For generations, Black culture has been imitated, duplicated, and appropriated by the mainstream without receiving its due credit.Just look to any discussion of Black influences on hairstyles, dance trends, music, speech patterns, or fashion, and you’ll find the root in Black culture. Through this appropriation, our people have inspired some of America’s most iconic and enduring cultural projects. One example comes in the form of a famously sassy cartoon character known as “Betty Boop.” Though portrayed as a white woman, Betty Boop’s caricature was actually modeled after a Black woman:Esther Jones.
Esther Jones, commonly referred to as “Baby Esther,” was a Black jazz singer and entertainer during the 1920s. Esther’s unique musical performances involved “scatting,” which she learned from her manager Lou Walton. With frequent shows at the Cotton Club in Harlem, Jones became well known for her “boo-boo-boo” and “doo-doo-doo” improvisation vocals. These sounds would become her signature “baby voice” style and would directly influence other vocalists….even becoming a hallmark trait falsely – associated with Betty Boop.
While Esther Jones was the definitive inspiration for the creation of Betty Boop, a White woman named Helen Kane tried her best to prove otherwise. Kane was also a vocalist in New York at the time, who just so happened to see one of Esther’s shows at the Cotton Club. Mesmerized by Esther’s “scatting,” Kane began to integrate her own form of it into a recorded song titled “I Wanna Be Loved By You.” Instead of “boo-boo-boo” and “doo-doo-doo,” Kane inserted “boop-boop-a-doop”and similar vocals without ever acknowledging that the pattern was adapted from Esther’s performance. Later, Kane would insist that she, in fact, was the model for the creation of Betty Boop.
Well, will the REAL Betty Boop please stand up?!
Even though Helen Kane attempted to steal Esther Jones’ sound, she would never become more than an imitation. Unfortunately, this narrative of whites claiming things that are not rightfully theirs is all too familiar throughout Black history. Although Esther did not become rich or famous for her work, she will forever be credited as the original Betty Boop in our books.