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Little Richard’s Traumatic Black, Queer Childhood Helped Mold Rock 'N' Roll

The musical legend continues to grapple with an identity that promoted freedom in rock music.

by Myles E. Johnson
17 October 2017, 10:44pm

Photo by CBS via Getty Images

In 2000, The Donny & Marie Osmond Show interviewed Little Richard which led to one of his most candid reflections on his childhood and relationship to masculinity. In front of a virtually all-white audience, he describes the bloody beatings his father would give him while naked and tied up. Richard breaks down in tears. His father was a deacon and dark, or "jet black, blue black" as Richard referred to him during the interview. He received these beatings because of his failing of gender and for performing queerness as a child in the deep South. Despite his father's violence Richard says, "He didn't want me to wear long hair, I wore it anyway. He didn't want me to put rouge on my face, which I didn't really have to have it, it was there anyhow. I wore it anyway." The Architect's first move of rock 'n roll rebellion was in his home of Macon, Georgia. In childhood, we all are forced to abide by gender norms. Little Richard transgressed, despite facing the constant threat of physical and emotional violence. "He wanted seven boys and I was messing it up," Richard's father would tell him. Marie and Donny Osmond cry and affirm the now-shaken artist adorned in black and gold, eyeliner, and illustrious hair. The all-white audience stands up and cheers for the icon. He sings "Lucille" and the program fades into an advertisement.

I watched the pixelated clip both enlightened and melancholy. Little Richard was 67 at the time. Now, Richard, still, at the age of 84, is stuck between a rock and a holy place. Between threats of nuclear attacks and Harvey Weinstein scandals, Little Richard made some noise on the internet that was not musical earlier this month. On Christian-centric Three Angels Broadcasting Network, Little Richard denounced homosexuality, "God made men, men and women, women. You've got to live the way God wants you to live. He can save you."

Little Richard has long publicly battled between his faith and sexuality, but something about this frail man who has not walked in years due to a bad hip made me feel like this battle was over. There was no eyeliner, makeup, or wig. The high-energy of the performer was absent, only occasionally apparent in a laugh every now and again. Neither God, nor Little Richard won.

The violence he went through as a child and the rigid laws around sexuality and gender we socialize people into abiding by was the victor. And this is so often our black male musical icons' narrative. Black people are born into an Abrahamic religion but often these men's artistic curiosities contradict the laws of that religion, but it still needs to be expressed. The expression in this case was rock 'n' roll and an aesthetic that shifted how we see our stars for forever. It is Freddie Mercury on stage in a crown and cape. It is David Bowie in sequins and a face full of makeup. It is Elton John with sunglasses as big as his face and platforms shoes. It is Prince in everything he has ever placed on his body. Despite the black roots of rock 'n' roll music and culture, these stars' expression have freed young white people, generation after generation, but imprisoned Little Richard inside guilt because of the belief that his queerness and what he had created was against God. It is sad to think that the people that created an environment for there to be a Summer of Love in 1967 or a punk rock movement in the 70s have hardly been able to receive the same type of societal freedom. In the case of Little Richard, what we have left is a man that designed something bigger than religion, being tamed by religion.

To understand Little Richard, you must first return him back to his title: the architect of rock 'n' roll. Little Richard is credited not just being the first wave of rock 'n' roll artists, but as the designer of the entire genre to some musical historians. Ma Rainey and Chuck Berry also deserve credit. Richard inspired countless other legends and everyone we enjoy now from Michael Jackson, to Mick Jagger, to Prince, to Lady Gaga. He often tells the story of The Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger looking at him perform and being inspired to not only sing and dance, but sing and dance like that. In 2010 he told GQ, "Mick Jagger used to sit at the side of the stage watching my act. Every performance. Where do you think he got that walk?" According to Little Richard's legend, Liberace was only playing piano in tuxedos when on tour with him, until the celebrated pianist spotted Richard performing in a suit adorned with glass. In the same interview, Elton John quickly talks about Richard's influence on him, noting how the performer's prowess as a pianist and his flamboyant style inspired him to sing about tiny dancers. "When I saw Little Richard standing on top of the piano, all lights, sequins and energy," John said, "I decided there and then that I was going to be a rock 'n' roll piano player."

Whether he shuts it out or embraces it, queerness is still an identity Little Richard grapples with and is influenced by. This is apparent simply by the fact that there is something to shut out. According to E! News, in 1995, Richard told Penthouse "I've been gay all my life and I know God is a God of love, not of hate." Richard's queerness has always been apparent through his aesthetic and behaviors, but his embracing it was refreshing at the time because there was, and still is, so much secrecy around the sexual lives of the black icons of our past.

Little Richard's legacy also reminds us why American youth culture always returns back to queer style, or style that transgresses heteronormative gender roles and expectations. Queer is not to be conflated with a sexual preference, but a failure of hetero and cis normative ways of showing up in the world. In this case, through performance and aesthetics. Meaning, you can still have a heterosexual sex life and still be labeled queer in other parts of your life. The reason why we see these risings of people who employ queerness in their performance and appearance again and again and again is because Little Richard created the mold for such things to happen again and again and again. Because a queer person played a huge role in creating the bedrock of American youth culture, which is rock 'n' rolll, is why we see these queer expressions resurrect routinely in the culture. This makes the cyclical rise of the rebellious, queer rock and pop star seem less as an act of cultural radicalism and more methodical. I'd argue that folks like Marilyn Manson, David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Prince, Michael Jackson, Lady Gaga, George Clinton, Elton John, Lil Uzi Vert, Rick James, Young Thug, Miguel, and many more aren't these random cultural explosions, but they're actually following a pattern and blueprint set by Little Richard. They are staying faithful to who created the dreamscape so that they could even hope to make a noise.

Little Richard is an allegory for me. I remember the day that I realized God, or at least the Christian God I was introduced to, was entirely too small for who I was as a person. He was too simple and I was complex. This was a scary thought because church for black people isn't only where the religion was. It was, for generations, where the revolution was, where the freedom was, where the hope was, where the music was. Going against the church as a black person didn't just make you a non-believer, but a pariah. Simultaneously, society marks black men as the hyper-masculine brute trope and if you fail that, you are in emotional and physical danger. I am always aware of that, while just existing, I can be punished for failing gender in public because of the way I dress and how I move are often seen as feminine. Artists like Little Richard gave me bravery and hope. He gave me the idea that if I just kept going, kept clinging to the self that came to me naturally, that I could transcend this constant threat of societal violence and create a world of my own just like he did. It saddens me to see, towards the end of Little Richard's life, that he succumbed to the abuse justified by Christian dogma, at the hands of his father, and a society that will use black genius but not preserve it.

In the twilight of his life, Little Richard is still that child being dominated by the toxic masculine force that attempted to beat the queerness out of him as a child. He relinquished his legacy and denied himself the fullness of who he is in order to not only look worthy in his God's eye, but in the eyes of his abusive father that rejected him and caused him to cry on national television at the age of 67. And this, too, falls in line with the American tradition of cultural consumption. The worlds that Little Richard's childhood pain and agony formed were stolen and appropriated, and used to liberate white audiences and fuel white supremacist capitalist gain. While today, Little Richard himself is a shell of who he once was. A quick, quirky headline between scandals. Just an old man waiting to return home.

Myles E. Johnson is a writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.