Monday, January 1, 2024

The Ethnomusicology of The Color Purple - Part 1

Happy New Year! I just saw The Color Purple 2023 this evening and I really enjoyed the movie. Like many African Americans in my generation, I grew up on the 1986 film. I entered into the heart of African America when I began to attend a predominantly Black public school in Prince George’s County Maryland in the fourth grade. PG County is a place in the US with one of the highest populations of African Americans in the country. My first viewing was the VHS version at my 4th grade best friend/classmate Malkya Joy’s slumber party. I was too sleepy to pay much attention and kept nodding off – probably because my eight-year-old mind was too young to process the story properly. By the time I was in the seventh grade, I had seen the movie – I think we had the tape at home. I don’t actually remember my first viewing when I truly understood the story – it is as if I have always seen it. It’s like trying to remember the first time I had grapes. Grapes have always been a part of my life, as has The Color Purple. The films intertextual presence in contemporary African American culture cannot be overstated. The movie is simply a part of our lives. Many of my friends know the movie line by line. We quote Sophia, Squeak and Celie as intertextual references in a variety of ways – as the climax of jokes, to express views on relationships, in Facebook memes, etc. I read the book for the first time in high school, and have gone through four to five different readings over the years. I know the book like the back of my hand.

Why does this story resonate with us so strongly? I think it’s because the story rests on the nuances of our culture – the South, the Black Church, the blues and the iconic Black woman singer who is independent, beautiful and sassy. Celie and Nettie’s story performs a return to Africa that we collectively experience as African American viewers who are historically exiled from the homeland. And the story is about redemption – Sofia, Celie, Nettie, Shug, Harpo and even Mister are restored in different ways. Liberation is a strong theme – Shug is liberated by daring to be herself, by her vocal talent, and carefree attitude, and serves as a liberator. She liberates Celie from Mister, who gains financial independence and comes into her own as a woman. Nettie is liberated from the racial oppression of the United States through her return to our homeland with Missionaries Samuel and Corrine. Nettie's unconditional sister-love also liberates Celie. Celie’s children are brought up ‘free’ in Africa, as Africans who have escaped the racial hierarchy of the United States. Of course, there is an emotional salvation scene with Shug’s return to her father’s church, and when her father forgives her for forsaking their highly religious lifestyle. Side note - Salvation themes are big in classic Black films (reference Walter Younger's transformation in A Raisin in the Sun and Eddie Kane's story in The Five Heart Beats). Alice Walker has written several essays to expand on the strong Black feminist statement that she intended to make with the story. I can go on and on with a longer essay, which will be The Ethnomusicology of the Color Purple - Part 2. Right now, I just want to share my thoughts about the characters and casting in the 2023 version. What do you think?

FANTASIA AS CELIE – 4 STARS. She was a pretty good Celie. However, since Fantasia is actually a ‘Shug’ - a full-of-life, unafraid, big-voiced, spunky, soulful, Black woman singer, I thought that Whoopie Goldberg transmitted Celie’s fear of Mister better.

NETTIE WAS A MISS. 1 STAR. In the book and film, Nettie is our bridge to Africa. The actor who played Nettie is Akosua Busia, who is from Ghana. Paired with Young Celie, played by Desreta Jackson, who is an Afro-Diasporan from the Virgin Islands, and Older Celie, played by Whoopie Goldberg, who is of Guinean descent according to Henry Louis Gates' African American Lives, Busia serves as an optical mirror of Celie's Africanity. Busia is literally an African princess - Bono. Her father is the prince of the royal family of the Wenchi Kingdom (a sub-group of the Asante nation). If Busia/Nettie as an African is beautiful, and a princess, then so is her sister Celie, even though she is described by her father and Mister as 'ugly,' who see her according to the US racial hierarchy they learned from their Euro-American slave master patriarch. In the book and film, Nettie is regarded as an African woman who has returned home. Her story reveals that Celie is a beautiful African woman, who is misplaced in the colonial US. She is a princess there and enslaved here. Busia as Nettie reveals the true identity of Celie that has been masked by centuries of slavery. Hallie Bailey and Ciara as Nettie just could not do that cultural work.

MISTER WAS ON POINT. 5 STARS. He was an excellent Mister. A total troglodyte who learned how to oppress, disrespect and see Black women as property from his slave-owning grandfather whose land and money he inherited.

SHUG - TOTALLY ON POINT – 5 STARS. Taraji is a ‘Shug’ in real life - feisty, sassy, creative, down to earth and sensual, full of that ‘Black girl magic’ and was her own Shug in the film. The singing…well…no one can sing that part like Táta Vega.

SOFIA. 5 STARS. TOTALLY ON POINT. Stout, sassy, funny, sensual and could sing! Those who have seen the film know what I mean.

HARPO. 4 STARS. He was pretty much on point. The 2023 Harpo had much more independence and confidence than the 1986 Harpo. A confident, secure man could never be the progeny of a bully like Mister.

SQUEAK/MARY AGNES - A TOTAL MISS. 1 STAR. First – in the book, her light skin is integral to the plot. She goes to see her white uncle to try to get Sofia out of prison ( he rapes her and uses the rape to deny that they are blood relatives). Second – The Color Purple 2023 has enough brand recognition to not need cameo appearances by pop singers. H.E.R….? Frankly, she just looked too young! Squeak was not 12 years old! She was a woman!

AFRICA – 4.5 STARS. There was much more Africa in the book and 1986 film, and we learn much more of Nettie’s story in the first film, which reveals the parallel history of the African American homeland. The scenes in Africa in the first film were splendid (of a fictitious ethnic group called the Olinka). I wish there was more of this in 2023, but the scene they did show in the 2023 film was MAGNIFICENT!!! They showed the Asantehene, King of the Asante, of Ghana, the gold wealth of that empire and a culturally authentic Asante dance, performed by women in ethnically-accurate garb. Yes!!!

CELIE'S CHILDREN – 3 STARS. Why did they change Adam’s wife’s name? Ok – I get it. They were trying to be culturally responsible by giving her a Ghanaian name, Abena, consistent with the depiction of Asante land. But - her name is Tashi!!!

Agreements, disagreements, questions, challenges? Let's talk! Please share your thoughts in the comment section.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Johannesburg: Black Arts Brooklyn Down Under

Things are off to a splendid start here in Joburg, or Jozi, as it is affectionately called.  I’ve settled into a groove. As I was walking home yesterday in the dark of early evening from my new manicurist in Braamfontein, making my way down an unfamiliar street, I took in the sights and sounds of the evening. Most stores were closed and shuttered, except for barbershops, beauty salons, and small convenience stores on each block that I have always called ‘the corner store.’ Small groups of men collected outside of each open establishment talking loudly with each other, and with friends in parked cars. Some played with their small children. I hurried on along the bricked sidewalk in between tall buildings (many of them are small colleges and training schools). As I walked, it fully hit that I am spending the summer in Johannesburg – an African city. A city that is brimming with fun things to do, like trendy restaurants that feature live music and that stay open late. There are weekend bike and brunch events, art gallery openings, outdoor arts markets, South African movies, and I am sure as time goes along, I will hear of the city’s dance party scene. There is also jazz. Jazz is everywhere – at restaurants, special events and in concert halls. There seems to be plenty of work and opportunity for the musicians. And when you have a vibrant active music scene, creativity abounds. During my first week, I attended four jazz shows. Also, just living in a place gives one perspective, and I have learned a few things. There are particular lessons to be learned from living in a majority Black industrialized city that was previously under legal apartheid, just like the United States. The comparisons I have been able to draw in this short time shed light on the racial inequity circumstance of African Americans in the US that for me, are now only visible from across the Atlantic. Please forgive me for venting along the way. It can’t be helped.

