Etta James' Relationship With Malcolm X Explained

In the early 1960s, Etta James was a rising R & B, blues, and soul singer represented by Chess Records with the album and single, "At Last," making their way up the charts. She was using heroin and cocaine with periods of sobriety and it was during one of these times that she began attending Temple No. 15 of the Nation of Islam in Atlanta, where Minister Louis X (now Farrakhan) preached a message that combined Islam and Black nationalism, according to "The Promise of Patriarchy: Women and the Nation of Islam."

She liked the "anger and rebellious vibe of the teaching," and the perpetuated idea that white men were "the devil" amused her, per "The Promise of Patriarchy." She also hoped the NOI could help keep her from using, per "Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music from Blues to Hip-hop." What began as a passing interest became a true faith, so much so that she changed her name in the religion's tradition, jettisoning her "slave name" and calling herself Jamesetta X, per "Keep on Pushing."

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A hard upbringing in Los Angeles 

Etta James, born Jamesetta Hawkins in 1938 in Los Angeles to a 14-year-old mother, had a hard upbringing and didn't know her father, but believed he was the famous billiards player, Rudolf Walter Wanderone, known as Minnesota Fats, according to The Guardian. She was a child gospel-singing prodigy and appeared on the radio before moving to San Francisco at 12 and forming a girl group called the Peaches, per Biography and the San Francisco Bayview.

With her 1960 album "At Last" she was on her way to becoming a star, making her the Nation of Islam's first celebrity adherent, per "A History of Conversion to Islam in the United States, Volume 2." When James moved to New York City, she began attending Temple No. 7 in Harlem where Minister Malcolm X preached — "the cat inspired" she later recalled, and the two became friends, per "The Promise of Patriarchy: Women and the Nation of Islam."

Friends with Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali 

Malcolm X, born Malcolm Little in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, also had a hard upbringing after his family moved to Michigan when he was a child. According to The New York Times, his father Earl, a preacher and Black nationalist was killed by a street car in 1931, yet the family always suspected a white supremacist group was involved per Stanford's King Institute. The state later committed his mother to a mental institution and sent Malcolm and his siblings into foster care. While serving time in prison on a burglary conviction, he became involved in the Nation of Islam and rose through the ranks of the organization to become the NOI's national spokesperson, per "A History of Conversion to Islam in the United States, Volume 2" and History.

While in Harlem, Etta James spent a lot of time with Malcolm X and also became friends with a young boxer named Cassius Clay who she introduced to the teachings of the Nation of Islam, per "The Promise of Patriarchy." Clay became an adherent and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. While James considered herself a Muslim for a decade, she admitted she didn't strictly adhere to all the religion's tenants and later said her time in the NOI had been "a sort of fad," per The Promise of Patriarchy" and the San Francisco Bayview. Etta James died of leukemia in 2012.