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Tina Turner, Blackness And Africans: A Complicated Legacy

Tina Turner died yersterday at 83 years old. According to her daughter-in-law Afida Turner who spoke to French media a few months ago, her health was already deteriorating. The last years have been very tough for Turner. In a matter of five years she lost two sons, her eldest, Craig who committed suicide, and Ronnie, her youngest, who passed away a year ago. No mother, no matter where she comes from, dreams of burrying their children. With age, life shocks become even more brutal to handle for the elderly. There is no doubt that the death of her two sons accelerated her own transition into the other world.

Turner was an uncomparable force of nature. She was one of the greatest at a time when only extraordinary and extremely talented people were allowed to make it in the industry. Her death comes along with images, flashbacks of her presence singing next to Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie and many more greats in the 1980s. Most of them are now gone and no one in the new generation which is synonymous with mediocrity ever managed to follow after them. Her voice was recognisable among many, but it is also her story of survival which captures audience. Her memorable personal history which was beautifully portrayed by legendary actress Angela Bassett.

However, if musicians are mourning Tina Turner, the latter had a complex relationship with her black community, blackness and Africans. Black Americans accused her of trying to dissociate herself from her heritage. Ike Turner, her ex-husband who was also violent with her, claimed that she was ashamed of being black, as she was reluctant of hiring black employees in her tours. Tina herself said she wished she was white. It is important to highlight the fact that Tina Turner came from the old school and knew the brutality of life in the United States. She recalled that as a child, she, along with her family, used to pick cotton.

Yet, she was never vocal about issues which plagued her community. She often acted as if they did not exist to a certain extent. While Aretha Franklin, James Brown or Nina Simone in the jazz world denounced it, Turner did everything not to be blocked within the black group she wanted to escape from. Her experience with the “black” community was not positive at all. She endured abuse from black men, and probably longed for a certain freedom. Indeed, it is no secret that many black actors or singers in Hollywood try to distance themselves from the black group for fear of being eternally trapped there and losing opportunities.

In a 2000 interview, Turner confessed that growing up, she simply “shrugged off” racism :

“Going to a back door never bothered me,”[…]She also shrugged off the occasional slurs. “I just kinda feel, ‘Well yeah, I’m black.’ “I’ve never been bothered by my color. If the whole world was like that, maybe there would be more harmony and love,”.

Extending her opportunities outside of the black world was not problematic per se, but her constant dissociation from a black group which somehow gave her an access to fame was. A drastic change can be observed. With Ike, her entourage was black, but once she totally crossed over in Europe, Turner was surrounded by an all-white team. She even distanced her relationship with her children, except for Craig.

European audiences always enjoyed Tina for her animalized appearance. She was constantly compared to a “lioness”, a “tiger”, and she did not seem to bother at all.

Once she revived her solo career in her forties with a voice stronger than ever, she managed to increase her popularity in Europe. There, Europeans, whether French, Italians, Brits, Germans, loved her for her image and sound. Her aesthetic was rooted in the colonial clichés white Europeans have regarding exoticism. Tina was sexy, had beautiful legs, but she also had this “tiger” in her that white Europeans love so much in black artists. In constant need for exoticism, the European fans enjoyed these clichés that Tina gave them. Turner never really acknowledged the contribution of her black American fans to her success, but rather claimed that Europeans loved her much more. Til this day, her duet with Eros Ramazotti, an Italian pop-rock singer, remains a classic in the old continent. It was a powerful tune.

Like Tina Turner, Grace Jones did very well in Europe among the Whites. She too had an aesthetic reminiscent of the exotical views enjoyed by White Westerners towards black women. Jones was always animalized, like Tina. But the two women seemingly had no issue with that.
Cose Della Vita, wonderful track by Ramazotti he remixed by singing with Tina Turner

As she distanced herself from her black children, Turner found love with a German composer. She lived in Switzerland and had started a new life, where she enjoyed her later days. A few times before, she lived in south of France too.

One can understand that Tina tried to escape the brutality of the black life in the US which somehow traumatized her. By going to Europe, she found the audience that she loved best. But it was her disdain towards Africans and Africa which proved that Turner simply had an issue with black people for being black.

In an 1976 interview, Tina called Africans “lazy”, said that she did not “vibe” with the audience, that she hated the food and that she found Europe to be more fashionable and enjoyable. She despised the Africans. She also had no issue playing in a segregated South Africa when many other black and white singers in the U.S. advocated for a boycott.

She had a colonial view of Africans, considered them inferior and simply thought that white people and the white world were superior and much more interesting.

Turner made it clear and had an aversion for the black world. Her reaction can stem from PTSD due to the violence she endured, but she was far from being the only black artist to have suffered in her youth. Michael Jackson was repetedly beaten by his father Joseph. The trauma led him to butcher his face and endure endless cosmetic procedures to look like a white man. However, Jackson was vocal for his community and held Africa in high regards.Stevie Wonder played several times there, was proud of his African lineage, and so did James Brown who travelled to the Congo and had good exchange with the local Congolese musicians back in the 1970s.

Most of the musicians cited above endured brutality in their childhood, but unlike today where black American culture is rooted in trauma, failure, the bottom, sadness and darkness by the modern performative activists on social media, Wonder, Jackson or even Richie contributed to black culture and were adamant about showing its beautiful colors, that despite the pain and hurt, US Blacks could create, work, be joyful, celebrate and love being themselves. Turner used her pain and never gave another chance to her community which was the first to elevate her to the status of stardom.

The disdain of Turner towards Africans and Africa also proved the limit of the “Black American-African” undefeated connection. If many black artists tried to push this agenda, Turner simply showed that she never cared. Her comments regarding African food she loathed, show a reality that many pro-black pan African activists today refuse to see; Black Americans are Westerners and not African at all. And in the end, Turner managed to live her biggest white Western dream, in Switzerland.

Despite this complex attitude, Tina Turner needs to be remembered as a force of nature, as a woman who fought hard for her life, to survive. She never gave up and this needs to be respected to.

By Victoria “VKY” Kabeya, All Rights Reserved 2023

[1] “Tina Turner says she shrugged off racism”, Desert New, 2000, https://www.deseret.com/2000/9/13/19528614/tina-turner-says-she-shrugged-off-racism

[2] Renaldo, Devon “Tina Turner and the All-Too-Radical Existence of the Black Woman Rock Star”, The Ringer, 2021 https://www.theringer.com/music/2021/4/8/22373139/tina-turner-documentary-hbo-corinne-bailey-rae-fefe-dobson

[3] Walters, Avuya “Tina Turner sparks outrage over old ‘Africans are lazy’ video”, Swisherpost, 2021 https://swisherpost.co.za/international/watch-tina-turner-african-people-comments-video/

[4] Turner, Christina, “How racism pushed Tina Turner and other Black women artists out of America”, PBS, 2021 https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/how-racism-pushed-tina-turner-and-other-black-women-artists-out-of-america

2 responses to “Tina Turner, Blackness And Africans: A Complicated Legacy”

  1. This was a good read.
    This is what I love in your post
    Rest in peace, Tina Turner. Your legacy as a powerful force of nature in the music industry will always be remembered.
    Ely Shemer


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