Estelle’s Back with a Brand New Album

To celebrate the launch of her new album True Romance, Gilt City paired up with Grammy Award winner Estelle last night at trendy workspace, Neuehouse. Estelle performed some tracks to delighted audience members including artist Maya Farrow and television’s Bevvy Smith.

The crowd watched her belt out her latest songs, ‘Conqueror’ and ‘Something Good’ and throwback tune, ‘American Boy’.

Gilt City And NeueHouse Celebrate A Sneak Peek Of Estelle's True Romance

 

The R&B singer describes the link between her album and current state of being: ‘‘This is the first album I’ve written single. You know, not in some serious committed moment. It’s just a different perspective now.’’

The courage and true romance behind the aptly titled album are evident in her voice. Listen to ‘Conqueror’ below and you’ll see what we mean.

Images courtesy Theo Wargo/Getty Images

What Place Does Blackface Have in Popular Culture?

Fashion stuntwoman Lady Gaga is no stranger to controversial red carpet attire designed for the gossip mill, but even the provocateur pop queen’s meat gown at the recent MTV Awards couldn’t compete with the Black Eyed Peas’ Will.i.am’s wardrobe decision. For a futuristic performance at the pre-show, Will.i.am opted to take Jay-Z’s ‘All black everything’ mantra literally, donning head-to-toe leather and painting his face black, thereby performing a kind of inverse, 21st-Century minstrelsy, and raising the question: Is it possible to sever blackface from its hate-filled history?

Before he could even step off the stage, the Twitterverse was flooded with tweets questioning Will.i.am’s decision to perform in blackface, some choosing to defend him by implying that it’s the intent behind the blackface that matters. Will.i.am responded to his critics by tweeting: “just because I where (sic) all black including head mask as expression and emphasize my outfit, it shouldn’t be looked at as racial… Let go of the past.”

Will.i.am is not alone in flirting with the implications of blackface in the name of being provocative, edgy, and artistic. Estelle did it in her video for “Freak,” and so did Rihanna in her “Rockstar 101” clip. Even fashion glossies, which have been criticized for their lack of diversity, have brazenly taken to painting white models black for editorials. The resurgence of once-taboo blackface is now being touted as a form of artistic expression, by both the pop culture and fashion communities alike. Not everyone’s buying it.

“No matter how experimental, blackface remains haunted by its profoundly racist past,” says renowned Women Studies and feminist author Susan Gubar, who penned Racechanges: White Skin, Black Face in American Culture in 1997. “It was hugely popular with White audiences in the nineteenth century and played into debilitating stereotypes that perpetuated discrimination and prejudice against people of color.”

Made famous by Thomas D. Rice, blackface minstrel shows were conceived in 1830 when Rice, a white, New York-based actor, dressed up in rags, blackened his face, and performed a song and dance routine about an escaped slave called Jim Crow. Soon after, white performers began smearing burnt cork on their face to mock and demean African-American life by portraying them as dirty, stupid, and happy-go-lucky. Talented black performers like Bert Williams, Paul Robeson, and even Josephine Baker were forced to perform in blackface if they wanted to grace a stage at all. “For those who don’t think its blackface when you are black are highly mistaken,” says Howard University’s Graduate Professor of Mass Communications and Media Studies, Dr. Clint C. Wilson II, referring to when Estelle defended her choice to wear blackface by pointing out that she’s black. “Bert Williams made his career as a black artist in blackface. He was the most prominent black entertainer for the first 20 years of the 20th century. He was terribly conflicted by his blackface acts. For somebody to come along 100 years later and say they are being creative…At least Williams’ excuse was that that’s the way it was done back then. What excuse do you have now?”

While Peniel E. Joseph, award-winning author and Professor of History at Tufts University, doesn’t believe Will.i.am intended to put on a minstrel show, he does point out that the Grammy winner, “is emblematic of a new generation that doesn’t feel as connected to historic symbols of racism and don’t really have an understanding of the history. There is this resurgence of white supremacy groups and economic anxiety, and these are all connected whether Will.i.am sees it or not,” he says.

The question remains, can today’s black performers succeed in disconnecting blackface from its larger historical context? Is nixing minstrel show’s iconic white gloves and freakish red or white drawn-on grins enough to preclude blackface as an act of racism?

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“They may see this as an attempt to showcase their artistry while at the same time trying to make a statement out of turning a negative of the past as a tool of empowerment,” says Alistair Feathersone, a 32-year-old Investment Banker who says he does not find a black person wearing blackface offensive.

