CINCINNATI — Cincinnati-born Mamie Smith became the first Black performer to sing on a commercial blues recording in 1920 -- then changed the course of music history a few months later when her record “Crazy Blues” became a smash hit.
“It opened this commercial space for recordings by Black artists, popular music by Black artists, and that, I mean needless to say, that door has never closed,” said John Jeremiah Sullivan, a contributing writer for “The New York Times Magazine” who has researched Smith’s life and career. “The line from Mamie Smith to Beyoncé and Alicia Keys is – it doesn’t even wobble – it’s just a straight shot. She’s truly a pioneer in that way, truly a path breaker.”
More than a century later, Cincinnati-born Siri Imani is forging her own way on that path, following the lead of Smith and countless other African American recording artists who have come since.
“I feel like any Black artist that came before me and was unapologetic about who they are paved the way for me,” said Imani, who performs solo and as a member of Cincinnati-based Triiibe. “Because I know myself, with the type of spirit and mouth that I have, I would not be accepted in a society that had never seen it before.”
WCPO 9 is exploring the work of Smith and Imani as part of its long-running Black History Month series called “Then and Now” describing the contributions of an African American trailblazer from Greater Cincinnati’s past and a modern-day counterpart.
Imani refers to herself as an “artivist.”
“It is activism and art combined, and that’s really what I do,” said Imani. “I use any art form that I’ve learned personally to bring attention to oppression, hard topics, things that are just necessary for us to address as humans living on this earth together.”
Stepping into the spotlight with art and activism
Now 25, Imani and her friends in Triiibe began as artivists when they were all 19 or 20, she said.
The band’s name stands for True Representation of Intellectual Individuals Invoking Black Excellence, and the members describe themselves as “a creative collective of artists seeking to promote positive urban culture and spawn a new Renaissance.”
Triiibe’s three members -- Imani, PXVCE and Aziza Love -- met through activism. When they continued to run into each other at the same events, they decided to try to create art together, too.
They learned urban gardening so they could teach people how to grow their own food, especially in neighborhoods without nearby grocery stores. They’ve done “street sweeps” to help clean up neighborhoods that had started looking a bit dirty.
And – before the COVID-19 pandemic – they made use of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County’s Main Library Downtown, first with a book club on the third floor and later with a program called “Raising the Barz,” a hip-hop and business literacy class that evolved into Hip-Hop 101.
The group flourished musically, too, performing as part of the 2019 Bunbury Music Festival along Cincinnati’s riverfront.
Imani stepped into the spotlight on her own in 2019 when the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra invited her to perform “Lost Generation,” her poem about social justice and police violence that inspired the orchestra’s community event called CSO Look Around.
The orchestra posted a video of the performance on YouTube on June 3, 2020, days after the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer sparked protests for racial justice in Cincinnati and across the world.
“That poem is about five years old,” Imani said. “But the fact that it became relevant again, one, speaks to the message that needs to be brought up in the forefront. But also, like, them resurrecting that message from me and then helping to spread it out to everybody who needed to hear it – especially at that time – it meant so much.”
Last year Triiibe won a grant from United Way of Greater Cincinnati to purchase property for an urban garden to promote healthy lifestyles and provide other community programming.
Within a couple weeks, a different team at United Way contacted Imani and asked her if she would create a poem to celebrate United Way’s role in the community. She agreed and wrote a poem that United Way turned into a video based on her own experiences in the community and with the organization, she said.
“If anybody could talk about the impact it’s going to have on – not only me, but the community – I’ll definitely be that,” she said.
Little is known about how Smith saw her role as a trailblazer, Sullivan said.
An ArtWorks mural in Pendleton celebrates Mamie Smith with a larger-than-life portrait of her and the Jazz Hounds band superimposed over “Crazy Blues” sheet music.
Earlier accounts of her life questioned whether she truly had Cincinnati roots, but Sullivan and his research collaborator found her 1946 death certificate, which had been filed under the incorrect last name in New York. From there, Sullivan tracked down her birth record in Cincinnati, discovering that she was born Mary Robinson in 1891.
By her early teens, she was performing and traveling with a vaudeville group comprised of other Black artists who danced and sang on the same stages as many of the earliest blues pioneers, Sullivan said.
By the time Smith recorded “Crazy Blues” in 1920, she was a seasoned performer of nearly 20 years, Sullivan said.
“She’s channeling some of the deepest currents in American music, even if her take on them has a bit more gloss,” Sullivan said.
Many early accounts of Smith include descriptions of the beautiful gowns she wore, how she often changed two or three times during a show and arrived at her concerts in fancy automobiles, he said.
“A lot of these towns, she was probably the first person like that that people had seen,” Sullivan said. “A Black woman who showed up in town and was dressed fancier than anyone – either Black or white – and had this enormous charisma.”
Most newspaper interviews with her were superficial, Sullivan said, but there are accounts of how she stood up to discrimination in communities where she was told she could not perform because of her race.
“She had a very tough attitude toward that sort of thing. She never took it lying down,” Sullivan said. “The articles about her that mentioned those incidents always seem to end with her triumphing in some way. Either she figures out how to have the show and it’s a great success. Or she goes five miles down the road to another town, and they put on the show there.”
When Smith settled down in New York City, she bought property in Manhattan, Sullivan said, and opened a restaurant and club there, persevering through the financial turmoil of the Great Depression. She later appeared in a handful of movies that showcased her talents as a performer.
“You just get a sense of a very solid person who was able to weather a lot of challenges,” he said.
That strength and perseverance resonates with Imani, who in September released a solo album called “Duality” that explores the light and dark in life and describes the need for balance.
“That was absolutely essential to even the success I’m having right now,” Imani said. Without Mamie Smith and the artists who followed her, “it absolutely would not be this way. I would be trying to still lay the brick down like she did, so it helped me tremendously.”
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To reach Lucy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.