My Black Icon: Rita Cann

Black Icons, FAD Projects, Heritage
FAD volunteer, Dapinder, talks to us about inspiring performer and pianist Rita Cann.  Born in Purley and raised in Streatham, Cann (also know as Rita Lawrence) was one of the most applauded black female performers of her time, yet she still maintains an element of mystery today. 

Daps, what is it about Rita that drew you to her story?

“There is not a single image of her even though she was so famous in her time. She was a woman of recognition in the 1930s but she still remains something of a mystery today, which I find fascinating. To find common similarities with someone who can’t see, in a way we all want that sense of ambiguity and privacy. Rita managed to achieve this despite being a celebrity and such a visible artist during the 20s/30s.”

What have you learnt from Rita as a role model?

“To be versatile. Though her main ambition was to be a great pianist, she was also a singer and dancer performing alongside the likes of Adelaide Hall, Leslie Thompson and Fela Sowande. As there was a high demand for black female performers, she used her connections to perform at well known London venues such as Smokey Joe’s and The Nest. She did not let peoples’ scepticism get in the way of her ambitions of becoming a great pianist. Quite the wonder woman.” 

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Daps taking part in the Black British Icons workshops at the Black Cultural Archives

Do you think her story is still relevant to young people today and if so how?

“I would definitely say so! If we consider careers today the journey is not a simple straight line. There are many different paths and avenues you will need to go down to reach your final destination. That in a way makes you better at what you do. If Cann hadn’t started as a visual performer, chances are she wouldn’t have later become a well-known pianist. She built her name through performing before she gained her personal fortune.”

How do you think Rita compares with modern role models today?

“In a way, she’s a reverse version of Banksy. She was well know, revered by those of her time. People knew about her, watched her perform, but there is not much visible evidence of her left. Whereas Banksy as a person is completely unknown, a mystery, but his work is recognisable everywhere.” 

Read more about FAD’s Black Icons | The British Jazz Age project. Look out for more interviews and stories coming from our young volunteers soon.

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