bongani madondo remembers mama africa

By bongani • Nov 14th, 2008 • Category: Hnic-ism, features



 You Still a Black Queen, Mama 


Fate’s a bitch ain’t it? I mean here we are. Celebrating what the magic realist, essayist, poet, and literary seer of sorts Ben Okri, regards as “probably the first great historic moment with a positive charge in the 21st Century.”  


The man you are bound to hear about and from, possibly for the next coming hundred years, eight of which, straight from Capitol Hill, or somewhere about.

And then what happens? That beautiful, healer, diva, sizzler Miriam goes on die on us. 


I’m like, what, Mama? Why did they ask you to perform in an anti-Mafia concert in the first place when the Mafia had issued out death threats to all performers and attending audience in the South of Italy? Doesn’t matter now. 


A person of resolve and artist of extraordinary conviction and passion, you went to Italy, even when you were supposed to have retired by now, and performed to your heart and the audience’s content even when your life was in danger, Mama. 


Look, Mama; you are gone but you are still with us and I know I’m speaking for many when I say, you will still be with us for generations to come.


Yours was a sound straight from humanity, religion and the healers hearts. 

Yours was a voice somehow trapped between that of a pure, sinless child and a wise, old and experienced soul to whom mere age was but just a number. You could have been 5OO years old and living in the mountains, for all I care.  And I do. 


Your voice conveyed the spirit and message from the world beyond. The world that came before us and which await us in the beyond. But also, yours was a voice of those not quite born. 


I am not one of those fakes who’ll just heap praises when you are no longer here, unafraid of telling it up straight when you were able to respond for yourself. I cannot lie, that yours was my all time favorite, or your entire body of work got my heart pumping, cause it didn’t. 


Not all of it, at least. And that’s ok. Show me any artist who can fulfill all of their fans and critics’ yearning for love, insecurities, idealism, and that old perception of what a helluva written and performed should sound like. 

Sometimes we fans and critics expect a lot from artists. Sometimes the impossible. 

I know that’s childish. Churlish, even. Too “bad”- as in too beautiful: that’s the emotional pact the artist signs with us, the minute they walk on stage or slam their vocals down in the studio. Too bad. Too unfortunate. This love we extract from you. But you applied for the job, we didn’t.

Same applies to you. I loved you smacks and was even more critical of you. On all those moments of despair and neediness on my part, you fulfilled me to my wildest un-expectations. Like a lot of young black South Africans, I saw you, Hughie, Katse Semenya, Jonas Gwangwa and Letta Mbuli among others, as our true liberators when our leaders were in jail.  They tried to silence your voice, but we smuggled and exchanged your cassettes and LPs on the underground in the townships. 

Even as I write this, I can hear your teary voice on songs LPs such as Evening With Harry Belafonte, your live performance at Au Theatres Des Champs Elysees in Paris- which in my head matches Mack The Knife: Ella Live in Berlin, or better still, Ella Does The Cole Porter Song Boo !

I can go on and on. Talk about possibly – for me your most haunted and emotion demanding pieces, way beyond the level of classics, particularly the Katse Semenya produced album, A Promise. 

Often, I would like to fancy myself a blues connoisseur. . .you understand the topography: Mississipi to Timboctou. Blind Willie Dixon, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Blind Willie McTell, Howling Wolf, Bessie Smith, up to Nina Simone, Johny Cash, Ali Farka Toure, Lobi Traore, night crawlers who could elicit a painful scream of a slide guitar, mimic a lovers’ moan, replicate the sounds of blackness that refuses to be defined only by slavery and n’ver do-good hipsters in it.  

And yet, I’d never ever imagined you as a blues torch singer, until that day after my own momma Nomvula got wheeled six feet under, that rainy February day 1991. Too numb to cry, I rushed to a friend’s backyard shack in the village, and buried myself in your songs back to back. The symphonic strains of your wails! 

Did I say you weren’t my favourite voice? “ Compared To What ?” Brothers Les McCarn and Eddie Harries would have asked.  Better still,  “So What?”

There’s A Promise, you comforted me. There’s a city, Gauteng, known for swallowing men and children, never to come back, you told me. But also you cautioned me to Quite It now. And when the tears rolled down my cheeks, you winked at me: Show Me The Way, My Brother. 

