Video Interview: Nona Hendryx’ Transformation Art Exhibit in Harlem
Nona Hendryx is best known as one of the original members the iconic space-age girl group, Labelle. As in her current exhibition – Transformation: The Beautiful Cruelty of Time and Space – Nona has transformed throughout her career, from a founding member of The Bluebelles, to a solo artist, song-writer and producer and now a visual artist.
Take a moment to enjoy the accompanying video. Patti Labelle surprises Nona at the closing reception. It’s a lot of fun!
Mama Funk, she has the face of Beyoncé. Mama Funk says things, she might tell you to do something or she may just say, “What does Mama Funk say?” And says, “Obey the Funk.” That’s a title somebody gave me, so I just wanted to share. And it’s a song I wrote called, “What Does Mama Funk Say?” -Nona Hendryx
Derrick: You’re in New York City. How’s the city treating you?
Nona: The city’s treated me really well over the years. I’m a New Yorker, really not born here, born in New Jersey.
When did you first settle in the city?
Oh, my God, so long ago. Probably 1970. I’ve been coming to New York before that.
You’re basically a New Yorker, it takes ten years is what they tell me.
I’m basically a New Yorker, exactly. I’ve been coming here, we played the Apollo for years. Right here on 125th St.
You and the Bluebelles?
Patti and Sarah and the Bluebelles and we became Labelle, yes.
Do you get to see the girls often?
Not that often. I see Sarah a bit more than I see Patti because Patti’s always on the road and Sarah and I do a couple of things together. I see her a little bit more.
I’ve seen the exhibit. It’s really fantastic, I really love it. I think it’s very diverse and I’ve followed you, really through my mother, as a kid growing up in New Orleans and listening to Labelle. Allen Toussaint, of course, wrote “Lady Marmalade.”
Right, and he produced two albums.
Oh really! Which two?
The one, “Nightbirds,” with the single, “Lady Marmalade” on it and then, “Phoenix,” which was the one right after.
Would you describe yourself as a phoenix?
Yes, I think so. I constantly keep rising from some incarnation of myself into another one.
How did you come about the title “Transformation” for the exhibit? I know you had a song titled “Transformation?”
That word is pretty connected to me and has been over the years. It was a really big song for me and really became bigger because the hip-hop world got into it and people like Afrika Bambaataa and some of the early rappers were friends of mine. They pumped me up from that song. “Transformation,” because I’ve performed it over the years, it’s constantly a theme in my life about transforming myself. Going from being a Bluebelle to becoming a part of Patti Labelle and the Bluebelles, then becoming Labelle, then having my solo career. And going from R&B into rock into more sort of art rock or sound production, producing, writing, song writing.
I’m constantly evolving and transforming myself. This was yet another transformation and the second part of the title is “The Beautiful Cruelty of Time and Distance.” That’s part of what I wanted to express as well, this is that time and distance, there’s a beauty to it in terms of you can miss something that you needed to miss so that you can love it more or care about it more. Time is something that is a part of everyone’s evolution, when you look from being born to when you die, which is yet again another transformation.
This piece reminds me of some of the costumes that you guys wore back in the days of Labelle. I see some representation of death here. I see some movement. I see the forty-five record. Tell us about this piece.
This is an homage to vinyl, the CD, disco and the fact that music is now something that we stream and something that is on MP3, not something that we touch. Music still touches us, but we don’t touch it. Part of what I’m doing in the art pieces here is to bring touch back to music. If you had this, there’s a physical connection. When you touch things, there is something about it that it means something more to you. There is a tactile thing. That’s what this piece is about. It’s called, “Death of Vinyl.”
There’s an extra added feature here. I think you can plug your device or whatever your new technology is?
That’s kind of mixing with the vinyl, so the old meets the new.
It also means that the music doesn’t die. If you plug something in and play it, that keeps music alive.
Let’s move on to this next piece.
Yes. I have a song that I wrote called, “Winds of Change” as a tribute to Winnie Mandela and Nelson Mandela, just before Nelson was freed from prison. This is really just about how music is life and it’s also a self-portrait at the same time. How music is integrated into my life and therefore, I am able to express my feelings and thoughts about something like a Nelson Mandela. It comes from the inside, which is why the music is going through the blood.
Then music is really embedded in the work?
Yes. Definitely. Embedded physically and embedded figuratively and literally. This is called, “Let’s Rock This House.” That is a song that I wrote and performed called “Rock This House.” That is the colors, for me, the vibrancy of rock, is what I was trying to get across. The microphone in the mouth, how visceral it can be.
The microphone is really close in rock and roll. That’s a part of the art. I think you’ve paid tribute to Elvis Presley before?
I have, in performance, yes. Definitely. He’s an early rocker, but for me, my influence was Fats Domino and Chuck Berry and Little Richard.
Fats Domino was from New Orleans, which is where I’m from.
He certainly is, yes. “Blueberry Hill” is one of my favorite songs. My influence in terms of rock and rock and roll comes from more of an African American place, the people I just named. Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, for me.