I had an active first week. Last Tuesday, my third day in the country, I met with my friend, jazz pianist Yonela Mnana, about my project here. As usual, he offered extremely valuable and essential insights to make things go forward. I am investigating the trans-Atlantic connections between the African American and South African jazz traditions. We had to wait for the loadshedding episode at my apartment to end before he came, and I now have a relationship with heat as a kind of currency that I have never had before. I’ve always only used space heaters to supplement flimsy heating systems. Now…well…let’s just say I have a close relationship with each of them. But anyway…after our formal meeting, we went to a restaurant across the street called the Mangrove. It was here that I discovered that Joburg is Black Brooklyn Down Under.

From the perspective of someone from the United States, everything here in the Southern Hemisphere is sometimes a disorienting parallel. Down under – an upside down universe that is strangely similar except everything is backwards (to us). Winter is in our summer, fall is our spring, and Christmas is the hottest time of the year. People drive on the right side of cars, and their right turns are like our left. There are penguins at the most southern tip of the country, and it is bordered by both the Atlantic and Indian oceans. When we walked into Mangrove, I realized that Joburg is just like a Black Brooklyn back in the day. The Mangrove is a stylish space that was full of young Black professionals who were singing American pop and r+b songs to the top of their lungs in a karaoke session. We went to a larger quieter space towards the back left side of the restaurant. Everything was decorated with teal trims and Black art was on the walls. Black couples were scattered at tables and enjoying dinners. The cost of living here is not that high, but still, I was surprised when a mountain of ribs, which would have been maybe 35 to 45 dollars stateside, came in at the cost of 12 dollars per plate. Wow! (I saw a documentary about Memphis barbeque a long time ago, and one Black man said in a folksy vernacular, “I hope they have ribs in Heaven!” I must confess that when I saw that plate, his proclamation crossed my mind.)  I looked around and the whole scene reminded me of Washington Avenue in Brooklyn back in the late 1990s/early 2000s. Or Black Arts DC along the U street corridor or in Adams Morgan. It felt like home. FYI for those who might not know. All of those locales in the US that I mentioned are now gone. They are gone because of gentrification. But there is comfort for those of us who mourn those areas. Jozi is a Black Brooklyn down under here in the Southern Hemisphere. The city is full of spaces like Mangrove. 

Jazz Jam Session at Six Cocktails Bar, Melville Johannesburg

On Wednesday I went to a jazz show that Yonela was playing in a part of the city called Melville. It
was a jam session that both Yonela and my jazz drummer friend Siphiwe Shiburi were playing. The place was called Six Cocktails, a crowded bar full of people. When the jam session opened up, it blossomed with a few players who were playing bebop. All kinds of musicological questions came up for me during that session. Questions of improvisatory language, which I will save for a paper or the dissertation. Just know that the trans-Atlantic relationship between the two jazz traditions is much more complex than I realized, and I am going to have to get down with some serious analysis, and discussions with musicians from both cultures in order to fully explore and do justice to the topic.

On Thursday I was still trying to get housekeeping items done. I went to Newtown Mall, which is just across Nelson Mandela Bridge, to run errands.  When I arrived back home, loadshedding was in full effect, so I went to look into a gym membership at Virgin Active (branded after Virgin Records…?) not too far from the house. On the way I found a place called 1 Classie Africa Beauty Salon and Spa. Oooh! I asked about a manicure, and scheduled an appointment. I got info at the gym, and to kill time, I went to Pick n Pay, the grocery store nearby, and picked up a few things. Homemaking comforts me when I am living in new far - away places. Makes me feel secure – smile. After Pick n Pay, since things were still in dark mode, I decided to go to dinner at Mangrove. To my delight, they told me they were having a jazz show. They mentioned it on Tuesday, but I had forgotten. And what a show it was. I don’t want to use this platform to gush. The band leader is a pianist named Darlington Okofu, whose family is originally from Nigeria . His compositions were so creative. Sydney Mnisi, one of the South African tenor sax giants, was on the show. Also, Lwanda Gogwana, who is one of the great trumpet players of the younger generation. Then a vocalist named Siya Makuzeni performed. She is an incredible musician. She is a great singer. As we say in African America, she is a baad girl. She also composes and plays the trombone. Here is an excerpt from the show. Check it out.

Maya Cunningham with South African jazz expert Simon Ndlovu
Site of Kippie Moeketsi and the Kippie's Jazz Club

Maya Cunningham with Sydney Mavundla,
one of the great jazz trumpet players of South Africa
Friday night. I was invited by a South African jazz expert named Simon Ndlovu to the Market Theatre to hear Sydney Mavundla, one of the trumpet giants of the country. I can’t help but make comparisons to the US. It was a majority Black audience, and an all-Black band with one or two exceptions. The audience was completely engaged in all aspects of their performance. And just what I observed five years ago. Asymmetric time signatures predominated, and sometimes the audience sang along. At times they whistled, and at a high point, some of the women ululated. Wow – just like African Americans respond to music in our own cultural space. Bra Sydney introduced his beautiful Black wife and children at the end of the show.  This was a very different experience from what it would have been in the United States. There would have only been a sprinkling of Black folks in the audience, and there certainly would have been no participation. It would have been a presentation of Black music completely outside of its cultural context, and we would be hard pressed to even find Black musicians performing jazz these days. Honestly speaking, I feel relieved that the opposite is true here in South Africa. 

Sydney Mavundla in Concert at the Market Theatre, Johannesburg

Scenes from Niki's Jazz Club, Johannesburg

It was a fun evening that ended at Niki’s Jazz Club. A jazz club owned by a Black woman named Niki – which is another rarity in the US. (FYI – most jazz clubs in the US are owned by Euro-Americans). It was at Niki’s that I had my first traditional South African cuisine. Beef stew with greens and steamed bread. Soul food from any Black culture just hits one's body in a particular way with no comparison. 

