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Corinne Bailey Rae’s ‘Black Rainbows’ Was Born Out Of A Connection To Chicago

Written by on September 14, 2023

Corinne Bailey Rae’s Black Rainbows was inspired by the collections within Chicago’s Stony Island Arts Bank. On September 14, she’s set to celebrate the album’s release in the city with a listening party and an intimate performance.

Corinne Bailey Rae first encountered Chicago’s Stony Island Arts Bank in 2017. Attending that year’s Black Artists Retreat, the English artist was immediately struck by the Arts Bank’s vast archives, curated by Chicago multi-hyphenate artist and professor Theaster Gates. 

“I knew when I walked through those doors that my life had changed forever,” Bailey Rae stated in a press release.

Photo courtesy of Thirty Tigers.

Originally a bustling community savings and loan in the 1920s, the bank at 68th and Stony Island was shuttered in the 1980s and remained vacant until 2012, when it was purchased by Gates from the city for $1. The bank was reborn as the Stony Island Arts Bank in 2015, holding within its marbled walls a living archive of Black art. The bank contains a wealth of artistic achievement in its collections of Black art history – especially as pertains to Chicago’s South Side – including a Nick Cave soundsuit, a collection of books and periodicals from Johnson Publishing Company and Frankie Knuckles’ record collection.

“Engaging with these archives and encountering Theaster Gates and his practice has changed how I think about myself as an artist and what the possibilities of my work can be,” Bailey Rae reflected in the same press release. “Like all historical objects, these refuse to stay quiet, they continue to speak, and their presence is required in present conversation.”

Following her initial visit to the Arts Bank, Bailey Rae fixated on the space. Experiencing its archives ignited her passion for exploring Black art, sending her to Milan, New York, Leeds, Los Angeles and beyond in her pursuit as she began the multi-year creation of her forthcoming album Black Rainbows.

“This music has come through seeing,” Bailey Rae continued. “Seeing has been like hearing, for me. While I was looking, songs/sounds appeared.”

Each song on Black Rainbows is drawn from items held within the Arts Bank, touching on a wide array of topics including Black femininity, musical transcendence, spells, time, the erasure of Black childhood and both inner and outer space. Single “New York Transit Queen” was inspired by a 1954 photo of model and art student Audrey Smaltz, taken by Johnson Publishing Company photographer G. Marshall Wilson, now housed in the Arts Bank. Smaltz was 17 years old at the time, bright-eyed and smiling, holding onto a fire truck while clad in a swimsuit and boots after winning the New York City “Transit Queen” competition that year.

“I was really interested in this photograph because when I grew up in the ‘90s … there was a movement called Riot Grrrl where they used to take a lot of photos from this era, the ‘50s era, and they would punk them up, they would use certain lettering and that would be the advertising for the show,” Bailey Rae described in a July conversation with Audrey Smaltz. “They would use this imagery, which is very demure and innocent but sexy and very empowered.”

Musically, Black Rainbows is a clear departure from the uplifting soul of 2006’s “Put Your Records On,” as most listeners know her. Instead, much of the album sees a return to the ‘90s punk rock of her teenage years (when she was in the all-female rock band Helen), especially exemplified by “New York Transit Queen.”

“I felt like there was a load of Black artists in the ‘90s playing rock music, including my band, and they’ve kind of been erased from the history of that music,” she explained to Smaltz. “[‘New York Transit Queen’] is kind of a combination of this photograph … but also the fact that I didn’t want these Black women to be written out of the story.”

Bailey Rae’s two singles, “New York Transit Queen” and dreamlike piano ballad “Peach Velvet Sky,” signify the two musical poles of the album — though most of Black Rainbows combines the sonic themes with a beautiful juxtaposition. Opening track “A Song, A Prayer” is pushed forward by delicate vocals and harps, sharply punctuated by punk guitar and vocal distortion, while fourth track “Earthlings” opens to dissonant video game sounds overlapped by soulful guitar melodies until eventually breaking way to chirping birds.

The record will be available everywhere on September 15, and Bailey Rae will be hosting a Black Rainbows listening party and record signing tonight at Shuga Records in Wicker Park. The event will be followed by a performance of the album in its entirety at the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel in Hyde Park. Find more information on these events via Shuga Records’s Instagram and Bailey Rae’s tour page, respectively.

Written by Morgan Ciocca

Photos courtesy of Thirty Tigers

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