Lena Horne, a sultry singer, actress and civil rights activist, died on Sunday night at the age of 92 in New York . Lena was a woman who broke many glass ceilings, paving the way for many black actresses and musicians who followed her. Lena experienced firsthand the discrimination against black artists in the early 1930’s while performing as a dancer at Harlem’s legendary Cotton Club. This motivated Lena to achieve her dream of being an “A-list” actress without succumbing to the expectations of directors and producers who sought to stereotype personalities and lifestyles of black citizens. Her determination and graceful approach to rejecting typically black roles made her stand out, and contributed to her becoming the first black actress to land a long-term contract with MGM.
It is apparent that Lena’s involvement in Communist groups inspired much of the passion behind her work as an actress and singer. Despite the racial hardships that took place in the early 30’s-60’s, Lena pressed forward using her talent—something that simply could not be belittled. Her voice and graceful presence afforded her appearances in several screen musicals, including the popular Cabin in the Sky. Despite her heavy involvement in civil rights issues, including marches and rallies with the NAACP, Lena managed to sustain a successful recording career, and was a dominant force in Broadway. After decades of infusing her talent in the jazz arena through dance, acting, and singing, Lena earned a Tony Award for Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music in 1981, as well as a Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Album in 1995.
A woman of strength, grace, persistence, and civil awareness, Lena Horne used her talent to change the face and concept of black roles both on and off screen. One might wonder how she managed to do it all and remain so successful. It is obvious that Lena’s mission to end racial injustice fueled the passion behind her work. This poses the question : Does a cause strengthen your ability to mobilize people through music, theater, and other forms of art? Many of the “greats” had an overall mission in line with their work, from jazz to pop. Many current artists are involved in the industry for the money…and nothing more. It’s no wonder so many artists’ careers are such short-lived. If nothing else, Lena Horne’s career should encourage artists to create lyrics and film using content that is derived from a genuine passion to promote a worthy cause or meaningful message. Music and films come and go, but their effects on people’s lives and society and cannot be outlived.