It’s shouldn’t be a surprise given the hijacking of products and intellectual property of Black people historically in the United States, but did you know that the iconic cartoon character Betty Boop was inspired by a Black jazz singer in Harlem? The inspiration has been traced back to Esther Jones who performed regularly in the Cotton Club during the 1920s, and was known as “Baby Esther” for her famous signature vocals “Boop Oop A Doop” and iconic sexy, jazzy style.
After watching one of her performances, white actress Helen Kane stole Baby Esther’s trademark vocal style of using “boops” and other childlike scat sounds in her own songs. Finding fame early on, Kane often included this “baby style” into her music along with Esther’s jazzy, sexy style.
When Betty Boop was introduced in 1930 by cartoonist Max Fleischer, Kane promptly sued him and Paramount Publix Corporation stating they were using her image and style. The caricature of the jazz age flapper was the first and most famous sex symbol in animation. Kane lost her case when video evidence showed Baby Esther performing in a nightclub, stating she did not have exclusive rights to the “booping” style or image, and that the style, in fact, pre-dated her.
Like so many in the African American community, Baby Esther’s “baby style” did little to bring her mainstream fame and she died in relative obscurity. However, Baby Esther lives on in the iconic character Betty Boop and my mom’s ceramic plate now sitting in my curio cabinet.
Yvette Williams is a community advocate and Chair/Founder of the Clark County Black Caucus, a non-partisan community organization driven 100% by volunteer members registered to vote. Follow her on twitter @YvetteBWilliams or contact her at ClarkCountyBlackCaucus@gmail.com for more information.