Jazz Pianist Africa Mkhize

Especially if you are hungry. I am not exaggerating when I say that this meal was one of the best I have ever had. Bra Sydney and his pianist for the evening, the great Africa Mkhize, came into the club for the traditional post-show hanging out. Bra Africa is something else. That’s all I can say. In DC, men like him are said to be ‘wild boys.’  The expression goes like this. Someone mentions a name. The respondent gives a knowing look, flashes something between a smirk and a smile,  maybe 
Maya Cunningham with Bra Africa Mkhize and Niki Sondlo,
who owns Niki's Jazz Club

shakes his head and then says, “Yeah, so and so (the person's name), now that’s a wiiild boy!” The person who he is talking to knows exactly the behavior the other is referring to, but it goes unsaid, encapsulated in that one moniker. I have heard that saying plenty of times, and always of a man who is a bit high-strung, who might have a little mean streak, who is sometimes temperamental, is always lively and who speaks with no filter, often saying surprising and out-of-pocket things that break social norms. ‘Wild boys’ might have a tendency to become a little tipsy as an evening progresses, and are often known to be bombastic. Of course there are different varieties, but I can always spot them out. Bra Africa is definitely one. It was a fun time.

On Saturday I was out for the whole day. I had a nice manicure and pedicure (which is extremely inexpensive here). Just this simple everyday activity helped me to know how deeply the US is a raced-state. Have you noticed that different racial or ethnic groups do specific kinds of work? My manicurist was from Zimbabwe. In the US most of the nail salons are owned and operated by Asian folks. My manicurist back in Massachusetts is from Vietnam, as is every other technician at that salon. It started with African slavery. One group assigned to a specific kind of labor. One group assuming the position of the ruling class. Raced labor roles contribute to stereotypes and the assumption that someone from a particular group cannot do work that the group does not often do. What an unhealthy society. Here in South Africa, Black folks do all jobs. And they rule the country. Hurray! So anyway, all beauty needs will be covered for my remaining time here by 1 Classie Africa Beauty Salon and Spa. 

After the salon, I took an uber to a restaurant called Pata Pata that I went to my first night in Joburg back in 2017. It is in an area called Maboneng, and I was in for a surprise. Maboneng is the most vibrant Black arts area that I have ever seen. Murals were everywhere. As I got out of the taxi there were rows of artistic boutiques, shops, restaurants, and coffee bars. All Black-owned. In fact, I have not been to a non-Black-owned business since I got here 8 days ago (more on this later).

People were everywhere, snapping photos and having fun, and I took it all in. Music was pouring into the streets. I heard Bob Marley and renditions of songs by Fela Kuti. It was a Black arts street festival, but it happens every Saturday and Sunday. I had not experienced a scene like this. The Brooklyn Caribbean Day festival and Adams Morgan Day do not compare. I visited each shop…as many as I could. I found a shop called Tachena Africa. The owner, Lincoln Kamuchanyu, is from Zimbabwe, and he makes everything in the shop. What creativity! And what space for creativity! Does anything like this exist for and by Black people in the US (that is not under threat of gentrification?) I haven’t been everywhere, but I don’t think so. 

After just a little shopping, and a lot of exploring, I had a dinner of oxtails and steamed bread from Pata 
Pata. Well. South African cuisine is my new favorite. And I thought I could never love a cuisine as much as I love Senegalese food.  This is soul food for real. After dinner I made my way to a restaurant called eDikini, in a very exclusive area of Joburg called Sandton. It used to be white only during apartheid. Not anymore. eDikini is a beautiful upscale restaurant. A brother and alto sax player named Nhlanhla Mahlangu was performing there with jazz vocalist Josie Matabola. My brother-friend Siphiwe Shiburi was in drums. After two incredible sets of music, I exchanged introductions and greetings with Nhlanhla and Siphewe and took an Uber home. It was a whirlwind first week and an excellent start to my research project. 

Now it’s time for my reflections. As I sat in eDikini, that beautiful upscale restaurant that is owned by a Black man, I gazed at the elite Black patrons who enjoyed gourmet food, wine, the atmosphere, and 

each other. They had freedom. At a similar restaurant in the US, in that kind of exclusive area, it would not have been Black-owned. It is as simple as that and a hard truth. White patrons and servers would have looked at me and treated me as if I didn’t belong. They would have reacted to me as if I was out of my colonial place. I kept looking at the small group in a glassed - in exclusive room in the upper level. This is part of what the anti-apartheid Freedom Struggle generation sacrificed for. Winnie Mandela said that she and her comrades gave themselves completely to the movement, and ‘sacrificed self,’ as she put it. They did not pursue their individual careers. They risked all to give all of their energy to the struggle. As I sat in that restaurant I understood why. They took back the country for their children to enjoy. Those folks had good careers that paid well, and were fully enjoying the prosperity of the country. A prosperity that their forefathers paid a high price for toiling in the gold and diamond mines that made the country rich. A prosperity for which many people were arrested, tortured and killed because they were protesting the apartheid regime that made them non-citizens in their own country, and denied them the right to vote. I wonder if African America has progressed in the same way. How many Black folks own businesses, have a good education and are enjoying well paid careers? Can African Americans go to any area of the cities they live in without being seen as stepping out of their place? The answer is no. My brothers and sisters, we need to make a plan to finish achieving our freedom.

Freedom. Perhaps the answer lies in the example of Maboneng. Do you all remember how Fort Greene Brooklyn, back in the 1980s and 1990s was a flourishing, eclectic Black arts scene. Affordable real estate, in close proximity to the New York City, allowed many Black painters, jazz musicians, dancers and other artists to make a wonderful arts community. Betty Carter lived in Fort Greene. Musicians like Steve Coleman and Cassandra Wilson came out of that scene. Hallmark Afrocentric fashion landmarks like Moshood defined the area. It has all been completely gentrified. It’s gone. Adams Morgan in the 1980s into the early 2000s was an exciting cultural hub in Washington DC, with arts and music from cultures around the world. It’s gone now. Completely gentrified. U Street in DC was a Black arts scene in the late 1990s and early 2000s, especially for DC’s Black poetry movement and jazz. I used to sing at a club there called Café Nema. It is now completely gentrified with an unrecognizable landscape and the commemorative mural of Duke Ellington was unapologetically removed by the new occupiers a few years back. Young professional whites who have taken over the area. And let’s not fool ourselves. This is about numbers. An African American minority and a huge white majority that has economically benefited from the ‘white flight’ departure from urban centers in the 1960s, redlining and de facto racial segregation in their well-funded suburban school districts.  But guess what – African Americans have land and an open invitation here in Africa. We don’t have to tolerate things like gentrification and the loss of our cultural arts districts any longer. Let’s figure out a way to come here.

Being here in Africa has given me perspective about the toxic racist poison of the United States. Perspective that I did now know that I was missing. It feels good to be away from the governance of those who harbor racial hatred and who define themselves by such. And I am learning things that are only possible in an industrialized nation-state in Africa, and in its largest urban center. I have seen the demise of Black arts scenes, and Black jazz outlets, because of ongoing and seemingly inescapable de facto apartheid in the US, and I have been waiting for both of these to blossom…somewhere.   Both are here, down-under, in Johannesburg. 

Monday, July 4, 2022

First Impressions of Johannesburg

First impressions are rarely fair. They often are instant judgments that one makes without the benefit of past experience or context. That is why I will have to be careful with sharing my first impressions of Johannesburg. But I will have to be honest about my feelings (and writing helps me to process complicated ones). First thing. This is my second time here, but the first time was a short and exhilarating two-day whirlwind of visits to landmark sites in Soweto and jazz jam sessions. Warning – I might ramble a little bit. Disclaimer – I have to admit that I am homesick. That being said, here we go...

