It’s always a shock when you learn that some of your favourite artists once donned racist makeup and performed in blackface. Whether it’s Judy Garland, Orson Welles, Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, or Shirley Temple, the realisation that even some of the most wholesome performers in history took part in the shameful minstrel traditions only highlights how prominent the practice was in the recent past — but these were all performers of the 1930s and ’40s. Surely blackface was completely abandoned by the time the Civil Rights movement picked up steam, right?
Well, not so. Most of the usage of blackface after the 1940s was satirical: Dan Aykroyd’s impersonation of a Jamaican train rider in Trading Places or Frank Zappa’s front cover of Joe’s Garage being prominent examples. Robert Downey Jr. made it the central point of his character in Tropic Thunder, while Spike Lee’s Bamboozled takes the satirical nature of blackface to its most extreme conclusion. But there were far less nuanced takes that still incorporated blackface well into the 20th and 21st centuries.
For every Downey Jr. performance that skewers the idea of taking acting performance to a racist end, there’s an example of a well-loved public figure actually partaking in the racist practice. This is Jimmy Fallon impersonating Chris Rock on Saturday Night Live, or Billy Crystal doing a send-up of Sammy Davis Jr. at the 2012 Oscars. These were performances that came with no satire or social commentary attached to them: they’re just white people pretending to be black for comedy. But what happens when someone attempts to claim the use of blackface as an empowering gesture.
That’s when we explore Grace Slick, the legendary lead singer for the ’60s counterculture institution the Jefferson Airplane. The Airplane were a key part of the growing hippie scene of San Francisco in the mid-60s, but unlike the more amorphous and nebulous connections made by bands like the Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Airplane became more fiercely political as the decade continued on. By the time they reached 1969’s Volunteers, their left-wing and anti-war sentiments put them at the forefront of more active revolutionary causes.
A year prior, however, Slick made a bizarre choice while preparing to perform the song ‘Crown of Creation’ on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. Always known as a provocative presence, Slick arrived on stage in blackface, ending the band’s performance with a Black Power salute. At the time, it’s alleged that Slick performed in blackface as a sign of solidarity with Angela Davis or the Black Power movement. A month later, Slick appeared on the cover of Teenset magazine, once again donning blackface.
In her featured article, Slick claimed to have “about forty different reasons” for the blackface performance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, and listed six of those reasons:
1. “If you listen to the words of ‘Crown of Creation,’ think about a spade singing it. It makes a lot of sense.”
2. “Women wear makeup all the time, so why not black? Next time maybe I’ll wear green. Makeup is pretty silly anyway…”
3. “I did it because it was a trip; it’s weird to have blue eyes and a black face.”
4. “The whole thing started when I was watching TV and someone said that blacks look better on television in closeups, so I wandered around the house wearing blackface and flashing on myself in the mirror. Perhaps a bored socialite can do the same thing and go shopping in blackface and maybe pick up some bargains.”
5. “There weren’t any blacks on the show and the quota needed a little readjustment.”
6. “I knew nearly everybody would object to it.”
In Slick’s mind, the action was meant to provoke a reaction and maybe even highlight the inequality that was rampant at the time. Today, with no context, the performance looks abhorrently racist, but the reality is much closer to a white performer likely not fully taking in just how ignorant and wrong it is to briefly take on the persona of a black individual. Slick’s performance is such an off-putting curiosity all these years later that it’s hard to believe it ever happened, but thanks to the internet the band’s performances of ‘Crown of Creation’ and ‘Lather’ from that day will live forever in infamy.
Check out the performances down below.