As a teen star and half of a sister act, Chlöe Bailey charmed audiences for years. Now, as just Chlöe, she’s launched a solo music career and lent her distinctive voice to an essential story about sex, race and Black women’s bodies.
On the day of our interview, Chlöe is late and sending apologies from the set of a very hush-hush series donald Glover is directing for Amazon. Chlöe, who costars alongside Dominique Fishback and Damson Idris, is still waiting to wrap and production is running behind.
The truth is, it can’t be helped. When you’re a 24-year-old multihyphenate (actor-dancer-singersongwriter-producer) phenom who’s moving with heat, schedules are good intentions at best. And Chlöe is hot. Her fourth and final season as Jazz Forster, the track star with a sweetly barbed tongue on Grownish, has come to an end, but that doesn’t mean we won’t be seeing more of Chlöe.
In addition to the Glover project, she has at least three other screen roles on deck, including In Praise This, a movie about youth choirs, which is currently shooting in her hometown of Atlanta. (Fun fact: her sister, Halle, is also in Atlanta, shooting an adaptation of the Colour Purple.)
Then, of course, there’s Chlöe, the highly anticipated solo album that she worked on diligently throughout this pandemic whilst the rest of us were dutifully restocking home bars and mastering the secrets of sourdough starters.
Audiences got their first taste of the album last spring with the release of ‘Have Mercy’, a titillatingly infectious, obvious ode to ass that extended everyone’s longings for a pandemic-free, hot girl summer. The song did impressively well, charting in billboard’s r&b chart and its hot 100. Chlöe’s second single, ‘Treat Me’, is also a bop, an anthemic reminder to demand your lovers treat you as well as you treat yourself.
Like its predecessor, its message is delivered in the sort of sensual, variegated sonic bouquets that are quickly becoming Chlöe’s signature as a solo artist. Her voice conjures the ancestors, capable of evoking the husky gravitas of Nina Simone and the ethereal flutiness of songbird Minnie Riperton (a voice long believed to be inimitable).
But Chlöe’s success hasn’t been without controversy. Her performance persona is unapologetically black femme fatale: glam, sensual and decidedly committed to exploring the contours of her own pleasure.
The buzzwords and phrases that signal the public policing and shaming of black women’s sexuality – ‘she doing too much’, ‘hypersexuality’, ‘inappropriate’, ‘too raunchy’ – started hovering around Chlöe almost immediately after her Juneteenth 2021 performance of Simone’s classic ‘Feeling Good’ for an ABC television special. Chlöe’s detractors found the bump and grind of her choreography, reminiscent of black burlesque, anywhere from concerning to downright disrespectful. (helpful aside: anyone who thinks Nina didn’t sing sex clearly hasn’t heard her cover of blueswoman bessie smith’s 1931 classic, ‘Need a little sugar in my bowl’. Just saying.) ‘have mercy’’s ass-centricity intensified the social media surveillance of Chlöe, as did her gorgeous IG cover of riperton’s ‘lovin’ you’.
This might be a good time to warn you that if you fall into the judgement camp, you’re about to get mad all over again. The ‘treat me’ video? It’s as if “thick thighs save lives” were a person. A bit of this hoopla can be attributed to the difficulty audiences sometimes have with letting their child stars grow up – Janet Jackson’s ‘Control’ immediately springs to mind.
Chlöe x Halle have been an adored part of pop-culture imagination for almost a decade now, ever since their tween cover of Beyoncé’s ‘Pretty Hurts’ on their Youtube channel went viral and queen Bey wisely signed them to her label, Parkwood Entertainment. But some of this is also rooted in a history that is far more insidious. For black women, public claims of pleasure and agency have never been easy. Since slavery, our bodies have walked an impossible tightrope between being hypervisible and erotically illegible. There was a chasm of difference between the way black and white womanhood was viewed. In keeping with the mores of Victorian womanhood, white women were considered frail, virtuous, and in constant need of protection. enslaved black women, however, were believed to be no more than chattel. the primary purpose of our bodies was to provide labour that could be economically exploited, violently disciplined and sexually violated to reproduce.
To justify this exploitation, black women’s bodies had to be reinscribed as unnatural, depicted as having animalistic strength, but also sexually insatiable and readily available. The truth is, black women have been trying to undo these who both sang explicitly about sex, queer love and advocated for sexual agency as far back as the early 1900s. That was more than a century before Meg and Cardi blessed us with ‘WAP’.