When I walked off of the plane and onto African land, for the fourth time, I was filled with a unique exhilaration that I have only experienced when I come to the continent that my ancestors are from.  Joy bubbled up from deep within my soul and spirit, and flowed out of my mouth with quiet laughter. Once again, everyone I saw at the airport was Black. I greeted them. Made my way through customs, baggage claim, exchanged dollars for rands, and walked through the long corridors of Oliver Tambo Airport to the exit. 

I arrived at night. And my 7 pm arrival time gave me one of my first surprises. It is very cold here at night in July. South Africa is an interesting and parallel universe to the US in many ways. I thought it was just apartheid and jazz, but it is also the weather. January is our coldest month. July is their coldest month. Our summer equinox is their winter one. I’m glad that I took seriously the almost unbelievable report that it gets into the 30s and 40s here at night. Unbelievable in part because when I was last in Southern Africa (Botswana) during the summer months of the Southern Hemisphere, January through April, it was hot. And everywhere else I’ve been in Africa has been hot, so it couldn’t be that cold, so I thought. I’m so glad I used a modicum of logic and reason when I packed my bags and listened to what I read of the South African weather report (and only a little because I still brought my super cute summer platform sandals which will be of no use at all for me while I am here). Thank the Lord I had the sense to pack one of my heavy coats, because everyone at the airport was wearing one. Some of the ladies said to me, "did they tell you that it is cold?" I put my winter coat on at the baggage claim. 


A truly lovely man named Ronald was my Uber driver and I enjoyed a pastor preaching an impassioned sermon in isiZulu on his car radio. When we reached the area of Johannesburg where I am staying, Braamfontein, I knew instantly I would not be going out at night. First impression. Everything in Johannesburg is extremely urban with all of the good and bad that a city has to offer. I saw a man sitting alone in front of a fire, loud youths walking in and out of small convenience stores and nightclubs that were blaring music, tall buildings, some in good condition and some not. There was trash piled up on some corners. We found our way to the street where I am staying and the head of security, Cornwall, who had been patiently waiting for my arrival, got out of his car to greet me. The security team hustled my bags inside. I could tell that Brother Ronald was worried, but I reassured him and said goodbye.

My Airbnb apartment is pretty nice. It has a black gate in front of the door, confirming my impressions of not going out at night. A gated apartment door? It was nice, but it was also freezing. The little space heater in the bedroom was doing nothing to beat back what seemed to be frigid thirty-degree air circulating throughout the abode. It was indeed that cold. It probably did not help that I was just in the 90-degree summer heat of Massachusetts. I bundled down under two down comforters and enjoyed my first sleep on the African continent since 2017.

Sometimes we wake up instantly and fully in the middle of the night. It makes me feel more secure to leave all lights on at night when I am in an unfamiliar place. Therefore, you can appreciate my total surprise when I opened my eyes and sat up to nothing but inky blackness. I downloaded a flashlight app onto my phone and went to peek through the front door gate to see if the building was affected, or if it was just my unit. It was the building and all of Braamfontein. This was my first experience with what most South Africans call ‘load shedding.’ In the US and other African countries, these are called blackouts. Apparently, there is some issue with a strike and the electric power company. I messaged Brother Cornwall, the nice gentleman who is head of security, and he gave me an update. When I told him about the heat situation, he told me he would take me to get more space heaters. We set our appointment for 10 am.

Monday the fourth of July was my first day out and about in Joburg. As Cornwall and I drove through 

Braamfontein on our way to Rosebank Mall, I saw that the area is trendy, busy, interesting, artistic, and full of life. There are several small colleges nearby and Wits University is a short walk away. Students were everywhere. My building faces Nelson Mandela Bridge and might be near water, which explains the pronounced cold. Johannesburg is a lovely city. Full of beautiful trees, flowers, and very nice homes. As we drove through the suburbs, I felt I wouldn’t mind living there. The Rosebank Mall was very fancy. I was surprised by the number of white images and models. This is not the Africa that I have previously experienced. In Ghana, all adverts feature Black people. We went to a store called Game, which is similar to Target, and I got two small space heaters (and as I am sitting in front of one while I write, I can attest that they are effective). We also went to a grocery store called Pick n Pay. I was familiar with both stores because I went to them in Botswana.

Later in the afternoon (after a nap!) I decided to walk through my new neighborhood. And, as I shared in my introduction, I experienced a few more extremely complex first impressions. In the areas of Africa where I have lived and visited, ok – only three countries, Ghana,  Botswana and Zimbabwe – the familial feeling amongst the general public is real and palpable. Everyone greets each other. Women are called mother, or 'Mma’ as in Bots, men are called father, or ‘Rra.’ It is rude not to greet. In Ghana I was called ‘sister’ and ‘daughter’ and I was claimed by many. Ghanaian women would come up to me and say, “Are you an African woman?” (I carry the voluptuous body blessings of the Continent – smile). After all, most of my DNA ancestry is West African. Because I was recognized, claimed and probably because of my long-ago captured ancestors from the region, West Africa, specifically Ghana, feels like home. I can’t say that yet for Johannesburg.  No one greeted in Braamfontein. Black folks, who looked very youthful, zipped by me and each other like it was nothing. Also, American pop music was everywhere – spilling from stores and coming through the loudspeakers in the grocery store. There is graffiti. There are no traditional African clothes to be had. My apartment building abuts a tattoo/piercing parlor and a CBD marijuana store. Huh? These particular last two are everything I dislike about NYC and Springfield, the city where I currently live. Have these elements, along with American pop music (which my jazz master mentor recently called banal) been imported wholesale from the US? The answer is yes – but I can only attest to this through my first-day experience. What I did learn from my little jaunt through the streets of my new neighborhood, which included a brief visit to a trendy women’s clothing store called LEGiT, is that South Africa writ large, and Johannesburg specifically, is an extremely complicated society and unlike any part of Africa I’ve been. People seemed a bit uncaring. I am disturbed by how the influence of the hip hop cohort seems to blanket every aspect of life here. This is not the Africa I have come to love, but it is a part of Africa I will have to try to understand. Botswana and Ghana are modern African societies much more informed and directed by tradition. It is very apparent. Here, that story is much more complicated and complex. This is a settler colonial society. Botswana and Ghana are not. [Writing Paused]

[Writing Resumed] As I was writing, my friend here in Joburg, Yonela Mnana, called me. In our conversation, he advised me to be patient with how Americanness, and this constructed and false African Americanness that has been imported here, have been received by our family here in SA. I don’t even have patience with it stateside! But he is right, and I will listen. He said they only know the commercialized, product packaged, exaggerated and even minstrelized representation of African American culture. He said that they used to have ‘white speech’ imposed upon them as a standard, but now, because of US media imperialism, many are trying to talk like “niggaz.” He also said that I need to interrogate my own positionality. He is right, and this is going to be much more complicated than understanding that I am indeed an outsider. I am an outsider with a particular lens as an African American – and I am not even a very common African American. I am an outsider, but thank God for Yonela, who has tasked himself with bringing me into the inside so I can have, in his words, an “informed experience.” This is exactly what I would say to anyone coming to research aspects of African American culture. I am getting a taste of my own medicine, and it is humbling. He also advised me to investigate the history of Johannesburg, which I will do as soon as possible. I am here for research. Time to get busy.

