ShowDiasporic Music
Broadcast TitleTribute to Lena Horne
Broadcast Date2010-05-23
Record Date2010-05-23

“My identity is very clear to me now, I am a Black woman.” - Lena Horne

My life’s work as a journalist/broadcaster has made it possible for me to meet many of the towering figures of African and world history. I was fortune enough to have crossed paths with Lena Horne on more than one occasion.

One of our encounters took place at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto. I was there to attend a press conference for Ms. Horne. J. Alexander Francis was also there as a photographer. Francis hails from the Caribbean, and I from the wilderness of North America. Other than the two of us, the room was white on white in white.

Ms. Horne suddenly appeared, accompanied by Blues icon Jimmy Witherspoon and the Royal York’s P. R. man Gino Empry. When Ms. Horne entered the room she slid straight to “Chocolate City” and embraced Francis and me, the only other Blacks in the room. While I had grown up a fan of Ms.Horne, this display only cemented my love for her and her work. I have never forgotten Ms. Horne’s demonstration of Black solidaritary.

I was saddened to learn that Ms.Horne has recently joined the ancestors on Mother’s Day, May 9th. She died in a New York City hospital less than two months shy of her 93rd birthday. Her career spanned a remarkable 65 years. She was an enchanting singer, actress and human rights activist.

The span of her life is itself significant. Born June 30, 1917, two months after the United States entry into World War I, and four months before the Bolshevik (Russian) Revolution, Ms.Horne lived through the Depression, the Second World War, the Chinese and Cuban Revolutions, the birth of the Cold War, the eruption of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements, the Vietnam War, the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union, and the election of the first African president of the United States, Barack Obama.

She was known for her plaintive, signature song “Stormy Weather” and for her triumph over the bigotry that allowed her to entertain white audiences but not socialize with them.

She is best known to many for her marvelous roles in the films “Cabin in the Sky” and “Stormy Weather”. “Cabin in the Sky “is a musical that was produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and released in 1943. The film also starred Ethel Waters and Eddie “Rochester” Anderson of Jack Benny fame. Ms.Horne co-starred as “Georgia Brown” in her first and only leading role in an MGM musical. Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington and his Orchestra have a showcase musical number in the film.

“Stormy Weather” is loosely based upon the life and times of its star, dancer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. Robinson plays “Bill Williamson”, a natural-born dancer who returns home in 1918 after fighting in World War I, and then tries to launch a career as a performer. Along the way, the character Williamson woos a beautiful singer named “Selina Rogers”, played by Ms.Horne.

Unlike many 21st Century Superstars, she was not afraid to be seen in public with leaders who had been deemed “enemies of the state” by the State. “There is no business like show business”, and it is currently a cesspool of opportunism.

Involved in the freedom struggle

Ms.Horne knew both Dr.Martin Luther King Jr. and El- Hajj Malik El- Shabazz (Malcolm X) and spoke fondly about both of them. Her take on King was, “Every color I can think of and nationality, we were all touched by Dr. King because he made us like each other and respect each other.”

She was unapologetic about her support for Malcolm X. Says Ms.Horne, “Malcolm X raised my consciousness about myself and my people and other persons I know. I knew him before he became Malcolm X.” Before there was Martin and Malcolm, Horne had befriended both Dr. W.E. B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson. She was at an NAACP rally with Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi, the weekend before he was assassinated.

Ms.Horne’s stella career had an international impact. The Cubans had produced a hard-hitting short film called “Now”, which was based on a song that Ms.Horne had recorded in the beginning of the 1960s. The song had been banned in 1964 in apartheid South Africa, along with Randy Weston’s album Uhuru Afrika. The prohibition had made international headlines and was covered in a September 1964 issue of Downbeat magazine.

Ms.Horne’s striking beauty often overshadowed her talent, and she was remarkably candid about her feelings on this matter. “I was unique in that I was a kind of black that white people could accept,” she once said. “I was their daydream. I had the worst kind of acceptance, because it was never for how great I was or what I contributed. It was because of the way I looked.”

She might have become a major movie star, but she was born 50 years too early. Halle Berry, Angela Bassett, and others have benefited from Horne’s pioneering contribution to the arts.

Jalali aka Norman Richmond will pay tribute to Lena Horne on Diasopric Music on Uhuru Radio, Sunday , May 23th.