The NME debate: are we still living in Ma Rainey’s world?

To mark the release of Netflix’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, we convened a panel of brilliant people to discuss its themes, and where nearly 100 years of ‘progress’ has got us

In Partnership with Netflix 

If you’ve watched Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the brand new Netflix movie, you’ll know this: there is plenty to talk about: Viola Davis’s stunning performance as the titular ‘Mother of The Blues’; Chadwick Boseman’s heart-rending reading of his character, Levee; the richly rendered Chicago setting; the themes of racial prejudice, sexuality, gender and power that are as pertinent now as they were in 1982, when August Wilson wrote the playtext, and in 1927, when it’s set.

With this in mind, NME convened a group of creators to discuss how their own experiences relate to the scenarios in the film, and how the film moved them.

(Joseph Bishop/NME)

On the panel we have singer and songwriter Miraa May, writer and founder of Gal-dem Liv Little, singer and songwriter Hamzaa and co-founder and DJ at Pussy Palace and co-founder and co-curator of the Lesbienalle film festival Nadine Artois, who also acts as moderator.

Miraa May (Joseph Bishop/NME)

Speaking about her own experiences in relation to the film, Miraa May said, “To be honest, it did flippin’ trigger me, because there was part in the film where she basically said, ‘They don’t want me for me, they don’t care about the struggles, or how I’ve made these songs’… that idea of someone knowing that they want you for this reason, like, I’ve been invited to studios and nobody wants to actually get to know me, [it’s just] ‘can give us a hook’. Like, am I a clown? When [Ma Rainey] compared it to the whole whore thing it made sense because, you know, as soon as they’re done with me as soon as they got their record, they’re ready to put their pants on and go. Especially as a woman, when someone wants something from you in this industry, they’re really willing to do anything to get it and it compromises you.”

Liv Little (Joseph Bishop/NME)

Liv Little, who founded the hugely influential platform Gal-dem, said that the network of people it has connected to has led to positive change in her own life. “I feel a lot more confident and like I can stand in my power, and that is fundamentally because of that community, because of that space, because we can back each other up, we have a community and we have a network. But there are so many industries where people are existing in these spaces in isolation. I’m sure so much of what the film captures is very pertinent to today. You know, you guys are speaking about the music industry – it’s still speaking to something that is happening right now.”

Hamzaa, who reinterpreted Ma Rainey’s ‘Deep Moaning Blues’ for NME and Netflix, said she found Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom inspiring. “Being a black woman in music who doesn’t necessarily make the typical kind of music that a black woman makes, it’s almost like I’m supposed to expect things to not be bigger than they are, or not have a trajectory trajectory for myself. Watching [Ma Rainey] being in the studio and watching her dynamic with the guy that’s at the studio and her [male] manager, the fact that at the time she owned the room so much – that’s inspiring to me. And it makes me think: why can’t I be that way?”

Nadine Artois (Joseph Bishop/NME)

Nadine Artois, whose Lesbienalle film festival champions LGBTQ+ film-making, said the movie made them consider moments in their own career. “I really loved the build-up to Ma Rainey’s entrance into the studio. It made me feel kind of upset at myself for times I’ve minimised myself just for the sake of not missing out on opportunity, when these people need me and want me. At the beginning [of Pussy Palace] I did not give a fuck – I had Ma Rainey energy at the beginning. I’m like watching the film and thinking, if she could do that a hundred years ago what the fuck is stopping me now?”

Watch the full panel above – but be warned, there are minor spoilers – and join the conversation yourself on NME’s social media channels.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is on Netflix now