I am overwhelmed by how complex this society is. Thank goodness for my training as an ethnomusicologist and as an ethnographer. I am not here to analyze and understand this entire society. I could live here for years, and that would never happen. I am doing, or will start to do, “the ethnography of the particular.” There is no way to make generalizations about a nation, a people and a city that has so many dimensions. My work as an anthropologist is cut out for me. I must not try to bite off more than I can chew. I must concentrate on a small group of people. I am here to understand how a particular cohort of Black South African jazz musicians hear the music. I hope that it is possible to explore what they told me back in 2017. We’ll see. To be continued...

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Cold Freedom: An Ethnomusicologist's Journey to the North

I never imagined that I would end up living in New England, in the Amherst area of Massachusetts. Why is this piece titled Cold Freedom? Because both can be found here in the extreme. I've found a new freedom here. And it is very cold (22 degrees as I type this.) Outside of the freezing temperatures here in the North, the title of this piece also implies another meaning. In the African American vernacular the word "cold" has a different connotation. To use cold as an adjective (or adverb?) does not refer to the lower part of the Fahrenheit scale. If I say, "She cold did that!" I mean that she absolutely and totally did that.  The term also connotes bold action. Here in Mass, I am experiencing freedom in both ways.  Absolute, total and bold Freedom in frigid temperatures.

Old Freedom in the Old North
For the most part, the North has always meant freedom for African America. During slavery days, the upper area of North America was a refuge for Black folks. It is commonly known that Black folks resorted to desperate measures to get to the North. They followed the stars, rivers banks, paths to safe houses and fought off dogs and greedy, ruthless slave catchers to make it to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Albany, New York and Massachusetts, where I am now. Even to Canada. Jacob Lawrence has a painting that shows freedom travelers running northward in snow with no shoes. He said that he would have also painted their feet bleeding from frostbite in that snow, but that such images were often censored by the White Americans who were controlling his shows. Frostbite and freedom in the wilds of winter was better than still enslaved warmer feet in the mild temperatured South. Cold Freedom.

Two of our most prolific heroes from this period lived in the North. Harriet Tubman had a home in Auburn, New York. And where did Frederick Douglass live?  In New Bedford, Massachusetts, about a hundred miles east from where I am right now. Way up here, Mother Harriet, Papa Frederick and many others were safe from human bondage. Cold Freedom. Massachusetts was the hot bed of the abolitionist movement, led by Douglass, William Loyd Garrison and many others. Many others born-free or newly-freed Black folks made their homes in Massachusetts and prospered. After the Fugitive Slave Act passed in 1850, many were forced to relocate to Canada, where it is even colder.

To me, for these chilly places to be freedom centers for Afro descendants is the ultimate irony. African Americans come from a continent where it is mostly warm. In West Africa, there are two seasons, dry and rainy, and it is hot all year long.  Some African Americans (like me) also have ancestry in Southern Africa where there are four seasons in reverse order of those in the Northern Hemisphere. But the winters there are nothing compared to the polar vortex that blankets the upper parts of North America. And without getting into stereotyping, it is just the plain truth that Black folks have to engage in a different kind of self-care in cold regions. Extra moisturizer for the skin and hair is an absolute must, especially for knees, elbows and heels, if one is to avoid walking around looking like an ashy mess! Nevertheless, despite the cold, for hundreds of years, this area of the country where we have lived since 1619, is the place where we have experienced the most freedom and opportunity.

New Freedom from (and in) the North
Although the South still holds an ancestral record for our people, and it is lovely, it has for the most part offered to African Americans a warm, oppressive and dangerous beauty. When I traveled to Jackson, Mississippi in 2008 to take a group of music students to perform at the Vicksburg Jazz Festival, I was captivated by the balmy spring evening during which the party was held after the festival's main concert (Roy Hargrove). The air was perfumed with jasmine flowers that were climbing up both sides of charming wooden trellises at the entrance of a pleasure garden in front of the restaurant. My enchantment was greeted with an evasive skepticism, however, every time I mentioned how much I liked the state to the Black folks that we spent time with. Each time I gushed how much I liked the city, they looked at me with eyebrows slightly raised and said "Oh you do now?" leaving me to wonder at the "unsaid" in their words, which was obviously pregnant with meaning. Little did I know that in some parts of the state there were Black folks still being held in slavery (see the Slavery Detective of the South), supported by local police and officials who are still absolutely dedicated to white supremacy and Black domination. This was the case in most of the South during the Jim Crow era. To make any headway in terms of economic advancement and opportunity, Black folks had to migrate North - into the cold. Detroit, Chicago, New York City, Boston and Gary received millions of Black folks from the early 1900s into the mid-century. Factory jobs, other employment, and educational opportunities provided the solid foundation that was necessary to wage war against the Jim Crow System once and for all. Martin Luther King went to Boston University (Massachusetts again) for his Phd in Systematic Theology. He used the philosophies that he studied to help bring down legalized racial segregation in the South. Stokely Carmichael's family lived in the Bronx, where he attended Bronx Science high school. It was there that he was first exposed to the Marxist philosophies that led him to join the Non-Violent Action Group (NAG) at Howard University. As soon as his final exams were finished in 1961, he hopped on a bus headed to Mississippi and joined the Freedom Riders. He went on to join SNCC full time, to help lead the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party during the 1964 Freedom Summer with Fannie Lou Hamer, and to become a leading figure in the Black Power Movement. The northern winds blew our freedom fighters back down south, equipped with education, courage and revolutionary dedication to bring about change for our people. Cold Freedom once again.

Regarding my forebears, three great-aunts' journeys north brought about a stronger economic foundation for our family. Even though they received their undergraduate degrees from Florida A&M, an HBCU (Historically Black College and University), they could not pursue further graduate studies in the state because of the segregation laws. (The only graduate degrees were offered at the racially segregated, White-only University of Florida). To avoid desegregation, the state of Florida paid for them to receive their Masters degrees at New York University (Aunt Marion and Aunt Juanita) and Columbia University (Aunt Jeanie).  My grandfather, because of Civil Rights Movement led desegregation in higher education, was later able to get his Phd Florida State University. In New York City my great-aunts lived with their step-grandmother (long story) named Missy, and entered into the glamorous Black world of 1950s Harlem. They enjoyed late nights at Small's Paradise and my grandfather saw Billie Holiday and many others perform. Their advanced degrees laid the foundation for my father's Ivy League college education and for mine.

