Corinne Bailey Rae's Fourth Studio Album Unveils Powerful Inspirations from Theaster Gates' Art Collection

The British-born singer’s new LP, 'Black Rainbows,' is her first in seven years, yet its creation started in 2017 during a trip to Stony Island Arts Bank.

It’s safe to say that there will not be many more albums dropping in 2023 that are more intentional than Corinne Bailey Rae and her long-awaited fourth solo LP, Black Rainbows.

The Grammy-winner’s latest work is slated for release on Friday (September 15) and is inspired by the objects and artwork collected by interdisciplinary artist and professor Theaster Gates on display at the Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago. And while it’s been since 2016’s The Heart Speaks in Whispers that Bailey Rae’s fans have received a full-length project from her, it was a trip to the Arts Bank just a year after the release that began the creative process for her latest.

In 2017, the Leeds, England-born singer/songwriter witnessed first-hand the curated collection of Black archives, encompassing sculpture, records, books, furniture, and objects from America’s problematic past. During that walk-through, Corinne conjured her initial ideas – a few musings about what she saw that began the long build.

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According to Rae, one of those first inspirations came from a poem titled You Who Walked These Floors in Fear, which is based on an ecclesiastical sculpture with a hidden story trapped inside. It reminds her of Sanda Bland’s tragic death, which was heavily publicized and legally settled around the same time. Bland was found dead in police custody after being arrested during a traffic stop, causing nationwide protest over her handling and the controversial ruling of suicide by Texas officials.

“I felt there were and still feel there are a lot of questions around her death,” Rae told BET during a recent interview. “And so I was thinking about that – who are the witnesses to Sandra Bland’s [death]? There's some police officers. Are the witnesses a car? Are the witnesses a road? A rearview mirror? The floorboards of the police station? The telephone that she touched the cell? The full information about her death is kept in inanimate objects that can't speak and if they were to speak what they say?”

While Rae says the direct inspiration coming from that particular day at Stony Island is used in a couple of songs she plans to release on a future project, the influence from Arts Bank and Gates’ work, in general, was paramount in how Black Rainbows came together. An excellent example of this that does play out on the LP is the correlation between rebound and embossed vintage Ebony and Jet Magazines featuring images of former model and fashion show manager Audrey Smaltz and the single “New York Transit Queen.”

One Ebony periodical that caught Corinne’s attention was one from 1954, featuring Smaltz and the “Miss New York Transit” label bestowed upon her.

“I thought, Who was she, what's the story, and also I thought, What's this competition?” she notes. “I looked up this Ms. Transit and I saw a photograph of four different Black women who are winning this competition. I thought, Wow, in 1954, that's interesting. And then when I tried to research online, all I could find was Miss Subways.”

Later, Rae discovered that Miss Subway, a beauty competition for women who wrote New York City trains, excluded Black women from participating in the contest – leading Black transit workers to create their own competition that Smaltz won. It’s this exclusion, among many other racist artifacts found in Gates’ exhibition, that is a common theme throughout Black Rainbows, which presents itself sonically as if one is walking through a museum of disjointed artifacts that come together with a fuller meaning.

“It was so new for me not writing about myself, but writing other people's tales and really bringing to light some stories that have been hidden or raised or forgotten,”  Rae explains. “I was very just entrenched in that and meeting all these new people, fashion designers, film writers, historians, and choreographers, so and then when I suddenly realized it's actually going to come out, I started to feel almost like a jellyfish, like I had no protection from the outside world.”

For Corinne Bailey Rae, just being able to be herself and turn what she believed to be a side project into her main focus and the basis of her first album release in seven years was big for her confidence. Being around artists, storytellers, sculptors, and the like helped save her from being trapped in the expectations she and the general public had placed on her during her younger career.

“Coming from a person who had a music career and also kind of pop career, there's always a feeling of like, is this catchy, is this the right chorus? That's why I thought of [this album] as a side project,” Rae says. “I don't have to worry about what anyone thinks with this. I just want to respond to this music and it’s called Black Rainbows because of a wide spectrum of musical styles, as well as a wide response to all this different Black thinking, which sometimes can be presented as modulus.”

Pre-save Corinne Bailey Rae’s Black Rainbows here. It will be available for streaming and purchase tomorrow (September 15).

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