Janelle Monae recently honored the legacy of blues icon Bessie Smith, performing a high-energy set at Manhattan’s packed Stephan Weiss Studios to kick off HBO’s "Bessie’s 81 Theater Tour."
The invite-only event series enlists today’s music artists to help tell stories of the past.
Backed by a full band and background singers, the petite performer danced across every inch of the stage, even momentarily leaping down and singing amongst the audience, which included Bessie director Dee Rees, AJ Calloway, Sylvia Rhone and John Singleton. She showcased her own hits like “Electric Lady” and “Tightrope,” brilliantly covered James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good)” and encored her most recent single, “Yoga.” Still, the night was all about Bessie.
“I was already a huge fan of Bessie Smith,” Monae told Essence.com following her performance. “I loved her story. The dark times she had, even when she chose to be with another woman. I had never even heard of that going on back then but to actually see it, it made me really appreciate her as a woman owning her entire life and being unapologetically her. She was just herself. She was a fearless woman and I look at myself as a fearless woman.”
Directed by Dee Rees, Bessie chronicles the rise of Bessie Smith (played by Queen Latifah) through the 1920s and ’30s, as she earned her title, The Empress of the Blues. The film also stars Michael K. Williams, Mike Epps, Tika Sumpter, Khandi Alexander and Mo’Nique, as Ma Rainey.
“Dee made an incredibly beautiful, personal film about an iconic figure, but you're inside it,” said HBO Films President Len Amato, adding that the film has been in development for 22 years. “And she wrote a script that allowed for great performances. Queen Latifah totally kills it... HBO is really proud to tell this story.”
Monae compared modern-day racial tensions to the strife of Bessie Smith’s time.
“We've made progress, but we have not reached the finish line as far as discrimination,” she said. “In Baltimore, the fact that people have to loot or fight or burn things down just to get the media's attention and say, ‘We're tired of you killing us. We matter, our lives matter.’ Back then, there were actually laws that were for blatant racism and discrimination. We don't have those laws right now, but people are still doing it. We just have to continue to be aware, stand up and speak out. Just like Bessie Smith—if somebody was trying to treat her less than, hey, she will slap a fool. She was not to be messed with. I love that about her. Everybody doesn't have to go about it that way, but just saying that she loves and appreciates her Blackness, and so should we.”
“It's very important to tell our stories,” adds Monae, who is preparing to release the Wondaland Records compilation EP, Eephus, on May 6. “We're not all monolithic. All women of color are not the same. We're complex, we have depth, and people should know that.”
Bessie premieres on HBO on May 16 at 8 p.m.