That generation of my family witnessed the apex of the jazz world, in New York City, where many Black musicians migrated from different parts of the country. The music that began in the South flourished in the North where there was an economy to support its development. Dizzy brought his sound from South Carolina. Charlie Parker from Missouri. Coltrane from North Carolina (via Philly). Max Roach from North Carolina. It is the legendary Max Roach, and his work, that has everything to do my journey here.

UMass Amherst and New Africa House
I always wondered where the Black activists ended up after the Movement ended in the 1970s. There is really no way to track down thousands of people scattered all across the country. Little did I know, last year when I submitted my Phd application to UMass, Amherst, that a great number of them went on to lead the Black Studies Movement. They founded the WEB Dubois Department of Afro American Studies, one of the first Black studies departments. They created a haven in this cold place, Amherst, Massachusetts, that has led even further to freedom for Black folks. Here is the short of the story.

In the winter of 1970 a group of Black undergraduates took over the Mill House building with a sit-in. They were tired of racist harassment from campus police, and a curriculum that did not include Black history and culture. During the takeover, they sent a letter to the university's administration that declared that the building would be the site of a new Black studies department. They messaged admin that they would be in touch about budget and had renamed the building New Africa House. Thus, through a non-violent civil rights battle, a Black colony of sorts was ironically established in a longstanding European one (New England), dedicated to the study of African American history and culture. The WEB Dubois Institute of Afro American Studies was born.

I became interested in the Dubois Institute because the university where I received my ethnomusicology MA offered no Black studies at the graduate level. Also, I needed to move away from the isolation and racism that I experienced  on the campus and as the only Black student in my program.  So, I applied to the Dubois Institute's Phd program and was accepted. 

After receiving a spectacular offer for a PhD fellowship, I journeyed North. In late August, I drove from Southern DC to my new apartment in Springfield, Massachusetts. My car was full with a caring and concerned mother, a supportive and comedic auntie, my sweet, loving (and quiet) Pomeranian and an affectionate but whiny cat who got sick on the way. Little did I know that when we finally arrived, with me passed out in the back from exhaustion and my mother at the wheel, that I had actually arrived to one of the most beautiful and fruitful times of my life.

When I first walked into New Africa House, I was pleasantly surprised to find the Movement that I had been looking for my whole life. The first floor lobby was festooned with photos of major African culture bearers who had been on faculty - James Baldwin, Chinua Achebe, Johnetta Cole, Civil Rights Movement activists like Michael Thelwell and of course, Max Roach. The prolific Sonia Sanchez was a friend to the department. Wow!
A group picture of faculty circa the 70s

The Teaching Assistant's office had a big, beautiful photo of Stokely Carmichael, who is one of my heroes. As I walked into the admin office, greeted by another photo of Carmichael, sitting at a small round table was the legendary Dr. John Bracy. Amilcar Shabazz sat at a computer station. Max Roach, whose scholarly lineage is the foundation for my dissertation, was on faculty in the Department for years. I had found my peeps at last. And found them in a place where I had been warned about the brutal winters and endless snow. But here was a haven of the Movement that had shaped my life and inspired my career in ethnomusicology. Amen! Cold Freedom.

God's Faithfulness
To close this meditation, all I can say is that God has been good. The Bible says in Psalm 91:1

He who dwells in the secret place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow, protection and provision of the Almighty God. He will cover you with his feathers and under his wings you shall find refuge. 
As I write these words, I take pleasure in sitting under His wings. His feathers. While going through a personal tragedy in my family, I heard a sermon by Pastor John Fichtner on Psalm 91. He explained that God's feathering is personal. Feathers are strong - strong enough to carry the weight of an eagle. But if you bend those same feathers to cover someone, they will fit to the person's shape exactly. God feathers each of His children differently. To help me to heal, my good and wonderful heavenly Father has given me a new life. My apartment in DC, paid for by a great second semester, high salaried music educator position with DCPS, was a blush pink dream. I love pink - always have. My pink princess furniture, shiny Kawai piano and new, antique white princess bed adorned my healing cocoon. My apartment was a perfect transition to the next phase of my life. There was literally a cocoon hanging on a slim tree branch just outside of my window the whole time I was there. That window offered a perfect view of the flowering garden that grew in the inner court of the apartment building. My desk overlooked the garden and the beauty helped me to successfully complete my thesis and other, numerous writing projects. 

His faithfulness shall be your shield and rampart. (Psalm 91:4)

While we cannot always count on the faithfulness of people, the Lord Jesus is always faithful. I found that out through the pain of last season. He has provided me with a beautiful loft apartment and a reliable car that is large enough to cart my pets, groceries, suitcases to the airport and whatever else. I have a closet full of beautiful and fashionable clothes that are just my style (which I call Afro-chic). I have two canaries that sing in the morning and a full fellowship to complete my Phd at UMass Amherst in Afro-American studies with a concentration in ethnomusicology (without having to work an outside job). And, I have peace. Yes, it is colder than DC, and my African homeland, but He has given me complete freedom in this 22 degree weather. 

I am still in the refuge of his wings. His faithfulness is my shield and rampart. And I am enjoying His feathering that is the perfect fit for me. As I write, I am in Canyon Ranch Spa Resort, sitting in front of a fire in the library. It is the perfect library, with extremely high ceilings, velvety chairs and sofas that surround the fireplace, walls lined with old books and huge picture windows overlooking a skyline of pine trees. I just enjoyed a healthful lunch in the resort's beautiful restaurant, after a wonderful morning bath ritual. My bath ritual involves moving from the steam room, sauna and whirlpool, while applying skin treatments with the special lavender body oil that I make for myself. I suppose this day is a celebration for my recent successful presentations at the Society for Ethnomusicology conference this year, bound up in the self care that I am fully committed to. After all, I am a princess! In one hour, I will go through another bath ritual and then have a massage.

Under His wings, you will take refuge. (Psalm 91:4b)

Blossom time is here. The butterfly, which is my personal symbol, is launching into full flight. I just debuted my scholarship at the premier conference in my field. Both presentations went extremely well. It looks like my Ethnomusicology In Action Curriculum Project will fully launch this year. This is a project designed to use Black music research towards heritage education for African American students. I am off to a good start with my mission to reclaim the music known as jazz  - my people's sounded hallmark of our experience as African Americans. A music known all over the globe. 

The Bible says that weeping endures for a night, but joy comes in the morning (Psalm 30:5). Little did I know that I would experience my joy in New England. But, if this is where it is, so be it. I also know that the work I am doing here is designed to connect my people with Africa in new ways. Because for us, our freedom began there and will end there. Traveling through the continent, and experiencing many different African cultures for myself has helped me to see clearly the Africanity of Black Americans. We started in Africa, and there we will end. I want my work to serve as a pivot towards that direction by revealing our Africanity towards the renewal of our identity. Just like in the Black Power Movement, every time we claim Africa, we claim freedom and make advances toward that goal.

