In honor of Juneteenth, FAM would like to feature a trailblazing black artist for our pride month series.  And–in a departure from our visual artists–we’ll be featuring a musician.  Gladys Bentley was a singer and pianist who rose to fame during the Harlem Renaissance.  Know as Harlem’s most famous lesbian, Gladys sang the blues–laced with raunch and profanity in front of adoring audiences–in a top hat and tuxedo.  

In New York City during prohibition, many flocked to nightclubs to seek access to alcohol and let loose.  Gladys’ scandalous performances certainly allowed them to do so.  Due to the provocative nature of her performances, she was excluded from mainstream venues and therefore the press and history books; however, her story is becoming more widely known–as well as her legacy. 

Not only was Gladys Bentley a famous black woman known for her exceptional musical talent, but she also openly flirted with her female audience members, dressed in traditionally male clothing, and belted out the filthiest lyrics imaginable to thrilled audiences–all feats which were rare on their own in the early 1900s.

By mid-century, the country had seen a more conservative shift away from the exploratory, roaring 1920s.  Gladys wrote about her lifetime struggle with gender, and as she approached middle age and had moved away from Harlem, she attempted to pursue a more traditional music career.  Her life was described as lonely, and she passed away in 1960 never being truly accepted for who she was. I would like to think that if Gladys were alive today, she would be more free to be herself and pursue happiness.  Gladys was a trailblazer, and it’s up to all of us to make sure that everyone can be who they truly are and be free to travel the path she blazed.

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