The “Negrophila” that hit Paris during the 1920s is the same phenomenon that hit several western countries in the beginning of the 20th century. As slaves became freed new cultures and styles began to emerge, especially in the music world. These new styles of jazz and blues, gospels and spirituals spread wildly across the United States and eventually landed itself in Paris, where nothing of the kind had ever been seen or heard before. As a result Paris went crazy for the African/African American culture because it was new, unheard of, and sexy. Paris had been struggling nonstop to find their nationality and find their sound that when the jazz culture hit it was like a breath of fresh air.
Paris was filled with composers, artists and dancers, all who strived for tradition, uniformity, and everyday art forms. The styles were simple and trying to define a nation. Although it was new and exciting, it lacked extravagance and sex. Which was essentially the point. Stravinsky(1) even noted in a journal that in several of his works that there was to be no emotion, no nuance, no nothing. But when introduced to jazz and the culture behind it, Paris clenched a thirst it did not even know it had.
A similar circumstance happened in the United States as well during the turn of the century, but instead of embracing it, like the Parisians, they tried to claim it for themselves. This was due obviously to the dark history of America’ past with slavery. American show producers and theater owners controlled jazz and blues in the eyes of the white public. They geared some shows strictly towards a black audience while produced and cleaned up other shows for the wealthy white public. France, not having such a past, took in the dirty, the clean and everything in between. It was something they could not look away from
As a result, it may seem like Paris had “Negrophilia” but because of their history and the focus of the search for their nationality they distanced themselves from the world. So when jazz and Josephine Baker entered stage right it was a wake up call to what was going on in the rest of the world. Paris then experienced this new culture on a higher level than most other countries also being introduced to this anomaly.
Although some may disagree, Paris was not above the sex and scandal many of these shows had. Under all their “Frenchness”, they were human. And so are we. Even though we like to think we’ve progressed since the 1920s, we still crave that exotic and sex that the Parisians did in the 1920s. Look at Nicki Minaji’s performance on this year’s VMAs. Her outfit and her dancers’ outfits are almost identical to those of Josephine Baker way back in 1925 with the feathers, short skirts and flashy bras. There’s still no respect, no honor, no celebration, just a hunger for what the “other” music or dance or art has, that the audience lacks.
- Igor Stravinsky, “Some Words About My Octet,” in Music in the Western World: A History in Documents, ed. Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin, 2nd ed. (Belmont: Thomson, 2008), 388-390.