Little Richard is the king.
The work that she had to do to transform herself from this skinny little girl to this Amazonian woman who is the best tennis player who ever lived. -Nona Hendryx
This is a newer piece. This is one of the last things I did. This is about my response to immigration. The immigration issue that’s going on. There’s a video that plays in here. It starts with the feather at the top is the Native American representation of having an open door and open arms and welcoming the Pilgrims to America.
Let’s see what other delights are here.
The flag and the Constitution is embedded in the video as well as the Statue of Liberty, which is “Give me your tired, your poor.” But we were brought here as slaves and as you’ll see in the video, it says for the Europeans who came, they’re welcomed. For the slaves who were brought here, basically you are not welcome.
Then you also have at the end the Native Americans, which is part of my heritage as well, once the Europeans were welcomed, then they didn’t want the Native Americans anymore. They put them on reservations. Then you have the Mexicans. It represents the people who die trying to get here. Then you have the shadowy figures who watch and say, “You can’t come in.” That’s what this piece is. It’s called, “Come in to My Life.”
It seems like a perfect interpretation to “Black Lives Matter?”
Absolutely. The very last thing it says is, “No one owns the world. We are all visitors. Some stay longer than others.”
That’s beautiful. Do you follow the political debate as it relates to immigration?
Of course. How could I not?
Some clowns out here.
Absolutely. Not only clowns, I was just reading an article about military soldiers returning from war were traumatically damaged and one particular Marine unit, how many of them have committed suicide. These are young men who went to fight in Iraq and some of them were Mexican and they came back so damaged that they cannot live and keep taking their lives. To have someone like Donald Trump say what he said about Mexicans, it’s just so …
What can you say?
It’s horrible. Yes, it affects me and when we get to that last piece, that last piece is to be auctioned, “Make Music Not War.” The proceeds will go to the wounded military veterans.
Then we turn to peace.
Always, yes. Always peace.
I noticed a lotus flower.
Yes. Because it’s regenerative.
What are these other plants?
Those are new lotus flowers of all colors. The main lotus flower at the top is spreading seeds because the lotus flower is a flower that regenerates itself. It doesn’t need anything else to fertilize it, it does it itself. These are more different people, people, colors, rainbow.
This one you decided to do an animal skin or fur?
Yes, because I wanted to bring in the animal world. We are the lotus, the evolved being, Buddha above. But there’s also the animal nature. We never loose that, it is always within us and this is ultimately the evolved Buddha, really transparent to the point where clouds are within, the world is within.
Then there’s the electronics. The “Game of Life.”
Yes, the “Game of Life,” it’s a game, a board game and it’s about the things that are inside of it when you press the different …
Game of Life: If you compare yourself to others, you may become vain or bitter. For always there will be greater or lesser persons than yourself.
Some of them are thoughts for you to think about and then some of them are just …
Game of Life: Laughing.
This is laughing. In the game, you can either talk about laughing, you could laugh, you could talk about not laughing, that you don’t want to laugh. It leaves it open to the people who are playing the game to interpret it. You spin this and whichever color it lands on, you press the coordinating button. But if you hit [the skull], that’s death. You loose your turn.
You talk a lot about time. I see in the piece here, time is at the top of it?
Yes. That’s because ecologically, that was inspired from the Katrina hurricane, and the oil that was spilled in the [Gulf of Mexico]. The title in there says, “Oil on the Water.” Which is another song that I wrote about that. That is not something that can be washed away by rain. That’s time, we don’t have much time to heal the planet, the damage that we did.
Mama Funk, she has the face of Beyoncé. Mama Funk says things, she might tell you to do something or she may just say, “What does Mama Funk say?” And says, “Obey the Funk.” That’s a title somebody gave me, so I just wanted to share. And it’s a song I wrote called, “What Does Mama Funk Say?”
There’s also a lot of themes of feminism? Beyoncé called herself a feminist and then she got some push-back because of that.
I wonder why? What’s wrong with being a feminist?
I’m a feminist. I’m a male feminist.
But what is feminism?
I think it’s the willingness to be who you are, the freedom to be who you are. That you really love, care and support the feminine being.
You were saying this next piece is an homage to New Orleans, to remember what happened at the catastrophe, Hurricane Katrina.
All the stuff that allows us to damage our home and not really care about how it affects other people, that you make a lot of money as an oil company or the different things, cars, all the things that are in there. You can’t just walk away and don’t replace what you damage. I found this old Robert Burns poem in a book of his poetry. It was interesting that it was written in the eighteen hundreds or something and he’s talking about how ecologically, we needed to save the forest and save the land. I wanted to include that because I didn’t realize that he was writing about things like that.
In the eighteen hundreds?
Yeah. There are things about how in Africa there’s a lot of famine because the Sahara is reclaiming. But then there are a lot of companies going there drilling for oil, not really helping the people. You see the Sudan, the whole struggle there, there’s a war that’s been going on forever. It’s mainly money and oil driven. The sea, how we abuse the oceans. Oil rigs, shipping boats, throwing stuff over that these sea animals get trapped in and die off.
