From Georgia to Turkey: Ma Rainey and Bulent Ersoy – The Queer Women of Colour Who Challenged the Norm

From past to present, two women who broke the mould for generations to come.

T-urkish Delight" -- Bulent Ersoy, 31 famous Turkish Classical singer, arrived in Sydney, for 15 day stay in Sydney and Melbourne.***** he has made 18 albums and is here ***** her first stage show in three years ***** at the Hordern Pavilion next Saturday.***** Concert organiser Mr. Paul Aktos ***** Miss Ersoy hopes the Turkish government will change its mind at the ban on her shows after her Australian visit. January 25, 1983. (Photo by Anthony Matheus Lewis/Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

Trigger warning: suicide 


As Maya Angelou said, 

“Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.”


Now, perhaps more than ever, loneliness is a double-edged sword. There are now those rendered alone by COVID-19, but there are always those isolated by homophobia, transphobia, and racism. 


I would like to introduce some LGBTQ+ musicians of colour to you, who have opened my eyes to just how important music is to those who might be feeling alone. 


Bulent Ersoy

Firstly, Bulent Ersoy, who was born in 1952, and is a Turkish Ottoman classical and Arabesque singer. Esroy originally began her singing career as a man, however, after reassignment surgery, she found herself unable to perform under the 1980 Turkish coup d’etat. 



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This meant that Ersoy was unable to perform, as well as many other transgender individuals that were deemed “socially deviant” for their identity. After petitioning to be legally recognised as a woman, and having her petition rejected, she attempted suicide. 

However, Ersoy continued her musical career in Germany, where it was legal to live as herself. She continues to make music (after a brief hiatus in 2000) and released her latest song, ‘Ümit Hırsızı’ in 2019. Ersoy’s voice is spellbinding, her wavering tones exhibiting her love of classical Turkish music. 



Whilst I don’t speak Turkish, Esroy’s voice is captivating to listen to. Her vocal range is impressive, and despite me not knowing a word of what she is singing, the emotion of each song is perfectly conveyed. The instrumentals in each song are beautiful, and not something I’d ever heard before, and something I did not expect was the huge range of instrumental backings to Esroy’s songs, some are ‘hardcore’ Turkish, whereas others remind me of things I’ve heard before. I was a little taken aback by how sad some of Esroy’s earlier music sounds, and how some of her other songs convey her anger. She’s almost created a diary of her emotions out of her repertoire, and it’s quite striking to listen to. 


Ma Rainey

I would also like to introduce Ma Rainey, born in the 1880s in Georgia, US. Rainey’s age is disputed because of a conflict between the 1900 census and the census of 1910.  She became renowned for her ‘moaning’ style of singing the blues. 

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Rainey was known as “Mother of the Blues”, and her contribution to the Blues led to her being recognised as one of the “first great female blues vocalists”. Despite Rainey’s marriage to a man, Will Rainey, her song lyrics occasionally allude to lesbianism or bisexuality, 


They said I do it, ain’t nobody caught me. / Sure got to prove it on me.  / Went out last night with a crowd of my friends. / They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men” 


Ma Rainey presents a type of blues which I’ve only really heard in old films, but it’s absolutely fantastic. Lots of her songs are backed by twangy guitars, Rainey’s voice creating a striking contrast with her full, deep tones. Rainey’s music is the kind of stuff that makes you think about what you’re doing with your life but in a really easygoing, blues-accompanied type of way. ‘Booze and Blues’ particularly struck a chord with me, as Rainey sings about being taken out of bed by the police. Shocking, that this was released in 1924, and nearly 100 years later, Rainey’s lyrics still hold relevance today.  Her song ‘Prove it on Me Blues’ is a little more upbeat, and has a rebellious edge to it. ‘Prove it On Me Blues’ was a cultural precursor to the lesbian cultural movement of the 1970s according to political scholar Angela Y. Davis. Rainey catered largely to white audiences, and over a five-year span recorded 92 songs for Paramount


What really strikes me, is that I and many other people around me were born in the same century in which some people did not know their exact age, because these records simply do not exist. There are those who cannot trace their lineage back further than a few generations, due to the fact that their people of colour’s families and ancestors were simply not recorded. 


If these two women have taught me anything, it is to persevere. Esroy’s suicide attempt is painful, but an accurate depiction of how extremely difficult it is for those in the LGBT+ community to feel recognised for who they are. As a society, we must do better to act as allies, support one another, and amplify those whose voices have been silenced.

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