Corinne Bailey Rae’s radical reinvention

“Black people matter, Black spaces matter, Black objects matter,” reads a sign at the entrance to the Stony Island Arts Bank. The grand, 1920s building, a former bank in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood, was crumbling and abandoned before artist Theaster Gates salvaged it from demolition. In 2015, he reopened it as an art and community space that houses permanent and temporary collections that “honor black excellence and confront the traumas of the past,” according to the same welcome text. Visitors will find a library donated by the publisher of Jet and Ebony magazines, the records of pioneering house DJ Frankie Knuckles, and Edward J. William’s collection of “negrophilia”: 4,000 objects rooted in stereotypical representations of Blackness. It was here, in what she described as a “treasure trove” of history, that the Grammy-winning artist Corinne Bailey Rae lost herself—and found the inspiration that fuelled her fourth album, Black Rainbows.

Rae, who is best known for her mid-2000s hits “Put Your Records On” and “Like a Star,” showcases both the breadth of her own musical talent and the breadth of Black experience on her new project. Each track on Black Rainbows–released on September 15—is informed by a different discovery that she made in the Arts Bank archive since first visiting it in 2017. The result is an epic sonic journey that responds to everything from a photograph of a family of westward Black pioneers, to the rock-hewn churches of Ethiopia and skin-lightening creams from the 1950s. Bravely fluctuating between punk-influenced songs, ambient electronica, and rich, textual ballads, Rae moves beyond the constraints of genre and dissolves any preconceived notions about what she is capable of, or what her music should sound like. (She’s also embracing a rather unconventional roll-out for the record, including the release of a hardcover book and the planning of lectures, dance performances, and exhibitions in various cities.) Though Black Rainbows is the first album Rae has made that isn’t explicitly about her life, the prism through which she distills its various narratives has painted the most holistic—and colorful—portrait of the artist yet. She spoke to us about it.

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