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Looking at the life and death of Lena Horne

As more early black musicians die, we’re left with a legacy of… what?

Lena Horne has reportedly passed away. The 92-year-old vocalist broke barriers and helped to revolutionize how people looked at African American musicians. At a time when “Negroes” were only cast as maids and servants, Lena Horne used her light “acceptable” skin to infiltrate a world of intolerance and opened doors for future musicians, actors and Broadway performers.

I’m 25. So it’s not like Lena Horne was one of my favorite musicians growing up. To be honest, I didn’t even know who she was until she mesmerized me in “The Wiz” as Glinda the Good Witch and told me to “believe in myself and [she] believed in [me]”. Seriously, I saw that movie as a little kid and was still brought to happy tears at the thought of having a lady in a pretty dress with glitter who just seemed to love all the little black babies in the world…but I digress.

Normally, I’m not the kind of person who looks at celebrity deaths and gets all emotional. For some reason, this one is different. I think that Ms. Horne’s death draws attention to the legacy of black female artists that are now standing in her footsteps on stages all over the world, supposedly breaking new barriers for upcoming little girls with a song in their heart.

But, really, what will be left for them when their time in the spotlight comes but a rack of one piece cat suits, shoes that anyone with a vagina and some moxie can fill, white mannequin heads donning sweaty wigs and hair pieces, and a few stereotypes coved in lace and acceptance draped across a chair in front of a huge vanity mirror in a brightly lit room?

As we (not only in the Black community, but in every community that she touched) mourn the death of Lena Horne and celebrate her life and contributions to African American history and progress, as well as the world of music, I can’t help but shift my eyes to the corner of the room, where the present and future of “the” black female musician sits, a self-obsessed, pretentious carbon copy of past talent. And I’m sad. Because women like Lena Horne and Billie Holliday had to fight for the opportunities that female singers today take for granted, and they give no respect, not to themselves, not to each other and definitely not to those who came before them and did all the hard work.

Breaking record sales, climbing the charts – these are all empty goals when there is no community attached to them. As today’s female “role model” musicians gain fame and fortune, they are destroying communities.

I look back to a day I never knew but always wish that I did, when Lena Horne’s were singing not only for themselves and their survival, but also to bring justice to their people.



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May 2010
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