B-Sides: Nona Hendryx
Image: Members of Labelle
Nona Hendryx broke into the music world as one third of legendary group Labelle. Hendryx, Patti LaBelle and Sarah Dash became known for their groundbreaking ability to make glam-funk music, as well as their larger-than-life stage shows and glittery space-aged costumes.
Video: Labelle performing "Lady Marmalade"
After three gold albums and number-one hit "Lady Marmalade", the band went their separate ways, and Nona Hendryx began to establish herself as an amazingly versatile and creative artist.
Hendryx has experimented with all kinds of sounds during her solo career. First, she made a heavy metal album called Nona Hendryx (1977). The album was produced by Epic Records, but was quickly pulled from the shelves and given no air time, as they were unsure of how to market a black rock singer. In a 2001 interview with The Advocate, Nona said, "Rock and roll is not considered black music. It's been co-opted by the white audience, and it's difficult to reclaim as our own." She also spoke about the difficulties she faced as a black woman making rock music in an interview with Beyond Race:
...the obstacles were on both sides of the street, the white side of the street, in terms of, this is not your music, which I felt [was not true] because I’m from Chuck Berry and Little Richard. [Rock] comes from there. And from the black side, well, you know, you [were] more acceptable if you were doing R&B or funk, but even funk was not acceptable. R&B was more acceptable. I did get that from the business side, not from the audience. That’s where you had these categories that you’re supposed to fit into, and if you don’t, then they don’t know what to do with you.
Image: Nona Hendryx
Hendryx continued to complicate her sound. In 1987, she put out a funk-based album called Female Trouble, with contributions from Prince and Peter Gabriel. This album included a single called "Why Should I Cry", that reached #88 on the Billboard 100, and came with an awesome music video:
Video: Hendryx's "Why Should I Cry" music video
In 1989, Hendryx released Skin Diver, a New Age album. And in '92, she released You Have to Cry Sometime, an album of duets with Billy Vera. Recently, she's toured with True Colors, a musical tour created by Cyndi Lauper as a way to "empower the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community to reengage and take part in the struggle for full equality".
In addition to making music, Hendryx created a limited edition children's book called The Brownies. In her interview with Beyond Race, she discussed why it was so important for her to make a book that would put the color black in a positive light for children:
It came out of looking [for gifts] for my niece and nephew, when they were young, and finding it very difficult to find books for young people that are for black kids. So I decided to write something [myself] and put music to it, because children are more interested in something when there is music attached to it. One thing I always found disturbing in a way, was that the color black is considered negative or less than or dark or all those things. And part of this story is about how if we don’t have darkness, then we don’t have light. One is not more of a positive or negative than the other, and why have these things been described over time as they’ve been described, in a way that is negative to our people. I put it in a way that children would understand, really bringing the idea of darkness to light.
Labelle got back together in 2008 to record Back to Now, which included a song called "System" that Nona wrote for the group in 1977. She talked to Blues and Soul about the importance of including this song on their first album in over 30 years:
Basically that song in itself represented a direct line between where we stopped then and where we’re now picking up. And lyrically it’s talking about the control that’s exerted on individuals to conform and toe the line. You know, your innocence can be taken away by those who feel you don’t have a right to an individual voice. So, with the system being built to control you and keep you in line, "System" talks about the ability for people to break out of that and become the exception to the rule. And to me it means even more today than it did when I first wrote it.
Nona Hendryx has certainly not conformed to the rules of the music industry, and her career is all the more remarkable because of that. Jessica Hopper says that she wants to be Nona Hendryx when she grows up. I can definitely see why.
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