Corinne Bailey Rae on Natural Hair, Feminist Fashion and Black Representation
"Oftentimes when black faces are shown, it's in a gritty, urban context. Black models pop up in Vogue with graffiti in London rather than in a stately home or on a white horse," Rae told Billboard in an exclusive interview.
Grammy-winner Corinne Bailey Rae may be known for her easy-on-the-ears sound, but the British R&B songstress hasn't experienced a perpetually sunny life.
Following her self-titled debut album in 2006 — which included the U.K. chart-topping single "Put Your Records On" — Bailey Rae's 2010 studio album The Sea was clouded by the death of her husband and collaborator Jason Rae. Six years from her last full album and three years into marriage with second husband Steve Brown, Leeds native Bailey Rae is back on the scene with her third LP, The Heart Speaks in Whispers, set to drop on May 13.
Bailey Rae sat down to chat with Billboard about natural hair, taking style cues from the church she grew up in and the role she plays in broadening media representations of black women.
How long have you been wearing your hair naturally?
Before university, I got a crazy dye job and had to cut it all off. So I first went to university with my hair seven centimeters long [under 3 inches] and totally natural. That was challenging, because I'd never had my hair that way. But after it grew out, I never looked back.
I'm not some kind of preacher saying "You have to have natural hair." But for me, it's easier. When I was getting it relaxed, I almost wished my hair didn't grow, because it was so expensive and broke easily. Now it's simple to care for. I just wash my hair with Rahua shampoo and Liz Earle conditioner, use Olio Lusso oil by Rodin, put it in plaits and then take the plaits out.
Is it important to you to buy ethically?
It really is. We live in a capitalist society, so our power as people who consume is significant. I boycott unethical companies and avoid buying stuff made in sweatshops and stuff that will end up in landfills. I don't buy loads of clothing. But I do have a lot of vintage dresses and '80s one-pieces, which are quite fun.
Does your penchant for vintage mean you borrowed from your mom growing up?
I did. My mum is really stylish. She had this very happening sort of '70s window in her wardrobe from before she had kids.
I think a lot of style is about attitude — posture, deportment, gaze and confidence. I saw that in my mum. She was a cleaner when we were growing up, but she had this stylish presence I admired.
How did growing up singing in church affect your style?
My church wasn't a "Sunday best" sort. People didn't spend a lot on clothes, because it meant that money wasn't going to refugees or orphans. There were a lot of Christian hippies who were into the indie thing because it was an alternative to getting the "right" trainers for hundreds of dollars. It was like, you had Doc Martens, that was your one pair of shoes and you wore them till they wore out.
Who were your black style icons growing up?
I loved Denise Huxtable from The Cosby Show. I really like Alice Walker's writing, and I like that collegiate hippie thing she put across in her look.
Does feminism intersect with clothing for you?
Not dressing for the male gaze is something I got into really early. I was in an all-female rock band in my teens. We were too young for Riot Grrrl, but we admired that scene. We wore secondhand stuff and intentionally messed up our eye makeup. Courtney Love was the height of style for me. I loved Patti Smith and Justine Frischmann's looks, as well.
It'd be weird growing up now and thinking, "I can't be a pop star because I haven't done my bikini line." The level of flesh exposure now is so massive and so presumed. One thing is what models do. The other is what musicians do. They were never put together in the indie scene.
Have you felt pressured to show more skin than you're comfortable with?
I haven't been under that much pressure, maybe because my body doesn't fit the "sexy type." It might have been different if I fit those beauty standards and said, "I've got this amazing rack, but you'll never see it."
But if I was in some kind of wig and high-cut thing with crazy heels, I wouldn't feel like myself. So many people are doing that, and it's like, cool, you do that — but we need a spectrum. Women of all types should be represented.
How do you think about your own clothing and hair as a woman of color in the spotlight?
Being mixed-race in Britain in the '80s and '90s, there weren't loads of people who looked like me. I was also really skinny and self-conscious about that. I wore three pairs of tights at a time to hide it. Not having a lot of money made me feel like an outsider too.
I think it's good to keep the spectrum as broad as possible in terms of representation. Oftentimes when black faces are shown, it's in a gritty, urban context. Black models pop up in Vogue with graffiti in London rather than in a stately home or on a white horse. I like to be part of making the spectrum broader, representing a sort of romantic bohemianism. The world is a huge place for black women, and you can be in any arena — including gentler ones.
This story first appeared on Billboard.com.