Therefore, if helping to bring a restored African identity for my people means weathering a few brutal Amherst winters  in order to complete my Phd program, then so be it. Because in the end, I mean for this cold that I endure to aid in bringing about stone cold, absolute and total freedom for my people.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

The Ethnomusicology of the BET Awards: Part 2 (Musings on Mary J Blige, Black Female Identity, Black Women Singers and the Politics of Respectability)

Part two of this series is more of a reflection. I have heard from several other Black folks that they did not like the BET awards because it is “corporately sponsored” music, or the same thing every year, etc. For me, however, the experience was completely new. I don’t watch network television, so as I was having my hair done on the Monday afternoon after the awards, my stylist just happened to put on a few videos from the show that were on YouTube. I must tell you, since I have never seen the BET awards (well...I might have 25 years ago) it was a “first time” experience. It was sensational – like the first time one experiences ice cream or any other tasty food. I mean, the colors, the staging and the spectacular dancing! As a musician, to see songs brought to life with smoke plumes, fantastical costuming and the sheer power and entertainment force of large numbers of people dancing in sync was amazing to watch. Yes, I know I sound like I just joined the 20th and 21st century, but I have no shame in being a recluse when it comes to television. Now, all of that being said, I move into my second ethnomusicological observation of Black American music vis a vis the 2019 BET Music Awards.

One of the videos we watched was of Mary J Blige – her acceptance speech for the lifetime achievement award and the mini-concert that she performed. Now, I remember when Mary J Blige “came out” (an African American colloquial term for a music artist’s song debut). This was when I was…in the 7th grade I think. The song was “What’s the 411” or something like that. What I really remember was Mary J’s voice. I liked her singing. As I moved through middle school into high school, and listened to the black radio stations of DC, her songs became kind of like a sound track to my life…not my life with my parents and family, but my inner life with my peers. And I have distinct memories of those life moments marked by her songs. "You Remind Me"  marked the spring of my 7th grade year. I remember. Her re-make of Chaka Khan’s “Sweet Thing” reminds of me of the autumn of my 8th grade year, my boyfriend at the time, and sleep overs at my friend Ryane’s house. “Loving You” reminds me of the first day of spring of that same school year, and pretty much soundtracks all of the intoxicating (and destructive) emotions that swirled around in my young heart regarding that year-long relationship with the above mentioned boyfriend (who I saw as a tawny-light-brown-skinned, basketball playing, blue-eyed dream…in PG county where I grew up, the evidence of the extreme mental colonialism that we all suffered from was a collective adoration of black boys (and girls) who had genetic aberrations like “light eyes”…hazel, green or blue, and/or were either bi-racial, or looked like it). My 9th grade year memories are marked by Mary J’s “Reminisce” – which also chronicled the traumatic autumn break up that I experienced with that same young man. Anyway, the fall of my 10th grade year was marked with another of Mary J’s songs “All I really want is to be happy…” The next year, I stopped listening to pop radio in exchange for the jazz stations of the city. 

I suppose, through this reflection, that I understand why she was given a lifetime achievement award. She made a lot of extremely popular and successful recordings. Now, no disrespect to her with what I am going to say next. It is hard for me to take that award seriously when the standard to me for Black female vocalists and their impact are legends like Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Etta James, Aretha Franklin and figures like that. But, if, without my even trying hard to remember, her songs and sensual voice were the soundtrack for a critical time in my young life, then her music must have also been for countless others in my “cultural cohort” (Turino 2008): middle class African American girls in the urban and suburban US areas who came of age in the early and mid-1990s. This brings me to my first point.

In ethnomusicology we cite how a music figure can serve as an expression of group identity, how singers, for instance, can serve as a voice for many. This is completely true for Black America. In African America singers are like members of the family. We completely identify with them, to the point where we refer to them by first name… “Sing Patti" ...Sing it Aretha!” You might hear that exclamation coming from Black women about their favorite singer in response to a performance at a live concert, video, or to melodies that float in their cars through the radio airwaves. My mother was on a first name basis with Luther Vandross for years. At my grandmother’s funeral in 2004, my divorced parents saw each other in the limousine on the way to the burial site for the first time in years. My father chose to break the awkward silence during the ride by asking my mother “So how’s Luther?” My mother even traveled from DC to NYC to attend his funeral.

We talk about the details of our singer’s personal lives as if we know them.  We call them by nick names. When we hear certain singers, they are telling our stories and singing our pain, our excitement and marking our personal and collective experience. “Take it from me, one day we shall all be free…” our dearly departed Donnie Hathaway sang for us all at the height of the Black Power Movement. An African American colleague shared with me how he felt a personal loss when Aretha Franklin died last year in 2018. He said he felt as if an aunt had died. I felt the same way. The palpable family ethos of Black America is a part of our Africanity. In many African societies, all women and men, regardless of whether they are blood relations are not, are called mother or father. It is socially expected, in Botswana and Ghana as I have experienced, to greet all other black people, even if you are in the elevator with them for two minutes. The extent to where this does not happen is measured by many Africans as a black culture’s stepping away from traditional values. I was warned, as I headed to Johannesburg in 2017, that the black folks “don’t even greet,” which the speaker emphasized in order to illustrate Jo’burg’s black’s assimilation to "mainstream" cultural mores. (To my South African brothers and sisters who are reading this, please correct me if the speaker was wrong.)  My overall point is that we, as African Americans, treat our singers like family, and think of them as such, because of the African part of our identity.

For many young women Mary J Blige is their singer, and they think of her like a personal friend, sister, older cousin or perhaps even like a young aunt. She is their cathartic collective voice.  Scholar and Columbia University Professor Farah Jasmine Griffin was even told by a group of her young black women students that Mary J was like “their Billie Holiday.” Hmm… this role that she fulfills for some black women actually leads me to consider several curious implications regarding Black female identity, and Black American regional identities, that I did not have the experience and insight to detect when she first rose to fame.

First, a brief musing on the Black American regional identity that Mary J embodies. From what I observed at the awards show, Mary J is NYC all the way. I lived in New York City for 13 years and spent time with all kinds of black folks from all walks of life. Everything, from her mannerisms, to her speech, to her fashion sense was NYC. My hair stylist (who also lived in New York for years) said that she can really see the Bronx in her. Technically, she is from Yonkers, which is just above the Bronx (10 minutes). They are essentially the same area. This all must inevitably influence her music. I mean, when she got on stage with that long blond weave jetting out under the white fitted hat turned backwards, I was like wow – that’s really New York. (many, many black women in New York wear very long, straight weaves, while in DC most black women wear their hair in natural hairstyles – including the author). More experience, field work, or discussions with cultural insiders from the particular section of the city where she is from would be necessary to dissect all of how Mary J’s African American experience in the Bronx/Yonkers is evident in her music.  I just listened back to the song “What’s the 411” – wow. She is rapping with a strong Bronx NYC accent, using the name “hun” just as many black women do from that area. Her appearance on the album – the straight hair with the hat is so typical of the “Boogie Down Bronx.” This tells me that Black American popular music cannot be viewed as a ubiquitous expression of our people as a whole. We are decentralized and live in large concentrations in several major urban centers and the Southern US. That’s it. When a music artist “comes out,” he or she is representative of the black sounds of the area that they grew up in.  And these considerations bring me to my second point. What was the impact of Mary J Blige, and singers like her, on contemporary Black female identity? Hmm….please be warned – I am about to make some rather controversial points. I will frame them in terms of a series of musings and then questions. And I mean no disrespect.