But then I had to myself the way first. The way. Our way.  

Many moons later, we met. You cooked for me. Reprimanded me.  You told me personal, intimate tales about a cast of other tortured beauties: Nina, Nakassa, Hughie, Stokely, Coltrane, Aretha, Dolly, about Tsietsi, about your late and only daughter, Bongi. 

And then you wept. Gave me a hug. And dished for me. 

I left dizzier with love. Giddier with the sound of music in my head: Mas Que Nada, I remember. And I felt calmer. Slightly. I wrote the story.  You became both upset and ecstatic. Then I met you in Lagos, a city on perpetual boil. You called me around, whiling away time at the airport. Ordered me on your lap.  

“Sit ! ” you mock commanded. “Tell me, what’s new, what are the young artists doing?”  

I mumbled something. Bit my lip. What exactly is it that I could have told you, other than, I love you, Mama?

–Bongani Madondo

mama tate remembers miriam makeba

By florence tate • Nov 14th, 2008 • Category: features


  For people in the 1960s Freedom and Justice movement, the 1968 marriage of Miriam Makeba and Stokely Carmichael was our wedding of the century.
Scores of  activists from SNCC, SCLC, CORE, the Black Panther Party, Congress of African Peoples and assorted other civil rights, nationalist and Pan Africanist folks, a number of African diplomats and other African dignitaries all gathered with friends and family on that beautiful 1968 summer evening at the Mount Vernon, NY estate of the Guinean Ambassador to the United Nations to witness and celebrate the union of Mama Africa and the reigning prince of Black Power.
    The bright and elegant attire of the  wedding guests could have rivaled that of any assembly of the royal court of Versailles. The large ballroom was aswirl with grand and flowing silk bubas, satin gelees, brocaded jac kets in spectacular colors — a brilliant array of scarlet, aubergine, sapphire and royal blues, cerise, golden yellows, creamy whites. Resplendent in royal kente cloth, the Reverend Douglas Moore performed the  nuptials  before the hushed audience which knowingly tittered when our penurious prince  promised to endow Mama Africa with “all of my worldly goods.” The dapper and debonair young William (Winky) Hall was best man  . the radiant bride in a lovely form fitting gown wore her famous fez-like crown and was attended by  a  sister friend whose name i don’t recall.
    On that memorable evening,  hands that had picked cotton in some of the Deep South places where Stokely and the SNCC workers had organized freedom schools and voter registration campaigns picked up flutes of Champagne to wash down the myriad dishes of African foods prepared by some of the finest African chefs. For the occasion, soldiers  from the struggle were on temporary leave of duty from South Central to South Carolina, from NewArk to Neshoba, to celebrate the union of Mother Africa and Africamerica that we hoped  would bode well for the future black world.
    During the few times that I was to see them before they left to settle in Guinea, Miriam and Stokely were like two lovebirds cooing and chattering, often about politics and more often just about life.  It was always a big kick to accompany Ethel Minor, Stokely’s secretary-editor and Miriam’s frequent traveling companion, backstage at a Makeba concert and chat with her.
    Miriam was such a magnetic and fierce but very feminine warrior — always radiant and sparkly-eyed with that beautifully coiffed short Afro that both she and her great friend Nina Simone perfected. Mama Africa personified and idealized that “African Queen” image to which many women of my generation aspired. Her recent passing leaves a void. I’m afraid they just don’t make Makeba’s breed of warrior star anymore. Godspeed, my sister.
–Florence Tate

Jean Grae by Sun Singleton

By SUN SINGLETON • Oct 7th, 2008 • Category: features


They convince you that you’re over-the-hill and too old to rap at age 30, or that gay people have no place in hip-hop music.  Now who are they?  The fuck if I know.

They fear the wizened perspective of grown rappers and the out-the-closet insights of gay emcees, and they definitely don’t wanna hear from smart women. Why? Again, the fuck if I know. Or care.  Look, here’s a secret for your ears only – the winds of change are upon us.  You know, change, the only constant in the universe? And those who fear change erect a wall of resistance to it, with growling culture-police dogs and water hoses.

