For most of my fiction writing career, I’ve been interested in exploring themes of black bohemianism. I’ll try writing a character who eschews the idea of “setting down roots” and flits from suitor to suitor, hobby to hobby, hammock in a backyard to hammock in Honduras. I’ll give her purple-tinted dreads that graze the small of her back. She wears mendhi on her palms and wrists and feet with no intention of marrying. She bellydances barefoot in the afternoon, assumes intricate yoga poses just as her straight-laced boyfriend enters their home with a suit-wearing coworker. But none of those stories seem to work, because the woman in question never seems quite real. She’s too much of a stereotype, modeled too closely on the Lisa Bonét ideal to be real for the reader. Or maybe I’m the one with the disbelief-suspending hang-ups.
It would seem that bohemianism isn’t as acceptable a lifestyle for black women as it is for women in other cultures. As it is most often associated with either voluntary poverty or wealth and privilege, either of which would be necessary to backpack the world pursuing any artistic, romantic, or adventurous whim that comes, it isn’t often a philosophy we’re in a position to adopt. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t black women who have successfully adopted a bohemian lifestyle, at least for a time. Let’s take a look at a few:
1. Angela Bofill
If you happened to catch this past Monday’s episode of Unsung, you likely learned far more than you ever knew about the life of Bofill. At the height of her success, Bofill was a hippie of the highest order. She traveled where her passions took her, whether they were musical or romantic. She spoke candidly of “overlapping boyfriends,” a marriage that lasted seven days and ended when she met another man, and eventually settling into a second, longer marriage to a farmer who lived so far removed from the fame and fortune she was experiencing that he didn’t even know who she was. She was a free spirit whose music reflected her caprice and heartache in breathtaking fashion. Even now, after two strokes and a great deal of financial hardship, she still seems to let her artistic pursuits lead her. It’s clear that, without them, she wouldn’t have found the resolve to recover.
2. Minnie Riperton
The album covers for “Perfect Angel” and “Come Into My Garden” hint at Riperton’s playful, whimsical, hippyish ideals. The youngest of eight in a musical family, she studied modern dance and singing as a child and let those pursuits guide her professional aspirations. From her signature baby’s breath in her hair to her passionate love affair with her husband to her gentle and free-wheeling approach to parenting, Riperton certainly fits the bohemian bill, and her commitment to a life that prioritized her artistic ideals has left us with one of the most powerful musical legacies in R&B history.
3. Navasha Daya
If you’re from Baltimore, chances are you’ve heard (and loved) Fertile Ground, especially if you’ve seen them perform live. For years, Daya was the lead singer of the eclectic musical group, which she co-founded with her former husband, James Collins, and drummer Marcus Asante. She was always an ethereal, otherworldly onstage presence. Mysterious and gorgeous, Daya’s songs reflected an afrocentric, holistic sensibility also apparent in her personal life. These days, in addition to a burgeoning solo career, Daya is also a holistic wellness practitioner, whose business website credits her as an indigenous healer, a midwife of the spirit, and a certified master teacher in both Western Usui Reiki Ryoho and Gendai Usui Reiki Ryoho.
4. The Painted Lady Performance Project (Tazima Davis, ayo ngozi)
In the mid-’00s, two women covered from head to toe in body paint could be seen walking the streets of D.C. in costume and acting as live sculptures at museums or private events. They were the Painted Lady Performance Project, led by performance artists Tazima Davis and ayo ngozi. Their mission was to combine elements of dance, theater, sculpture, new media, activism, and fantasy in our performance works, and they were spectacular at it. In glitter and platform Bootsy Collins-style boots, rockin’ fairy wings and magic wands around U Street, they were an unusual, refreshing tableau in a community that needed occasional departures from its harsher realities. These days, Ayo Ngozi is an herbalist and clinician and Davis is a wellness consultant and yoga instructor.
5. Lisa Bonét/Cree Summer
Of course this whole discussion would be remiss without its patron saints, Lisa Bonét and Cree Summer. Our most highly visible bohemian black women, Bonét and Summer are best known for their roles as wayward, wandering women among conservatives (the Huxtables) and straight-laced intellectuals (Hillman College alum). In life, they’re also perceived as mysterious artsy vagrants who waft in and out of the spotlight at whim, without much need of fame’s trappings or wealth. Bonét’s appeal was chronicled here at Clutch back in 2009, and it seems our community’s love affair with her will never wane. We see even less of Summer than we do of Bonét (whose marriage to and motherhood of rising stars Jason Momoa and Zoe Kravitz, respectively, places her at the occasional premiere). Summer was reportedly disillusioned with onscreen acting following “A Different World” and has always relied on her voice acting as a lucrative go-to profession. In addition to work on several animated series and video games, she currently provides the voice of the green M&M for commercials. Those of us who loved her first and only album, “Street Faerie”, are still patiently waiting for her to drop another set of eccentric jams.
Who’s your favorite black bohemian? Do you consider yourself bohemian and, if so, has your lifestyle been met with any family or community opposition?