Sarah Vaughan

Let’s think about this. In the past, where were the popular Black singers from and what was the public image that they presented? Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, Billie Holiday, Etta James, Nancy Wilson... They were mostly from cities that were the destinations of the Great Migration - Newark, Chicago, Baltimore, Ohio. And no matter how outrageous, disreputable, conventional or “clean” the lives of these singers were, and no matter how much they might have come from a background of poverty and struggle, they always presented themselves well in public AND their personal lives, no matter how messy, stayed personal. (Or perhaps in Lady Day’s case, as mysterious and unverifiable as she could keep it.) They all spoke well, wrote well and were class acts. Could the politics of respectability have greatly influenced the decisions they made about their public presentations? Absolutely. I think Sarah Vaughan might have had four, five or nine husbands. As outrageous as the higher of those numbers might be to many, we, the public, do not associate her with the automatic life judgments that one might make on a woman who has had that many husbands. And that is because of how she presented herself on stage and on public. It is even said that she shrugged Billie Holiday off when Lady turned up backstage after one of her shows, just after Billie had been released from jail. What was Sarah’s explanation for turning up her nose and ignoring the great Lady Day? “She just got out of jail,” she said. Whether it was right or wrong (definitely wrong), she did not wish to be publicly associated with anyone who was associated with the criminal element.

Cocaine - the big lie
(remember that commercial!)
To further illustrate the effects of black respectability politics on the public personas of the Black Women singers of yesteryear, let’s stay on examples from Sarah Vaughan. Sarah Vaughan sang and recorded live on radio. I have several of these recording in my collection. One song that she performed was a jazz standard called “I Get a Kick Out of You.” There is a line that has rather questionable, eye-brow-raising lyrics about illicit drug use. It goes like this: I get no kicks from cocaine, I’m sure that if I took even one sniff, it would bore me terrifically too… But I get a kick out of you. Sarah Vaughan chose not to sing this lyric on the radio the way it was written by Cole Porter. She sang  I get no kicks from perfume...I'm sure that if I took even one sniff... even though the word "perfume" did not rhyme with anything else in the song. I can only guess that it was because she did not want to be associated with using cocaine and thought the line was generally inappropriate. And I must say that an elder who was her drummer, the late Grady Tate, did tell me that Sarah “loved blow.” He actually said it like this, “Sarah looooved blow.” Sarah Vaughan did use cocaine in her private life. (I feel funny about even revealing this publicly about her. Again, respectability politics is a potent emotional force – a feeling of protectiveness of the Black image). But isn’t it interesting that she chose to never publicly associate herself with the drug? Just as her four husbands were never a part of her public persona (I confirmed the number during this writing process). And let’s face it, we all have things that we have done wrong and that we are not proud of. We all have pasts. But we do not all choose to publicly air our personal business.

This is not necessarily the case for Mary J Blige and singers in her set. There seems to be no such misgivings about personal life being public with Mary J, no matter how sordid the details. Without even trying, and not engaging with network television since 2003, or doing an internet search for this writing, I somehow know that Mary J had a relationship involving domestic abuse with KC from Jodeci, and that they had, at one point, “beef” backstage at a concert or two that delayed the show. Somehow, I know that she became involved with a man named Kendu (?) who was married when they met, and then he married her after divorcing his wife, and that she was fiercely devoted to him. Somehow, even in my mass media insulation, I know that he cheated on her, they had a messy divorce and that he demanded alimony from her. I also heard something about a cocaine habit. Is any of this true – not sure (you all tell me!), but my point is this. How in the world do I know so much of Mary J’s business? And as I understand it, many of her songs, like the rather dark “I’m Going Down,” chronicle her tumultuous relationships and life events. Please know that I am writing this in no way to judge her. We all have life circumstances and heart issues to overcome.  But the fact that the issues of her life are openly linked to corresponding songs and consumed as one by her black women listeners does raise my concern. 

So now for my questions. Does Mary’s persona that is directly connected to "emotional-crisis" songs make relationship drama, rejection, heartbreak and man-woman relationship dysfunction seem like it is, and should be, a part of everyday life for Black women? If so, is that healthy? Also, other thoughts towards respectability politics. It seemed that before 1980, Black musicians and other cultural figures put their best foot forward in public and were protective of the Black image in this White majority country. There were certain things that many black folks just would not do in public, especially anything associated with minstrel stereotypes.  Did the advent of hip-hop and associated musics push to the fore people as representatives of the Black community who were less responsible with the Black image, to the point of recklessness and even minstrelsy? Recklessness with the Black image in music includes the use of the N word, discussion of participation in the drug trade, drug use, calling women derogatory names, discussion of sexual escapades, sexual usury and general “street” behavior. If this is true, how does Mary J’s private-business-in-songs-and-public-persona fit into that trend? I guess you can tell that I am writing this from a specific perspective, and I can’t help it. I was raised in and by an upper middle-class Black family with respectability politics that governed our everyday lives. Of course they did – my mother was a doctor and my father worked in corporate America. In those settings, a person has to constantly monitor their black image and behavior because the perception of their personal black image as professional and respectable (and perhaps even "exceptional" I hate to say) is linked to their continued employment and thus, their family’s survival. And let’s face it, the late 1980s and early 1990s was a time of egregious and very public Black failure. Crack addicted Blacks were on the nightly news, as was “the war on drugs.” Drug dealing, car- jackings, drive-by shootings and the like all were represented on all forms of news media to have been solely perpetrated by black folks. In Washington DC the mayor of the city was busted for illegal drug use in an infamous FBI sting, and video footage of him using crack with his mistress (Rashida Moore) was all over the national news – for months. The early 1990s saw the “advent” of “Gangsta rap.” Groups like NWA were being prominently marketed with their jheri curls, gold teeth, guns and swear words, and were totally associated with those who lived in public housing projects, and other black folks who were in the lower socio-economic bracket. Black people like my family wanted to put as much distance between themselves and those viewed as public “Black failures” – or as my mother called them “the element.” I don’t mean to sound elitist ya’ll, but I have to tell the truth. How then would ladies like my mother, grandmothers and aunts view a singer like Mary J? Considering the information that I have just shared, I will leave that up to your imagination. 

In closing I will say this. The power and broad-based appeal of Mary J Blige to many Black folks was evident at the BET awards. The combination of her Bronx sensibilities, amazing voice, stunning honey-brown beauty and plain-down good songs were/are a tantalizing combination. Folks were dancing in the aisles to "You Remind Me" and it seemed that every woman in the building was singing the words to "Happy" while standing in a tight huddle with her women friends. Even more, her music transported me back to the exact time in my life when the songs were first made popular. Her performance at the award show took me back to those younger years, and it made me feel nostalgic for suburban Maryland, car rides with friends, house parties and everything else that made up my young life at the time. Her melodies and dance movements made me remember. They made the audience remember. And this is the testimony of the power of the Black woman singer in African America.