Future rap star Jean Grae is the unseen change in this ailing music, Most High willing. She probably knows better than anybody that wall of resistance put up by the corporate rap machine to women who rhyme well. She’s not a horny pop tart and she ain’t rhymin’ about lip gloss. Not that there’s anything wrong with either archetype of girl rapper (big-up to Lil Mama and Mac Lip glass).  It’s just that a new lane in rap music is long overdue and we all know it. The future is now, it’s a day after the election and there’s a new American president with a Kenyan name, and a new lane for women who rap with “Jean Grae” on the sign post.

Jean Grae’s rise is the X factor in the rap game, again Jah willing.  She’s paid her dues over the years, starting out as the lone female in the late ‘90’s rap collective Natural Resource, producing her underground gem “This Week” and ripping stages around the world with her virgin tight flow. Rap luminary Talib Kweli has long championed the Brooklyn-bred emcee to the masses, and signing her to his Blacksmyth/Warner label imprint was hip hop’s equivalent of a super delegate endorsement.  New threads pop up in chat rooms daily all over the net about Jean, and the bombshell news of her fake retirement came as a shock to the legions of fans who await her ascension to renown in the rap game.

Jean Grae is from the same planet that spawned heroic rappers like Treach, LL Cool J and Roxanne Shante, three changeling emcees who broke established style molds in their day. Changeling emcees, a term coined by my boy, the culture critic Greg Tate, are the standout rappers who weather years of invisibility and wood-shedding to then step up and lift the lyrical bar in hip hop with bravado, a touch of eccentricity and a whole lot of craft.

As those ridiculously imbalanced, all-male panel discussions on BET this year about rap music’s gender inequity seem to indicate, we need a clarion new female voice in hip hop music right fucking now.

When Jean Grae spit lines like “I took the mittens off/ I’m sluggin’ open-fist/Shadow box, slap boxin’/This world ain’t shit” on the vicious, anthemic “This World” her bare knuckle rhymes bring to mind other tuff b-girl MCs like Rah Digga and that classic Brooklyn fem-cee with a mac truck delivery, MC Lyte.

The sound of her new album “Jeanius,” released on July 8th, is a welcome return to the head-nod flavor of the early nineties rap, and Jean rocks a cocky flow that’s much evolved over the years. The elements of a true-school mic controller are all there: breath control, solid projection, a deep rhythm pocket.  The beatmaker 9th Wonder sets the album’s sonic mood with a cocktail of dusty basement soul samples spiked strong with the N.C.-based producer’s signature new-millennium boom-bap.

Jean’s songs deliver clever wordplay with an irreverent sense of humor that sets her apart utterly from other rappers. “Jeanius” sparkles with its kooky in-jokes (“The Time Is Now,” her duet with the rapper Phonte is a hammy, hilarious riff off the glitter-spangled duo Ashford and Simpson), sly sexuality (Love Thirst) and moments of breathtaking pathos.  A highlight on the album is “My Story,” Jean’s account of an abortion and its aftermath in her teenage years.  The song speaks to the psychic and emotional wreckage of abortion that is often overlooked by pro-choice advocates, manipulated by religious fundamentalists and completely ignored in the stories that often surface in hip hop. Abortion is a volatile, stigmatizing subject indeed, and not since ever has there been a rap song like this.  Recently, the rapper revealed that her artist-run label’s bosses went ahead and shot a video for “My Story” without Jean’s permission or participation (Et tu, Blacksmyth?), a development that is really disturbing and pitifully ironic. The more times change, the more they stay on some bullshit.  Nevertheless, it’s a new day dawned now that Jean Grae is on the scene. And the influence of corporate rap thugs and okay-haters who loudly ignore talented emcees with a pussy is fading fast under the horizon.


By laina dawes • Oct 7th, 2008 • Category: features

Interview with Eugene Robinson

If ‘I don’t give a fuck’ was an entry in the dictionary, underneath it would be a picture of a handsome, generously tattooed African-American man by the name of Eugene Robinson – probably wearing a crisp, tailored suit. Robinson is one of the most interesting, intimidating, intelligent and fiercely individualistic people to emerge out of the 80’s punk scene with their wits intact. 

Despite the abundance of new technologies that allow easy access to a variance of musical and cultural forms, the presence of black folks performing and ./ or enjoying alternative genres of music outside of the rigid constraints of what is socially perceived as ‘black’ music is still rare. Perhaps this is why someone who has effortlessly and successfully broke down the social boundaries between race and music is like a whoosh of fresh, spring air.

