Anecdote time! When I first started college, I went on a few dates with a guy I met at an event for the Indianapolis Urban League—the local division of a larger non-profit that focuses on under-served, traditionally black communities. At some point we went out for lunch and he made some off-hand comment about a girl wearing a short skirt—something to the effect of, “sad, when girls like that have no self-respect.” Immediately sensing some kind of underlying conservatism, I stopped returning his calls.
About a month later, I saw the same guy, passing out literature for The Nation of Islam—he had converted. And not just to Christianity, or Islam, or Buddhism, or whatever the hell else 19-years-olds tend to convert to in college—to an esoteric, hyper-masculinist religion based on black nationalism and the theory that white people are a race of “devils” created by a mad scientist.
That, ladies and gentleman, is what I do to men.
Apparently though, most people do not associate The Nation of Islam with college ex-boyfriends. Most people think of Louis Farrakhan, the movement’s infamous leader since 1978. He’s been implicated in the assassination of Malcolm X, and his absurd and offensive statements are too multitudinous to recount here. However, highlights include telling women to forgo careers in favor of homemaking—he once said, “You’re just not going to be happy unless there is happiness in the home.” He also proclaimed that Hurricane Katrina was “God’s way of punishing America for its warmongering and racism”. And of course he’s pretty prescriptively homophobic, all the while insisting he is not homophobic, once saying “I am not your enemy, I am you brother and I do love you,” but that “sin is sin according to the standard of God.”
Before all of that, however, Louis Farrakhan was a calypso singer of moderate success, known as “The Charmer.” And he was charming, singing joyful tunes like “Ugly Woman”—who doesn’t love that song? But the most fascinating recording The Charmer ever made was a bouncy little number called “Is She Is, Or Is She Ain’t?” about early trans celebrity, Christine Jorgensen. Around 1951, Jorgensen started a series of sex reassignment surgeries and became a world famous advocate for trans people.
If this seems like an odd subject for a calypso song, much less one by a future conservative black religious leader, you have to see it in the context that Jorgensen, a former Army private, made huge news, and Farrakhan was probably just trying to cash in on her fame. It’s a bit of a novelty record, obviously. Regardless, it’s still a little surprising to hear the guileless lyrics, “behind that lipstick rouge and paint, I got to know, is she is, or is she ain’t?” The song certainly isn’t an anthem of solidarity or anything, but it’s a far cry from the intolerant religious condemnation Farrakhan has come to be known for.
But Calypso wasn’t even Farrakhan’s first foray into music. In his younger years, an enthusiastic Louis Wolcott studied violin pretty seriously. Here’s a 16-year-old Louis Farrakhan from 1945, on The Ted Mack Amateur Hour.
Though his musical aspirations took a back seat to The Nation of Islam, he returned to violin in the 90s at the urging of black classical musician Sylvia Olden Lee. He even staged a few public concerts in 1993, performing Mendelssohn’s “Violin Concerto, Op.64,” which you can see below. Farrakhan is pretty well-known for generally dubious, if not outright anti-Semitic views, so his choice of a Jewish composer and a Jewish violin coach was considered noteworthy at the time. His playing is quite lovely, and The New York Times praised a performance thusly:
Can Louis Farrakhan play the violin? God bless us, he can. He makes a lot of mistakes, not surprising for a man who had virtally [sic] abandoned the instrument for 40 years and has only owned one since 1974. Yet Mr. Farrakhan’s sound is that of the authentic player. It is wide, deep and full of the energy that makes the violin gleam.
Who knew, right? Finally, here’s the future Minister Farrakhan singing a lil’ ditty about a zombie jamboree: