At first blush, the video for "Take a Chance," the new single from Durham MC Shirlette Ammons, seems quite simple. A colorful blue and purple screen announces that there is breaking news. The bulletin: "Shirlette and Anansi find their Bentley mode." Shirlette sits making hilariously serious faces at a news desk as a monitor shows her and a young girl — Anansi — wandering about town. Without digging deeper, it seems slight but cute, a funny clip for a funny song with a stomping, up-tempo beat.
But "Take a Chance" is the lead single for Twilight for Gladys Bentley, Ammons' solo debut and also a loosely conceptual tribute to the black blues singer of the title. Getting her start in New York speakeasies during the '20s, Bentley wore men's tuxedos and did growling, raunchy renditions of the day's popular songs. An open lesbian, she would flirt shamelessly with the women in the audience. Overall, she made a brave, confrontational spectacle. But in the '50s, she bent to society's disapproval, taking a husband and wearing dresses.
In the video, a news ticker fills you in on these details, holding Bentley up as both an ideal of a free-living lifestyle and a warning against allowing yourself to conform as she did. As Shirlette —herself an openly lesbian musician —raps, the text rolls beneath her. "Bentley still stands as a renegade," it reads, "who took great risks in her music and her life. People like Bentley chose to be themselves at a time when it was life-threatening."
Shirlette's lyrics concern her scrap to make it as an artist. She talks about living in a small apartment and begging friends to listen to her demos. At the end of every request comes the refrain: "Don't even ask, homie/ Just take a chance, homie." In this context, Bentley serves as a reminder of those who have struggled bravely for social change.
Shirlette will offer a preview of Twilight for Gladys Bentley with a show at Durham's Pinhook on Sept. 21. A CD sampler of tracks from the album will be available to anyone who pre-orders the album that night. Humble Tripe and DJ Play Play join her on the $7 bill. Music starts at 10 p.m.