Ian Isiah on the radical legacy of Little Richard
The musician and fashion icon reflects on the profound impact of the late rock'n'roll pioneer.
My first encounter with Little Richard was in the ’90s. The actor Martin Lawrence had a sitcom called Martin and Little Richard appeared on it as himself. He always did TV cameos as himself, a major flamboyant icon who ranted about being the first to do everything, and to have everything stolen from him. As a kid, I thought that was iconic, for an artist or singer to go on television and remain themselves.
Then I did my research, and the rest was history.
I started connecting the dots and realising how parallel his life is to mine. I grew up in a church and so did he. My mother’s side of the family is from the south, so is his. I learned how to play the piano in church, so did he. I “left the church” at a young age, as in I left the perfect attendance schedule – Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday – behind to do what I wanted to do. So did he. My ethos was to make sure that everything that you did was a foundational thing – whether it be music, fashion or how you portray yourself in the world, and so was his. Drugs and alcohol addiction. Rehabilitation. Little Richard was definitely someone I saw myself in.
Every day, someone calls me Little Richard. I’ve been inspired by his style and aesthetic basically my whole life – it’s so me! We have the same vibe. Everything’s dramatic, but also, everything’s inspirational. That’s a combination I live by.
I felt the raunchiness of his music from the beginning. “Tutti frutti, good booty,” were the original lyrics of Tutti Frutti. It clicked because to me, making sex comedic was normal in the hood where I grew up, and for it to be from a Black perspective is so comforting.
I got nervous when people started calling him a queer icon. Why can’t he be respected and honoured as just an icon, or an icon who is also queer ? Lately, the title “queer icon” or “queer artist” hasn’t sat well with me. I’m an artist who works hard to show my work, not an artist who works hard to show my sexual preference. I truly believe Little Richard was the same way. Society has normalised the idea that if an artist is queer, no matter how genius they are, they will always just be a “queer artist”, and I definitely don’t think that’s OK. Little Richard’s sexual preference should be celebrated, because he fought a lot to be who he was. But I don’t agree with him being a queer icon – I agree with him being an icon in general.
I wouldn’t say that rock ‘n’ roll was just stolen from Little Richard. I’ll say rock ‘n’ roll was stolen from Black people, period. Little Richard from Macon, Georgia was a part of the foundation. So is the iconic Chuck Berry. I wouldn’t solely give the credit to one man, but I will say us as a people. The thing is, I think you have to dissect this a little bit more. Because The Beatles didn’t steal from Little Richard – the Beatles did what I think every white artist or collaborator should have done, which is come in as a student for something that they love. Coming in as a student shows your humility. That’s a different approach. To me that’s a true, honest collaboration. Elvis was a fan. He made his way in and had an opportunity to help, but unfortunately he didn’t. And that’s where the white supremacy comes in.
With Little Richard being so outspoken and transparent about everything he was dealing with, that frustration came off as a joke to people. That frustration and all that ranting came off as a joke to the wrong people because this is also America, a world where white people laugh at Black people for screaming at the top of their lungs complaining – ’til this day.
There definitely wasn’t enough press when he died. But I wouldn’t expect anything less from the press after decades of being yelled at for not respecting him, for yelling that white people stole. So payback is a motherfucker.
But the thing is, to us, to Black people, to Black culture, he has the credit. And I’m not going to say that’s enough – because it’s not enough. It’s not about separation at all. But these are hard conversations, especially when you start to talk about when one race stole from another. In the present day, as we’re all working together to try and change the world, we have to be mindful of what the truth actually is, what the truth was then, and what the truth still is now.
I’m thankful that Little Richard was an example for little young Black boys like me and I’m thankful that his story lives on. As musicians and as artists, we should pay more attention to our ancestors, because we share this creativity which makes us a family. We have ancestors, and Little Richard is one of them.