The thing is, though, I don’t think Robinson really gives a shit about any of that. After the lengthy conversation I had with him earlier this year, I got the feeling that he’s never once let any social boundaries stand in the way of doing what feels naturally to him – maybe never even considered that there were boundaries to break. Since his teen years when he would shake his ass at one of New York City’s hottest disco clubs and the next evening, rock out at CBGB’s or Max’s Kansas City and as a student at Stanford University where he joined the legendary hardcore punk band Whipping Boy, he has done what he wants - when he wants. “Somebody might be tempted to use the word schizophrenic to describe it, but I don’t consider it to be schizophrenic. I regard people to be a product of a number of different influences,” he explains. 

Labelling is certainly an issue for Robinson, perhaps because for almost twenty years he has been the vocalist for the San Francisco-based, critically (if not commercially) acclaimed band Oxbow. Even though over time the band’s music has naturally transitioned from ‘punk’ to ‘post-punk’ to a unique melange of improvisational jazz, noise-rock and blues, the quartet’s intense followers have kept up with the changes. “When we put out the first record (89’s Fuckfest) I sent every record we put out to various labels,” remembers Robinson. “We would have to fight to get a label – that’s why we’ve been on five different labels – and I sent something to Tony over at Fat Wreck Records. He sent me a letter- this was before email – and he wrote back something like ‘pretty cool not punk enough.” And that was the first time that it ever dawned on me that things were changing. What he meant when he thought ‘punk’ was different from what I understood it to be. That’s when I started reading in connection of our (band) name, ‘post-punk.’ I remember when it was really clear to me that we were no longer an alternative band. You will never read about us in any alternative publications anymore. Pretty much the only people who listen to us are those who read heavy metal publications. And both of those labels are not enough to tell you the full story.”

After their last release, 2007’s The Narcotic Story (which garnered a Grammy nomination - Producer of the Year), Robinson’s first book, Fight: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Ass-Kicking but Were Afraid You’d Get Your Ass Kicked for Asking was released last November through Harper Collins. Not just a ‘how-to’ guide, Robinson provides a raw, uncompromising yet humorous account about the history of martial arts, self-defense, combat-sports arena fighting, as well about his experiences as a martial arts enthusiast. 

Also a journalist, the former editor for MacLife magazine has also written for a number of publications, such as Decibel, Hustler, GQ and Vice and even had a gig as a sex columnist. Not knowing much about martial arts, I knew that if I asked about specific details in Fight my incompetence would be glaringly evident, I decided to ask Robinson if there was a correlation between the lyrics he writes for Oxbow and his passion for fighting. Was there a certain anger within him that compelled him to write such songs that were so questionable that ex-Dead Kennedy’s singer Jello Biafra once suggested that he try writing more positive lyrics? 

“Lyrically, I don’t see that there is. The violence that occurs in the Oxbow lyrical tableau is lyrically small, direct, knife-like. Unkindness and cruelty at its best. I look at Oxbow’s lyrical outlook as kind of a….These are love songs in my mind, and I don’t know if fighting has anything to do with love. We were at the Grammy’s and like Tina Turner says, ‘what’s love got to do with it?’” he laughs. “I guess I love to fight, so maybe there is some comparison with the whole love thing, but as far as my lyrics being a direct application to my life, you haven’t got a clear cut diary of my life in terms of the lyrics I’ve written. Maybe they are connected, but how it is played out in regards to how I live and how I’m fight - I’m not sure of that.”

Plus, Robinson says that despite growing up in a punk movement that included the likes of Biafra, Henry Rollins and for that matter, GG. Alin (about Alin, the deceased controversial performance artist, Robinson says, “I do believe that Alin was an artist, but his art was about pushing boundaries of what people consider to be acceptable behaviour in an art context. But cool, that was for him but that’s not what I’m doing. I’m pursuing a singular vision, a very Orson Wellesian vision. You will have to wait very long and hard before you see me eat my own shit! I pride myself to a certain degree of being a certain kind of specificate”) were all hyper-masculine, authoritative figures on the philosophy of punk, he had to remain true to himself. 

