Nona Hendryx is a vocalist, record producer, songwriter, musician, and author with a career that spans over six decades. She was one of the founding members of Patti LaBelle & the Bluebelles, a group that would eventually become Labelle. In addition to being an Ambassador of Artistry in Music for Berklee College of Music, Hendryx is currently the recipient of the Vanguard Residency from Joe’s Pub at the Public in NYC. The residency is an award and yearlong residency that celebrates the career of a singular artist who has contributed significantly to American life and pop culture. As part of her residency, Hendryx will curate and perform in a monthly series of shows over the course of the next year.
You’ve done many different kinds of things over the years, working across a variety of genres. How important has it been for you to not be pigeonholed as an artist?
I don’t know that it’s a specific mental process that I go through when I make a decision about what to do next, it’s generally just more organic. Some people might think that it’s too simplistic to say, but it’s kind of like grazing—not really wanting to put down roots anywhere in terms of what I do and what I’m interested in. It’s about not putting any kind of boundaries around where I’m willing to explore. It really is like being an explorer in the sense that I’m always looking towards the future. What I can do next? And how can I not do the same thing again?
I’ve always felt that the people who are attracted to me and what I do probably have a similar need or sensibility. It’s a fascination with the “other”—either identifying as the other or just being interested in something “other” than what we already know. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff that we all already know, stuff that is very common and pedestrian and is always there. I think people who may be attracted to me, and how I am, need something more than that. I want to give it to them.
You’re curating a year-long series of events at Joe’s Pub in NYC, which makes sense for someone with a history of collaborations and partnerships. How do you approach it?
I was interested in exploring areas that I’ve previously explored and worked in, worlds I’ve created music in, as well as theater. I also wanted to play around with the timing, doing things connected to Black History Month, women’s issues, LGBT issues, and things going on in the news that are relevant to me as an individual and to the communities I feel I am a part of. It’s a chance not only to perform, but to shine a light on the people in my world.
There’s so much going on in our lives, and politics, and society, and the upheaval that we’re living through, that I thought it was important to not only engage people of my generation, but of a younger generation as well. I’ve always wanted to encourage a dialogue through music and art and right now in particular it feels like music can be some kind of a catalyst for change. As an artist you always want to say something, but it’s important that we do something as well.
You’ve enjoyed a long career and, like most long careers, you’ve experienced peaks and valleys—times when everyone wants you, times when it seems like no one is interested. During times of struggle, what sustains you as a creative person? Is it just the making of more art?
Yes. I think that and family, and friends, and my own spiritual and individual compass, are the things that keep you going. I’ve lived long enough and learned enough to know that success is transient. I was never one of those kids who dreamed about being famous. That was not my burning desire in life. My burning desire was education and knowledge. The idea of being a celebrity or someone who gets recognized on the street… I never thought about that. No matter what was happening, I was always just thinking about making more art. I still have time. That’s what drives me, not the other stuff. My passion isn’t to be a Kardashian, you know?
As someone who’s done a advocate work on many different fronts, for women, for LGBT folks, for people of color, in addition to also being someone who has been forward thinking when it comes to art and technology, do you feel encouraged or discouraged by the state of the arts right now?
It’s complicated. I think people are going to move forward, you know? And, yes, you’re gonna have these certain individual voices that want to take us backwards, who want to hold on to power, who want to elevate themselves and keep the masses down, and have all the goodies, all the toys, for themselves. That has always been true throughout history. I understand that. We had this huge step forward in having Barack Obama as the President in America, especially knowing America’s history. In that moment it felt as if all of the really old-school racists were finally being outnumbered and held in check. Not that they had gone away, but that they had been put in check. It felt like a move forward for human rights, and a blow against bigotry and racism.
But as happens with the two-sided coin of life, you can’t forget that the other side is still there, and they haven’t yet died off. They are dying off, that way of thinking is dying off, but it takes time. So, yes, I’m encouraged because I lived through Civil Rights. I traveled in the South during those years, before Martin Luther King led the March on Washington, so I know the change. I see the change. We really have evolved. What we have hit now is the resistance to evolution, and these are people who don’t even believe in evolution. The religious right don’t believe in evolution because they can’t see the individual. They see a god-head, and they think it’s them.
We tend to see things in hours and time, but I tend to look out 100 years or more, and then I look back. We have history. We can look at that, but seeing forward is a bit harder. I think one of the things that really helped me with that was seeing an installation at MASS MoCA when I was performing there. An artist had created a line of time in a hallway, a literal timeline of known history, and it stretched from one side of the wall all the way over to the other side. You look at it closely and you see that we humans only take up about a quarter of an inch of time on this massive timeline that involves millions of years. It gives you an important perspective.
What advice do you have for young musicians? Are there things you wish you had known when you were starting out that you had to learn the hard way?
I don’t regret any of the creative knowledge that I learned over the years, even if I had to learn it the hard way. I’m currently an ambassador of the Berklee College Of Music, which is where I go next week to work with a group of young people on creating a project to be performed in the spring. It’s a hybrid of different disciplines of multimedia performance. The students there are learning their craft, and they’re studying electronic production and sound design; they’re creating new systems for triggering lights and sounds. It’s incredibly inspiring.
My school was actually being on the road and observing the masters—people like James Brown or Ike and Tina Turner. Some of them were my contemporaries, but some of them were five or six years ahead of me in their careers… Jackie Wilson, Simon Washington. So my school was kind of just living life, creating, an organic school of experience. I learned through a kind of osmosis, as opposed to sitting in a classroom. Instead, I sat in theaters from the age of 16. I’d go to the Apollo Theater and see several shows in a day. It was like going from class to class at Berklee, but my teachers were James Brown, or the Drifters, or Otis Redding.
So when people ask me what I think they should do, or what you need to be a good entertainer, I tell them that I think you need both of those things. You need the actual education in a school, partly because there’s just so much more technology involved today. It was a lot more simplistic back when we were out there doing it. But you also really need that real world experience. I think a lot of what happens at Berklee that is really good is that a lot of the faculty, a lot of the people who come there, are people who are currently masters of their craft. Lots of brilliant people from contemporary music that the students get to work with and, sometimes, go on the road with.
Some of them have come and worked with me, and they get to have some of that same experience that I did. You know, a classroom is one thing, but actually doing it—being in front of an audience—is something else entirely. Being in front of people who come to say, “Entertain me.” That’s a whole other level.
Also, I think you just have to be honest about the fact that… well, not everybody is gonna be great. It’s just a fact. You can have talent, but that’s only a part of it. It’s a vocation, it is not your job. It’s not that you are celebrity. It must be something that’s fulfilling for you to do. Being able to make art, as well as being able to receive great art, is both healing and meditative for people. The less that we have of that in the world, the more disturbed humans are. The more we add that possibility for every individual—the opportunity to do something that is meaningful to you, that occupies you, that’s in the moment, that fulfills you, the better the world will be. There is work involved in being a creator, in being an artist, but when it’s really working, you’re not even always aware of it. You’re just doing, and you’re breathing, and you’re being. You don’t have to think about it too much. You are an artist.