“Blackface can come up in these slightly altered forms. There is one (form) that makes a literal historical reference and then there’s the postmodern pastiche where people dress up in blackface and it references other things. I mean, we’d all like to live free of historical context, but that’s not the case. To me, Will.i.am looked kinda sci-fi,” says Ed Guerrero, a professor of Cinema Studies and Africana Studies at New York University, who’s currently writing about the topic. “You know what the new meaning of blackface is?” asks Chuck D of Public Enemy. “It’s about how to keep my record contract and stay popular. Sometimes you have to make some black judgment calls that benefit the people as a whole. What is happening with black entertainers is that it’s okay to know less about your history. The problem comes when someone knows more than you do about your own history.”

What’s even more controversial than watching black artists reinterpret blackface in 2010 is the fashion world’s current fetish with painting white models black. Even amidst accusations from supermodels like Naomi Campbell that the fashion industry is prejudiced against people of color, French Vogue, V magazine, and L’Officiel Hommes have all featured white models painted black. Just last week, another French magazine, Numero, featured model Constance Jablonski in an Afro wig and darkened skin, posing with a black baby. The editorial was styled by black stylist Patti Wilson. We reached out to all these magazines, but each declined to comment on their use of blackface. Wilson did offer an explanation of her vision for the Numero shoot to fashion blogger Kenya Hunt: “I wanted to kind of comment on what is going on now with (white celebrities) getting all of these black children: Madonna, Angelina Jolie, and now Sandra Bullock.”

Whereas the blackface of the past was rooted in maintaining stereotypes that have gone on to survive the minstrel show era, some members of the fashion world see it as a sort of post-racial homage to diversity. But with no real statement being made or dialogue occurring in response to such images, there’s plenty of room for interpretation – and some can be distressingly naive. “I loved the V magazine editorial where a painted Sasha Pivovarova was embracing a white Heidi Mount. I thought the message was love and unity, but people are so wired to look at things in a negative way,” reveals an anonymous stylist.

While Vogue Italia writer and fashion blogger Claire Sulmers sees nothing wrong with Rihanna, Will.iam, and Estelle using blackface to express themselves, she finds white models in blackface questionable. “Face it. There is a double standard when it comes to this. As much as we’d like it to not be, there is still a lot of racial tension in America and around the world. The fashion industry is already elitist, and there is a lack of people of color anywhere, so to juxtapose that with these models in blackface is disturbing.”

If there’s one thing that’s apparent in the debate over what constitutes blackface today, it’s that no matter what Will.i.am or French Vogue’s version of the future looks like, some historical symbols can never escape their ugly past, no matter how you dress them up.

MoMA, Estelle, & Mayor Bloomberg Get Down in the Garden

It’s a very special (and sort of weird) occasion when someone like Mayor Michael Bloomberg shares red carpet face-time with someone like Kelis. Equally unexpected is when members of the Kennedy and Rockefeller clans hip-gesticulate while discussing Maurice de Vlaminck and his contribution to Fauvism, as Estelle performs “American Boy” onstage. But upon entering the colorfully-lit tented garden at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art last night, the collision and collusion of uptown and downtown seemed almost natural.

Socialites in pearls and downtown it-girls downed mini-champagne from straws. Glenn Close and Candice Bergen were somewhere — presumably nearer architect Richard Meier than DJ Cassidy–as were many of New York’s deepest pockets (tickets for the 41st annual event go for as much as $100,000 for groups). A friend of a friend who helped organize the party even said that Kanye was backstage, but he stayed quiet while his collaborator Estelle commanded the limelight. Here’s hoping he shows tonight at the unveiling of H&M’s Fashion Against AIDS collection. Maybe there we’ll see Jamie Burke canoodling with Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Alsaud?

Estelle’s (American) Boy Problems

After nabbing a well-deserved Grammy this year with her crossover smash hit “American Boy,” British belle Estelle is working on a new album slated for a September release (tentatively titled The Project). She took time off from recording and from her current role as muse for designer Jonathan Kelsey to give us a good reason why gum-chewers should be barred from the Grammys, and to confirm that the drama’s the same with both British and American boys–although Southern accents definitely soothe some of the pain.

You recently took home a Grammy. Did you have a big speech prepared in case you won? I was sitting in the seat thinking Omigosh — I might actually win this! I had the speech written in my Blackberry but I didn’t get to do it live, which pissed me off a little bit. But if I won a Grammy next year, I would want to thank the world. I would be talking until the wrap-up music came on.

What was going on backstage before your performance with Kanye? By the time I got dressed to perform they had me sitting in the audience, so I walk to sit down, I put my leg up and this lady’s like “Wah wah wah wah.” I’m not even hearing her because I’m trying to concentrate since I’m going to get on stage. But she’s like, “Oh, you’ve got gum on your shoe!” So I lean down and conk my head on the seat in front of me — and this is 30 seconds before I’m about to get up and walk onstage. So I’m grabbing my head and grabbing my heel and she’s like “Oh, I’ve got the gum!” I was having a complete moment and then the song starts and then there’s Clive Davis and every other music heavyweight right there next to me.

