that Bailey Rae considered releasing it under a different name. Opening with an invocation, “A Spell, A Prayer,” she sings “We long to arc our arm through history/to unpick every thread,” and over the course of 10 tracks arcs a sonic journey through her own sound history and that of Black music. From luscious jazz and RnB to shreddy guitar-laden punk and Afro-futuristic dance music, Black Rainbows is the sound of creative liberation.

Corinne Bailey Rae - New York Transit Queen (Official Music Video)

“I think the objects themselves just took me on their own paths so it really depended on how I was feeling when I was holding these things, looking at these things. The story really informed the sound of the music,” she says, talking about the eclectic sound of the album. “It felt really liberating to just channel what was coming out through these movies, songs, or stories. Something could be energetic and then it became a piano ballad or something kind of futuristic and weird. The songs that are responding to the more difficult problematic objects, they just came out as this aggressive response with my electric guitar. So they felt very driven by the objects in the songs.”

There’s the image of an enslaved girl who looks no older than 12 standing with the white family she’ll nanny for that made Bailey Rae imagine her rescuer on the dreamy ballad “Red Horse.” And then the defiant pose of a 17-year-old Audrey Smaltz, heroine of the punky “New York Transit Queen,” hanging off a fire engine as the newly-crowned first Black Miss New York Transit. There’s the ad copy for beauty products that promise lighter skin and straighter hair that inspired the title of “He Will Follow You With His Eyes,” which she twists from sultry to a rhythmic pulse that defiantly declares the power of her ”plum red lipstick, black hair kinking, black skin gleaming.” And the mournful jazz that showcases her exquisite vocals on “Peach Velvet Sky” as she imagines what it must have been like for Harriet Jacobs to experience a full sunset after spending seven years in an attic crawl space to hide from her sexually abusive slave master.

The inspiration from the Stony Island Arts Bank was so rich that along with the album, the Black Rainbows project also includes a book, Reflections/Refractions at the Stony Island Arts Bank featuring photographs by Koto Bolofo, as well as lectures Bailey Rae gave at campuses including Yale and Leeds University, her alma mater. That night in the SF Jazz Auditorium, she brought together art and anthropology for a performance that was spiritual, cathartic, and celebratory, highlighting the continuous triumph of Blackness through storytelling and music. It was Black history and it was Black future.

Corinne Bailey Rae - Peach Velvet Sky (Official Music Video)