In the Spirit of the Gracious and Compassionate
Creator of the Heavens and the Earth
African Americans have been saying that the new black music is terrible for over a century.
I was born in 1945, my mother was born in 1916, and her father was a trustee and the choirmaster at the New Chapel Baptist Church in Plymouth, North Carolina. In those days, church people called blues and jazz “devil music”. Most of today’s comments about the music we hear on the radio simply continues this tradition. We love the music we grew up with. And most of the new stuff is terrible awful trash. (“Devil music.”)
My Dad (born in 1914, and still going strong) came of age with big band Swing music. Bebop lost him. My brother and I missed the birth of bebop and came of age listening to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue — with John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley. (Thelonious Monk was my man!) And we caught the birth of Hard Bop. I didn’t discover the early beboppers until I started teaching the history of jazz (at Antioch College in Ohio) in 1971. Charlie Parker (“Bird”) was legendary, especially so because he had died young. (“Bird lives!” was inscribed into the wooden desk-tops at my very special mostly-white High School of Music & Art.) But I didn’t know his music, or the sounds of his colleagues Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, and several others, until over 20 years after they had flourished. To my Dad, this amazing, brilliant, creative music was terrible awful trash. (I’m exaggerating; he just said it sounded chaotic and confusing.)
After Swing, jazz stopped being popular music. The beboppers had lost most of the jazz audience — largely because most people could not dance to the new music. People danced to Swing. After Swing, people danced to rhythm-and-blues.
I couldn’t dance, but I loved the music. If I was in New York City and Martha and the Vandellas were performing at the Apollo, I would be there — fifth row, aisle seat. (I nearly lost my knees when the women rushed the stage for Wilson Pickett.) I saw all kinds of shows at the Apollo. (I remember Joe Simon came out, after being repeatedly announced, he was still buttoning his clothes.) I saw The Temptations (with David Ruffin). And I may have even caught James Brown there.
I discovered James Brown in 1967. I had bought an LP with “I Feel Good” on it. As soon as that music hit me, I jumped up and danced around the room.
Today’s music. Ah, yes. Well, I started losing touch with popular music when I joined Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam in 1974. The last big hit I remember from that time is Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” — flashback to an image of me dancing in bell-bottom pants and platform shoes in a gay bar in Dayton, Ohio, in 1973, crazy happy having a good time (without some hypocritical self-righteous so-called “straight” people getting on my case). In actual fact, when I heard Run-DMC‘s album Raising Hell (was it 1983?) I rushed out and bought it. I don’t like all rap. But I do like a lot of rap.
I am from the Bronx, and hip-hop was born in the Bronx. You may dispute it, but Afrika Bambaataa and DJ Kool Herc — that’s the Bronx. Hip-hop started out addressing the social issues of our time. And rap has provided a medium for young people to express their minds. And, never forget this, music and art education were taken out of the public schools, and hip-hop demonstrates the explosive creativity of African Americans — which should (and probably does) terrify the white power structure. African Americans make world-changing art out of deprivation. This has been true since plantation slavery.
Co-optation has also been true since plantation slavery. From the minstrels through Hollywood and the Internet. The white power structure has used one devious means or another to control and re-direct African American culture.
So, we hate the music we hear on the radio? The new stuff? But, how much of it is genuine? Certain people get paid and played, and others get ignored. We African Americans have yet to establish a viable cultural infrastructure of our own. We want to be in “their” award ceremonies, and we have our own award ceremonies. Neither of these are an authentic cultural infrastructure of our own. Imitating white people in black-face is not African American culture. We need to start from the ground up — and, this is essential, protect our fledgling growth from co-optation, usually disguised as success.
The question I ask about new popular music is this: Will the young people who love the big hits of today, still love them tomorrow — ten, twenty, or thirty years later? Throughout the history of popular music, there have been times when many memorable songs were produced and other times that failed to produce memorable songs. And today’s big hit may be forgotten tomorrow, while some little-noticed item might be well-remembered many years later.
I’m over 70 and rarely get out. I never listen to the radio at home. While driving, I listen to NPR and The Classical Station — or I just turn the damn radio off (usually because I actually do get tired of hearing white people doing their white people thing). Once — not too many months ago — while driving to Fayetteville, 50 miles east of my home, I tuned into a hip-hop station and listened for over an hour. I thought most of the music was inventive and original. Unfortunate for me, I have virtually no social interactions with people who identify with the music I was listening to. (Note to self: Make an effort to get out and meet those people.) (Note to my dear readers: Off-hand, I can remember three incidents when I was getting into a collaborative relationship with people outside my professional comfort-zone, two of them involving hip-hop; one of them disappeared and I was unable to re-establish contact, and the other two died suddenly and mysteriously of “natural” causes. This may sound paranoid — as James Baldwin would say — but we are being manipulated.)
Most of us — on Facebook and other social media — are just interacting with people who agree with us. All of us need to get out more.
Finally — What is “Black”? What is “African”? And, when we talk about African Americans, is there a “we”?