Did you ever imagine that “American Boy” would become such a smash hit? I didn’t even want to put it out. I was like, “I don’t want it out, people are going to think I’m crazy, people are going to think I’m this pop chick.” I was so scared. But my label boss said Trust me, and I was like Alright, you’ve sold millions of records. So it went out and radio picked it up.

Which state has the best American boys? I like southern guys. I think it’s the accent thing. I could just listen to them talk forever. When I go to Atlanta I’m just thinking “Oh, please keep speaking.” When I listen to people like T.I. speak, all I’m thinking is, “Oh god, Talk, I don’t care what you’re saying, just talk to me.” It sounds like they’re singing to me. But then if someone asks, Did you hear what he said? The answer is No, but he sounds so nice. I like New York accents too, but I’m used to hearing those more than anything else, so when I get out of town I listen to the Southern accents.

When the single was released you had never been to Brooklyn, have you made it there yet? I live in Brooklyn now! I live in DUMBO. People told me that was fake Brooklyn when I first moved there, but I was like, If I can get to Manhattan from there easily, I’m happy. I’m crap with trains, that’s the thing—if I was anywhere further in and I had to change trains, it would be too much and I’d get lost.

Where do you go out in New York when you’re not running around in the South? I love GoldBar and The Eldridge.

Some artists are great on record but don’t have much personality at live shows. Between songs you’re very conversational, which helps you connect with the audience. Did it take you awhile to hone that skill? No, that comes naturally. People never quite know how to take me when they hear the music, so when they see me perform I kind of figure that I should explain everything, especially since the songs are so personal. Every song I’ve written is about a personal thing I’ve been through and I think that if I don’t explain this shit, people are just going to be like okay, “Good song” but what I’m saying is like No, Really, This guy? I fucking hate him, and this is how I get rid of that hate. When I explain it, people get it, it helps them understand that okay I’m from London but it’s no different, it’s not some UK thing, it’s the same shit everywhere. So that helps people understand it better and I think it kind of closes the barrier. That’s easier, because a lot of songs are just “Oh baby, sweetheart, darling,” but these are more personal and I’m just purging.

You make R&B music that is very hip hop and reggae influenced. Where do those elements come from? I’m Senegalese and Grenadian, but we had everything in the house, including soca and African music. We listened to a lot of reggae music because my stepdad was from Grenada and was a drummer in a band. I think the first musical thing I ever saw on TV was Bob Marley when I was three or four and he performed at the Rainbow Theater. He was just jamming, he looked like a spirit. I’d never seen anything like it and I think it kind of grabbed me.

You performed with The Ting Tings at The BRIT Awards this year. They’re very different from your sound, was that a difficult show? I love them—they’re just fresh. I like working with people when you can see the passion and the energy. I would see the lead singer doing sound checks and you could see that that’s what she does, she’s born to do that and she doesn’t fuck around. We did “That’s Not My Name,” “American Boy,” and “Shut up and Let Me Go.” People lost their minds for that show.

You have no boundaries when it comes to music, what are you experimenting with for the upcoming album? I can’t move too far away from reggae because I love that, and I can’t move too far away from hip hop, but I have this whole new genre I’ve developed, which is kind of Marvin Gaye and Coldplay combined. It doesn’t make sense on paper but when you hear it you’ll be like, “Aw yeah!” I have this one song called “Time Away” and it sounds like ’50s Motown and then it goes into a guitar-heavy chorus. I went on tour with The Roots and Gym Class Heroes, and it was the best of all worlds — you had me doing R&B, The Roots doing soul, and Gym Class Heroes and their crowd. I want to do that, I want to be able to cross over to all different audiences and all the different genres.

You’ve just collaborated with British designer Jonathan Kelsey to debut Belvedere’s new limited edition ‘Belvie Bag.’ Are you a big accessories girl? I’m a huge accessories girl. This bag is very fresh for me. I saw it and though it was so pretty. I just wanted to hold it and swoon over it and they’re like okay — you’re going to not have to put fingerprints on it, please! But the whole project came together very well, I love Belvedere and I love his shoes and his work as a designer. The bag is meant to be something that you can go from day to night with. It’s big enough on the inside, but it’s small enough on the outside so you don’t feel overwhelmed by it. It will be available in stores, but it’s limited edition, so if you get it now, you’ll have it forever.

Are you a big drinker? Yeah I am. I mean, on the off days! I tested out Belvedere’s new Black Raspberry flavor with some club soda and I don’t even need to mix it more than that. I just have it with some club soda and I’m good to go.