Channeling Bessie Smith on Valentine’s Day: A New Discovery

Nettrice Gaskins
4 min readFeb 15, 2024
Bessie Smith photographed by Carl Van Vechten in 1936

[Bessie] Smith’s subject matter was the classic material of the blues: poverty and oppression, love — betrayed or unrequited — and stoic acceptance of defeat at the hands of a cruel and indifferent world. — Brittanica

For Valentine’s Day (and Black History Month) I decided to create a series of portraits of and inspired by 1930s singer Bessie Smith who was known as the “Empress of the Blues.” Bessie Smith was bold, confident, and her strong voice expressed the frustrations and hopes of a generation of Black Americans. She sang about love in RKO’s St. Louis Blues in 1929:

Got dem Saint Louis Blues jes as blue as ah can be
Dat man got a heart lak a rock cast into de sea
Or else he wouldn’t have gone so far from me
Doggone it!
I loves day man lak a schoolboy loves his pie
Lak a Kentucky Col’nel loves his mint an’ rye
I’ll love ma baby till the day ah die

This kind of love (Bessie’s love), as well as the singer’s real life, was nowhere near easy. It dragged and trudged along, getting by the best way it could but it also endured. “St. Louis Blues” was quintessential in that it has a melancholic musical style that expresses the harshness of everyday life. I had this particular song in mind when I started working on the portraits in Midjourney v6. This was one of the first attempts:

Bessie Smith + Midjourney v6

I used a text prompt I have been working on for several months, since The Heart of New England IMAX/Omni film for which I was commissioned to create 16 portraits of social innovators. I used Midjourney v 5.2 for the film but the output changed when using the latest version 6. The latter did a good job capturing the vintage designs and colors. The painting style was much looser than the v 5.2 images (same prompt):

My “working sketch” for The Heart of New England

Next, I used the Pan option that expands the canvas or border of an image in a chosen direction without changing the content of the original image. For the Bessie Smith portrait I extended the bottom and right edges, and I added a vintage 1930s Victrola gramophone record player.

Bessie Smith + Midjourney v6 Pan option (extended down and right)
Vintage wallpaper floral pattern (what I planned on using)

It was here that I tried something different, by accident. I thought I could apply a style reference to the panned/extended image. The style reference option enables artists to blend multiple aesthetics seamlessly into one cohesive artwork. It makes Midjourney-generated images match reference images in aesthetics and vibe. However, when I ran the prompt, I realized that I had used the previously MJ-generated image (see above) as a style reference, not the other image I was planning to use (also above). I was pleasantly surprised by the result:

Created using a text prompt + another Midjourney-generated image

The bell of the Victrola record player became flowers in the hair of the new Bessie Smith portrait. The color palette is the same but the details are more three-dimensional. Note the translucent fabric on the dress sleeves. Even though I did not use the vintage wallpaper image the final result captured the floral design, anyway. I tried the same process with other variations the results were consistent with the first attempt:

My favorite part how the facial expressions in these portraits capture the blues aesthetic that, according to Richard J. Powell, situates discourse on:

1) art produced in our time; 2) creative expressions that emulate from artists who are empathetic with Afro-American issues and ideals; 3) work that identifies with grassroots, popular, and/or mass black American culture; 4) art that has an affinity with Afro-U.S.-derived music and/or rhythms; and 5) artists and/or artistic statements whose raison d’etre is humanistic.

The style reference option in Midjourney v6 successfully and consistently produces images that capture the raw emotion of Blues singers like Bessie Smith. I’m not sure but I do think this is the first time someone has done this (blues aesthetic) using generative AI. I will be using this process, or technique with future images.

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Nettrice Gaskins

Nettrice is a digital artist, academic, cultural critic and advocate of STEAM education.