Chlöe begins our interview from her LA apartment, wearing a super-cute white tee emblazoned with an entreaty to ‘break the bank, not my heart’. It’s a Valentine’s gift from a friend, the rapper Saweetie. today, Chlöe’s modest concessions to glam are her nails (did) and lashes (perfection). the overall effect is a strong visual cue that the Cancerian with venus in Gemini (I’m telling you this because she’s into astrology enough to tell you this) sitting in front of me is a good distance from her pleasure avatar, the femme fatale she breaks out for performance purposes. “When I’m [not performing], I’m a bubbly, corny, clumsy person,” she says. “but when the lights turn on, something just happens. I’m somebody else.” Like our dearly departed, RIP, Sasha Fierce, Chlöe’s alter ego is highly utilitarian. It allows her to access a power source she not only wants but needs.“I feel it’s not fair for us to say we’re only one version of who we are. We all have multiple layers to ourselves.
Maybe,” she continues thoughtfully, “This is a side of me that I’ve always wanted to get out but I’ve been too scared. The Chlöe on stage? “I’m fearless.”
Deeply disparaging stereotypes ever since. The solution for many was and still is to nix any public performance of pleasure that is in the least bit sexual. It’s considered too dangerous. on the front lines of resistance to this history are black feminists, who have worked assiduously to dismantle these stereotypes, and what i like to call ‘black Pleasure Ninjas’, women and femme performers that dare claim the right to pleasure and a healthy eroticism as not only legitimate but a human right.
In ‘Have Mercy’, Chlöe declares, “If I count to three, bet you be on your knees.” In ‘Erotic Power’, Chlöe’s got squad. Among them, blueswomen bessie smith and ma rainey. “I feel sexy. I feel strong. I feel nothing can hold me back. When I’m off the stage, it’s the complete opposite. That version on stage is still a really nice person, but she doesn’t take any shit. She knows who she is.”
Chlöe hopes that you’ll get to know her a little better through her album. Working on it was therapy. The isolation of this pandemic was hard on her, as it was for many of us, and for Chlöe it was exacerbated by a six-month separation from Halle, her sister and best friend, who was stuck in London and unable to return to the US. It was one of the longest periods they’d ever been apart and Chlöe found herself suffering from separation anxiety. “Music saved me,” she recalls. “Iwas at a low moment where I felt lost, like I didn’t have any sense of who I was.”
She’s been careful to select tracks that’ll help her strike the right balance of strength, vulnerability and naked honesty on the album. “in the beginning you can tell that [the person] who’s singing is like a bird with broken wings. as time went on, you can hear me finding my strength and confidence. i didn’t want to lose that story as i pieced the [songs] together.” ultimately, Chlöe says she wants to get across a message of anti-perfection: “We’re not all supposed to be perfect, like bad bitch and confident all the time. We have different layers, ebbs and flows to our lives. it’d be completely unfair for me to portray myself to the world like i have no problems. because i do.” Chlöe’s combo of frankness and warmth is instantly endearing, but her polished composure is a reminder that she’s no stranger to celebrity. she’s built for this. her egot aspirations started early. “it feels like as soon as i learned to walk i knew i wanted to sing,” she says. “i knew i loved performing. my very first dream was to be a broadway star.” she also understands that scrutiny comes with the territory, but when it comes to what she does with her body, she has no intention of letting the naysayers influence her choices. her journey to body positivity has been hard, long, and as it is for many of us, ongoing. let her explain those travels: “it’s complicated. i’ve always had thick thighs and an ass. but i was growing up at a time when, if someone on television told you that you had a big ass, they meant it as an insult. so i was a little ashamed of my curves. i tried to hide them. it took a very, very long time. Now my favourite thing about [my body] is my ass.” as a girl, one of the things that helped her most was watching other Pleasure Ninjas perform. “the first woman i saw embrace her body was beyoncé,” Chlöe says. “hearing her sing ‘bootylicious’ or seeing her “When I was young, I was a little ashamed of my curves. Now my favourite thing about my body is my ass” perform on the bet [awards] made me feel calm about my body. also Jill scott. she showed me another beautiful, fullfigured, thick, sexy, curvaceous [woman]. and i was like, that is sexy.” as for dating, Chlöe is quick to own her inexperience. she was homeschooled starting in the seventh grade, so she missed the whole high school dating experience. “i’m getting into that world and learning the ways of men right now,” she says. but her pleasure avatar does pose some challenges: “i present myself in my music videos as this really sensual girl, but when it comes to love and relationships, that’s not how i am. but that’s what guys think of me sometimes. so, i’ve been pretty protective of my heart and figuring out guys’ true intentions.” on Chlöe’s scale of male appeal, ‘fine’ doesn’t rank as high as you might think. “i’m not a person who bases [stuff] on outward appearance,” she says matter of factly. “if their heart is made of gold, i’m so in. i just want them to appreciate my nerdy side, my work ethic, and be my best friend.” her basic requirements are fairly straightforward: love god, be funny, and (here’s that venus in gemini again) challenge her mind. “it has to be someone who’s really intellectual because that’s sexy. you can teach me things.” For any prospective teachers who might want to take up the challenge, fair warning: “i know a lot,” she says.
Note: This article was originally published in the September issue of Glamour SA
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