Nina Simone in concert, 1982. Photo: Roland Godefroy (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Portrait of Eartha Kitt, 1952. Photo: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Carl Van Vechten Collection, [LC-USZ62-128088]
After weeks of careful and considerate contemplation about this playlist, I realize that growing up as a straight, Southern, upper-lower-class black man, perhaps I was not the primary target audience for the fashion show or the exhibition. However, in figuring out my place and identity in the space white America reserves for us, I was a part of the bigger picture. Whoever coined the word “soul” hit the mark. They encapsulated the legacy of freed slaves in this country, and the diversity of our diaspora before, during, and since.
When I was growing up in Raleigh, Ebony and Jet were the windows through which a young black kid could imagine himself in a world of glamour and travel. And they were the only publications that portrayed black folks as glamorous. They were also a lot more than that. Be it national or international politics, film, music, art, sports, education, or even high-society wedding announcements, those magazines said to us, “Your accomplishments are important!”
MC Lyte in Germany, 1999. Photo: Mikamote (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Donald Byrd in concert, 1964. Photo: Mallory1180 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons
In choosing the tracks for this playlist, I conjured speculative thoughts of André Leon Talley’s experiences in Paris, or Tokyo or Milan, and how a familiar tune in a faraway land might remind him of an after-church dinner, or fish fries at family reunions. I thought about how Nina Simone carried her anger with her always so we didn’t have to. I thought about Eartha Kitt making Lady Bird Johnson cry at the White House, and Luther Vandross, Jeffrey Osborne, and Frankie Beverly encouraging to us to love the world. I recalled what was hot on black radio each year the Ebony Fashion Fair traveled around America, and how in the ’60s some of the most beautiful women and men in America had to eat on the bus in the Jim Crow South. I envisioned myself curating a black fashion show in 1973 and choosing Fela Kuti or Donald Byrd as the music because their sound traversed that long, dark journey from the Motherland to the Promised Land. I imagined the androgynous beauty of Grace Jones juxtaposed against the ultra-femininity of Beyoncé, and the forceful directness of Eve and MC Lyte layered with the elegance of Ella Fitzgerald and Sade.
Chico Scott's Ebony Fashion Fair playlist is on Spotify.
Jeffrey Osborne in concert, 2008. Photo: Hugh Pickens (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Sade in Germany, 2011. Photo: Thilo Parg (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Eve in Oscar de la Renta, 2011, detail. Photo: The Heart Truth (Eve) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Portrait of Ella Fitzgerald with Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt (Milton) Jackson, and Timmie Rosenkrantz, Downbeat, New York, N.Y., circa September 1947. Photo: William P. Gottlieb, Retrieved from the Library of Congress (Accessed November 15, 2017)
For me all of these songs speak to my American experience, and how fashion, glamour, and elegance translate down from cosmopolitan runways to everyday people and their dreams and imaginations. Being one of those everyday people, the opportunity for me to express my appreciation to the Jayne Kennedys, and Beverly Johnsons, and André Leon Talleys, and all the weekly Jet beauties over the years, has been a wonderful experience.
As a native North Carolinian, I have always been proud of the NCMA, and the choice to bring the Ebony Fashion Fair exhibition to North Carolina was simply brilliant and beautiful.
Inspiring Beauty: 50 Years of Ebony Fashion Fair is open through January 21, 2018.