It will soon be 60 years since the phrase “blue-eyed soul” was first used, to describe the music of The Righteous Brothers. It was used by a black DJ while playing their songs on a radio station that mainly played rhythm and blues, a genre that was till then the preserve of black singers.
The Righteous Brothers, an American band, played and sang R&B songs so unmistakably in the manner of black singers that when they first turned up for interviews, DJs who had played their songs on the radio were surprised to discover they were actually white musicians.
Later, the so-called “blue-eyed soul” genre would attract flak for being cultural appropriation; many white musicians who scaled the heights of fame, including Elvis Presley, faced their share of criticism for culturally appropriating the styles of early black R&B singers. The fact that this happened in an era when African-Americans still faced institutionalised discrimination made it worse. The recently released film, Little Richard: I Am Everything, documents how Little Richard, considered a pioneer of rock ‘n’ roll music, struggled against unfairness and discrimination for much of his long career, starting in the late 1940s, and of how white musicians of those eras often rode high on his songs and style.
Decades later, though, “blue-eyed soul” appears to have lost its pejorative connotation. Swathes of white musicians, many of them at the top of the heap of popular music, like The Rolling Stones, have been hugely influenced by black music. Likewise, there are many who have followed in the footsteps of black soul singers. Anohni (birth name: Antony Hegarty) is one.
Born in the UK, Anohni, 51, who identifies as a person of transgender and uses the pronouns she/her, was raised in the US. Her latest album, released early July, is titled My Back Was A Bridge For You To Cross. Before recording it, Anohni, who has earlier performed and recorded as Antony and The Johnsons (the new album is credited to Anohni & The Johnsons), is believed to have called up her producers and record label to say, “Let’s make a blue-eyed soul album.”
Cultural appropriation is the last thing that comes to mind when you listen to Anohni’s music. The new album, whose cover portrays the black LGBTQ+ rights activist Marsha P. Johnson, who died in 1992, is a set of striking songs about, among many things, the ongoing environmental degradation, the prevailing transphobia, the dying days of Lou Reed, her friend and mentor, and civil rights. Anohni’s voice, described as a tenor-contrato, is deep and expressive, with occasional touches of vibrato.
The effect of her songs, even when she is singing about issues redolent of political activism, can be soothing and calm and her voice transcends the usual binary gender classification. The 10 songs in My Back Was A Bridge... are filled with restrained anger, grief and lamentation, but also hope.
Anohni’s musical inspirations have come not only from black singers such as Marvin Gaye, Nina Simone and Billie Holiday but also Boy George, Leonard Cohen and Kate Bush, and she often reaches back into the ethos of soul music of the 1960s-70s, which focused on the experiences and struggles of the black community. However, Anohni, while dwelling on themes such as minority hatred and violence, also addresses broader aspects of society’s discrimination, unfairness and injustice towards other minorities.
In Scapegoat, an outstanding track from the album, she sings: “Take all of my hate/ Into your body/ Take all of my hate/ Into your flesh and body/ It doesn’t matter who you are/ Or where you come from/ It doesn’t matter what you’ve got to give/ Or why you want to live/ You’re my scapegoat/ It’s not personal (it’s not personal).” It’s a soft and delicate song in which the central theme of hatred and discrimination is sheathed, like in a velvet glove.
Anohni’s new album is a back-to-the-roots move for her. Her previous full-length, Hopelessness, came out in 2016 as a solo album (that is, without The Johnsons) and it was an angry, strident protest album. There were songs that dwelt on drone attacks in the Middle East in which civilians died; on the torture of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay; and, in a song titled Obama, on the Barack Obama regime’s policies on espionage, war and their effects on humanity.
In contrast, her new album is a return to her older chamber-pop-inflected-with-soul style. The lead single, It Must Change, is anthemic, calling for social justice in an environment of oppression and violence, and is believed to be inspired by Gaye’s classic, What’s Going On? In Sliver Of Ice, a ballad, she remembers a conversation with Lou Reed not long before he died (the lyrics, “The cold ice on my tongue/ Makes its way towards oblivion”, refer to what Reed told her about how a cube of ice on the tongue took some of the pain away during his terminal illness).
The album showcases Anohni’s music, its emotional depth and beauty, and her exceptional vocal talent. It focuses on the current state of the world and the condition of humanity but it is also hopeful and extremely comforting.
In several interviews, Anohni has spoken about a range of issues she is involved in fighting actively—environmental destruction, discrimination, hatred and violence. She also talks about how musicians and the fair media are being displaced by commercialisation and consumerism that make appreciation of art and creativity a purely transactional activity.
All these themes surface and resurface in her music. Overwhelmingly, though, her music is captivating, warm, soothing and deeply emotional.
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music. Narayan tweets @sanjoynarayan.