One of the many things we see in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is that the passage of time doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with progress. A slice-of-life story of ‘Mother Of The Blues’ and the people in her orbit, the Netflix movie – out now – speaks to many of today’s biggest issues, despite its 1927 setting.
Inspired by that, and to spread knowledge of a musical pioneer whose contribution has long been underplayed and talent too easily forgotten, NME asked the supremely brilliant and fast-rising singer and songwriter Hamzaa to cover one of Ma Rainey’s original songs.
“I hadn’t heard about Ma Rainey before I heard about the film,” said Hackney-born Hamzaa on location at London’s Rivoli Ballroom. “It felt cool to discover it because this is really important – she’s a Black woman who was really prominent in the blues scene.”
“The impression I got of Ma Rainey is that she’s un-beep-with-able, if you get what I’m saying. She’s savage, she has this energy [like] she’s meant to be in the room, she’s going to command the room, but without being obnoxious… she just knows herself and she’s like, ‘This is who I am and I’m not changing it, so let’s just get on with it.’
A songwriter, performer, mentor, venue owner, and badass, Ma Rainey was one of the first Black women to commit their voice to tape, and she went on to produce more than 100 recordings. Her lyrics were refreshingly honest and real, even referencing her bisexuality in wry, matter-of-fact ways. ‘Deep Moaning Blues’, written and recorded in 1928, is desolate and raw – the very essence of the blues.
Hamzaa said her approach to covering the song was to interpret, not imitate. “To try and sing a song like this, I think making sure you don’t imitate is important,” she said. “To take it and develop it and adapt it to how I would sing a song is the way I think the message would come across correctly. I’m not [Ma Rainey], I’m not in her shoes, I don’t feel her particular pain. But if I have my own pain I’ve been through, I can… express my pain.”
Hamzaa, full name Malika Hamzaa, released her debut EP, ‘First Signs Of Me’ in 2018, and has since wowed TV audiences on Later… With Jools Holland, collaborated with Stormzy, Wretch32 and Ghetts, appeared at Glastonbury and been compared to Amy Winehouse and Adele. As NME Awards 2020 co-host and former Beats 1 DJ Julie Adenuga put it, Hamzaa “knows how to sing emotions that you didn’t even realise you were feeling”.
Watch the session – and our behind-the-scenes interview with Hamzaa, on location at the shoot – right here.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is on Netflix now