There’s a lot here.
It’s all of those things that concern me.
Can you talk about the crafting, the creation of the piece? The materials you used?
It’s all found articles and money and images that I wanted to represent the feelings that I was having about it. Then I used a moss, the “E” is for Earth. The root could possibly die, but hopefully it will stay alive. Then on top of that I painted the backdrop with acrylic and watercolor and then I used something called self-leveling gel to encase everything.
This is a lot to digest, for the planet and for mankind.
Well, it’s a big world.
It is a big world. Hopefully we can save it. It looks like the video is ready, let’s watch it…
That’s me doing a duet with a robot. My friend, Chris Konopka, who’s not here, who generates video using frequencies. I wanted to do a performance with a robot, so he built a robot that also has a Tutu head, Mini Tutu head. The Tutu head, at different points, would say things to me and I would respond to it. This song is called, “I Was Barely Breathing, You Were Hardly Living.” It’s kind of like who created who? Did I create the machine or did the machine create me? It’s a futuristic view, at some point.
I think it’s very creative.
This next piece is called “Nightbirds.” It includes a video of me at the end of me at the end of a performance of “Nightbirds” with Labelle. Usually a cage represents imprisonment, lack of freedom, and this is to represent that there isn’t a bird in the cage. If I imprison you, I’m imprisoning myself, because I have to keep you prisoner. This is about freedom. Even if you do imprison me, there are the eggs, my progeny, your progeny, are going to be born. It plays the song, “Nightbirds.” Which is a song that Allen Toussaint produced.
There’s a lot of talk about the prison industrial complex now and the profits that are being made. One presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, is talking about it. “The New Jim Crow” is talking about it. Ta-Nehisi Coates did an article in “The Atlantic” just last week and it’s about the black family and the prison industrial complex. Do you follow that politic?
I don’t know how you can’t because I am interested in justice. I’m interested in how you change. I’m interested in peace. I’m interested in change, in making life better for people. Of course, I care about African Americans, however they’re being mistreated or abused or elevated. I look at both, I don’t just look at the negative. I look at the positive. I’m also willing to incorporate that into my art, into music, because for me that’s how I can share that with the world, outside of going on the street and marching. Which I’ve done. I can continue and it can live on.
I think we should rely on the arts more, because the arts can tell a story in a more subtle way. Watching the musical “Cabaret,” I learned about what happened in Germany at that time of the holocaust just by participating in the arts.
There are a lot of artists who are social advocates and political advocates in their work. If you look at someone like Keith Haring. Much of his work was about freedom or lack of freedom, the politics of dancing, music. I don’t think you can not, because a lot of artists are themselves come from very difficult places.
Let’s move on… The interesting thing here about transformation, this is a man who decided to be a woman, but you also talk about Serena Williams and Misty Copeland.
Misty. Each one of these people had to struggle to become who they are. Bruce Jenner had to struggle and work from the inside out, psychologically, spiritually, to at some point say, “I am not who you think I am. This is who I am.” Why I have these wings and the fishes, from my belief, also scientific belief that we are part fish and part bird. That we evolved in that way. The colors are the colors of a gay liberation flag. They all have horns. Some people don’t see the horns as much on the others, but they all have horns. Because you have to be really feisty and willing to fight. I say, “The devil may care,” but you don’t care what people think because you have your eye on where you want to be.
Yes, we definitely hope. Specifically Serena and Misty, they had to really, really work so hard and have such determination. Every day trying to get to the place where they wanted to be. Coming from this young girl from the ‘hood, which is why she started out on the black concrete of neighborhood playgrounds to when, at the French Open, which is the reddish clay color, then the green of Wimbledon and then the blue of the US Open, then the blue of Australia to win the twenty-one championships that are diamond on there. Her bottom is made out of trophies. The work that she had to do to transform herself from this skinny little girl to this Amazonian woman who is the best tennis player who ever lived.
For Misty, the same thing. She had to have that same fight and determination to become the first African American principal ballerina for ABT (American Ballet Theater), a primarily white dance company. What she had to not only physically do, but spiritually go through and emotionally go through. I don’t know it all, but I’m sure it was not easy. Not being accepted, not being considered the right body type.
Even before dealing with the family and pursuing such a rigorous career, such a stand, she went to live with another family. A white family and there was some struggle. Probably some animosity towards the family. But they really wanted her to succeed because she was a protégé. This is what she was born to do.
That’s what transformation’s about. It’s a series, it’s ongoing, I’m still developing newer ones for women and there will be men who I feel really transformed themselves.
I can’t wait to see. I’m looking forward to that.
This is the piece I was saying before, I’m asking people to autograph. It’s called, “Make Music Not War.” At the end we will auction it and it will go to the Wounded Warrior program.
That’s fantastic, a great cause.
The funds and the energy that we put into the Iraqi war and the Afghanistan war. Everybody in America could have healthcare, could have education, could have homes. We would have less homeless because we could afford to take care of our own.
This is wonderful. I think it’s a beautiful exhibit.