This morning I'm listening to Natalie Cole and remembering that both Stephanie Mills and Ren Woods launched their singing careers through their association with the Broadway production of The Wiz. Later, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russel, Richard Pryor and of course Diana Ross burnished their careers in association with this same old American standard, blackified version.
Whenever I listen to black music of the Seventies (including that which I just immersed myself finally having viewed Jamie Foxx' extraordinary portrayal in the film 'Ray'), I am reminded of how it emphasized the 'natural'. Very much like with Ray Charles, Earth Wind and Fire hit upon an innovative combination of more basic Negro styles and combined them with state of the art recording techniques into something nobody had ever heard before. The early EWF, and their live performances require my best ear to hear the fundaments of the blues. But peppered through all of this modern combinatorial is the gruff punctuation of huffs, puffs, grunts, wails, screams, moans and groans. It seems at times that they were almost afraid to leave any air dead for mere virtuoso instrumentalism unless it was a bass break.
It couldn't be more simple then for all this ceiling bashing breakthrough talent to redefine American culture. The ambition had to be expressed in every dimension, and the cultural window planks could not stop zombie black music from breaking into the big house and infecting everyone with big funky bites of rhythm and blues. It's rather easy to see in retrospect, and we are greatly fortunate that the extraordinary shoulders of those talented pioneers were more than broad and strong enough to bear the scrutiny. But was it our Black?
It sounds to me that Natalie Cole is singing to me. But surely when I first heard her I thought she was singing to black men in the same way surely Marvin Gaye was singing to black women. It was nearly impossible to consider that they were 'universal' artists. No, we were sure that they were our heroes alone. It wasn't love, it was black love - the kind of love the whole world was missing until we showed 'em. We alone were keeping it real and the rest of the world's pulsations were pallid imitations.. But now we can't be so sure. I certainly am not going to assert that all that emoting was much more than what got recorded, not that it was what the Negro was or a complete well-balanced accounting of his culture.
So it occurs to me that we black Americans latched onto what was made available through markets and appropriated it as our own, thinking it rare and precious and unique - even knowing it was the tip of our own iceberg of culture. Nothing burst this wide open so much as the advent of post-soul, when finally my generation was able to listen to our own music. Hiphop expressed everything else left out that soul, jazz, blues, r&b and gospel didn't cover, and the lid was off for being cool and proper. And still, hiphop reflected that same artificial scarcity. Hiphop did what it could - but it was what got recorded, it wasn't a complete well-balanced accounting of black post-soul culture.
The other day I heard (in GTA5's Los Santos) NWA's Appetite for Destruction, and that still sounds to me like the bones upon which rap is built. My colleagues in black cultural criticism might find my opinion reductive but it seems to me that amongst the other black styles of music, along with gospel, hiphop has said the least. In other words, by being very specific and thus being rare its influence is overrated as compared to the breadth of actual black American experience and culture. No other form of black American music has been so specific about its blues. Snoop has got it down to an area code in the LBC, and a generation of producers shout out to each other by name.
Ultimately it is the test of time which will show what matters and is representative, but I think that is something that the vast majority of commercial cultural production does not serve. The rarity of the good stuff does not make it literature, and the artificial scarcity of black cultural productions should not necessarily make black Americans special beneficiaries. We've just cherished any drink in the desert, that doesn't make it fine wine.
I feel very particular to Ren Woods and Courtney Pine and Shinehead. There are many musical artists who spoke to me uniquely and it felt like a black thing and then they disappeared. Who can say how universal any of that was?