According to Urban Dictionary, Negrobilia are collectables relating to stereotypes of black people. You can see around 4,000 examples of these stereotypical depictions of black culture at Stony Island Arts Bank, a former financial institution turned exhibition space in Chicago, that was bought and is curated by social practice artist Theaster Gates. The collection includes items such as ashtrays, toys, photographs, books and advertisements that although embrace black history, also importantly highlight shocking racism that is too often brushed under the rug. Leeds-born songwriter Corinne Bailey Rae – born to a black shopkeeper father – visited the space in 2017 and became so astounded by her discoveries that this inspired the Brit to write her first album in seven years; the meaningful, kaleidoscopic and enthrallingly artistic Black Rainbows. An album full of vigour that showcases the multi-faceted talents of the now 44-year-old artist.
Each incredibly well-considered track on Corinne Bailey Rae’s fourth album is influenced by an archived object found at the museum. It tackles stereotypes head-on in both the lyrics about black history but also in her choices of musical styles. Famously known for her sunny neo-soul, romantically personal perspective and smooth amiable vocal presence, she introduces more aggressive and hauntingly charged sides to her voice and genre paths, as well as an outward-looking angle that makes her wonderfully unrecognisable at times.
‘He Follows You With His Eyes‘ is an example of how Black Rainbows’ detailed and ambitious production intentionally and masterfully matches its lyrical content. A track split into two contrasting chapters, the first chapter is swaying bossa nova with the harmonies of golden age girl groups as Corinne Bailey Rae sells black-female-targeted beauty products – taking inspiration from the 1950s Valmore adverts found at the exhibited collection – that attempted to make women look more white. The breezy soundtrack gives the impression that the song’s protagonist is thoughtlessly following the fashion trend. However, after singing: “I don’t want to leave myself behind. Vanishing into a girl that I don’t recognize”, the song switches into hip-hop territory as the female character embraces her natural appearance of “black hair kinking” and “black skin gleaming“.
Bailey Rae reintroduces a rock grit that she hasn’t showcased since back in the pre-‘Like A Star‘ days as lead vocalist of the indie group Helen. ‘New York Transit Queen‘ and ‘Erasure‘ are full-on rock. In interviews, she has admitted to feeling very free on this album and those tracks in particular showcase a singer breaking away from the shackles of her soul typecast and nodding to her head-banging past. The former is in the vibe of underground feminist punk. Pertaining to the genre, at one minute and 49 seconds, it’s abrupt yet impactful. Encircled by crashing drums and screeching feedback, Bailey Rae’s vocals are purposely throaty and unusually imperfect. Inspired by a 1950s photograph depicting a then-17-year-old model Audrey Smaltz winning a beauty competition called Miss Subways – she imagines Smaltz conquering the New York underground network with free-spirited mischief. Counterpart ‘Erasure’ was awakened by a more disturbing black history artefact; a uniquely shaped ashtray in which one would put their cigarettes in the opened mouth of a little crying African American boy as he sat on the toilet.“They made a cartoon of you/They beat you into lead and made an object out of you/They put out lit cigarettes down your sweet throat,” shouts Bailey Rae on the Yeah-Yeah-Yeahs reminiscent garage rock. The furious lyrics also focus on slavery and genocide with the lines: “They took credit for your labour/They tried to acid-wash you/And paint you as a picture of patience/And they killed you/They hid your broken bones in a public place.”
On undeniably one of the best songs of 2023, ‘Peach Velvet Sky’ – in which Bailey Rae channels artists such as Esperanza Spalding in her patiently building intellectual dinner jazz and scat singing – also describes the horrors of slavery but describes the life of one particular slave. Harriet Jacob courageously escaped her tormentors by hiding in her grandmother’s storeroom for seven years. Jacob wrote a book about her experience entitled Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. On the heavenly piano-led ballad, it feels as if Jacob is possessing Bailey Rae’s soul when she pours out “We counted time a painted illusion/And my heart was an empty box/The tide beat against the cold that rolled and rolled me in the dark/The silent night when I embarked. I escaped.”
Yet the final track, ‘Before The Throne Of The Invisible Gods’, goes further spiritually by sounding as if Corinne Bailey Rae is performing a séance. Shintō-sounding bells are chimed, tribal drums are patiently tapped, saxophone is performed like it is in the process of charming a snake, whistles are heard in the distance and the word kneel is repeatedly chanted in an environment that is dream-like and otherworldly. Suddenly distorted voices start to haunt as if Bailey Rae has summoned the spirits of the suffering past – that might be attempting to warn or educate the living. The fuzzy and powerful indie opener ‘A Spell, A Prayer‘ is rather less ghostly but conveys a similar message of acknowledging and respecting our ancestors of the past and how they impact the present. This line sums up the reason why Corinne Bailey Rae wishes to use the educational Black Rainbow to embrace her discovered black history collection and its rainbow-like diversity: “We long to arc our arm through history/To unpick every thread/To unpick every thread of pain”.