“In Biafra’s case, it was in regards to a lyric that I had written, extolling what I considered to be the virtue of violence and methamphetamine addiction,” He laughs. “And while it’s always nice when you have someone who is willing to say and do the nice things, that somebody has never really been me. I always felt this compulsion when I looked at how the (punk legends) Bad Brains had all this creative space around themselves where positive things happened and I thought that they were an example that I could follow. I mean, of course they were just men, with the same challenges that men have. 

“But I was never attracted to music for that reason. It’s never been part of my body of work, not my approach. To a certain degree, I see what we (Oxbow) do as inspirational, but I would never make any claims that it was aspirational. I’m about – to a certain degree – about really telling elemental truths about yourself to yourself, that you should probably do. I cannot advise you on whether embracing those truths will make your life better or not, but it certainly has made my life better.  But my life being better and my life being good are two very different things.” 

Despite writing a book about the martial arts, Robinson’s passion for fighting is evident at Oxbow’s live shows. You see, an Oxbow live performance is not your typical show: The band, who has toured extensively in the UK and Europe are known for their intense sets, most notably because of Robinson’s stage presence. The six foot-one, 200 +  pound vocalist often begins their sets nattily dressed in a conservative pair of slacks and a nice, button down shirt and despite his muscular physique, could be mistaken for a middle-aged R&B singer. However, if you get close enough to the front of the stage (which you do not want to do if you are drunk/high and want to start trouble), you will see the silver duct tape covering his ears. As he lewdly gyrates to the music, he will slowly start undressing until his is standing on the stage in nothing but a pair of tight-fitting bikini briefs.

Another interesting facet about Oxbow’s live shows is the audience. It seems as though some, most often young white men, come out specifically to harass Robinson. Or is it harassment? Perhaps it is the sight if a big, muscular black man clad in only his underwear, thrusting is crotch into their faces and performing music that they are not used to someone like him performing, but there seems to be a weird mixture of anger, resentment and homoerotic lust that intoxicates and draws these fans into standing at the front of the stage, some goading him on, some starting at him in awe. 

In the 2003 documentary Music for Adults: A film About a Band Called Oxbow, there was a scene which unfortunately, overshadowed the genius of Oxbow’s musical performances. A young man standing in the front of the stage tries to stir up trouble and suddenly finds himself in a ‘near naked choke’ by Robinson, who quickly renders the man unconscious. And no, this was not the first, and probably not the last time Robinson will give an unruly fan a piece of his own medicine. 

“It’s like the whole joke about the guy who fucks the sheep. You fuck one sheep and then you never do it again. But I guess it’s the fact that it happened at all,” Robinson explains about the media’s fascination with his willingness to put asshole fans in their place. “People like their experience to feel real, that there is some element of danger to the proceedings, but that is not what Oxbow is about. Our reason for being is that we consider ourselves to be musical artists. I would hope that in every article, it would be made clear that when the show dissolves into violence, we are failing as artists. We are, at that point, not artists but defenders of art.

“And these are very different things. If I am choking someone out in the audience it is because they are attempting to besmirch art. I am an artist and I have been working and there was some guy whose drinking has interfered with that process. So I had to jump into the audience and punch him in the mouth. But has that become a part of our art? No. It will never be acceptable to me.”

While growing up in Brooklyn in the 60’s and 70’s meant that Robinson had to learn how to defend himself at a young age, he never considered himself a bully. Because of his intellectual abilities, he was propelled at an early age by his parents into honing his writing talent. “I was an avid newspaper reader. I was always a media kid. It was probably one of the most structured things I did and I distinctly remember writing my first article when I was seven years old. It wasn’t really an article but a position piece on my love of cartoons.”

Like many kids of his era, he was influenced by a variance of musical styles, which not only opened his eyes to the possibilities of the world outside of Brooklyn but turned him onto music that spoke to his teenage angst. “My stepfather used to work for the New York Post and because I was a depressive teen, he thought it would be funny by giving me a record that was sitting in the newsroom by Eddie and the Hot Rods called ‘Teenage Depression,’” Robinson remembers. “It had a kid on the cover holding a gun to his head. It seemed to be directly down my line. There always seemed to be a sense of dissonance in my understanding of the world for me. It never seemed to be a cool place like everyone else though it was, for me. So I listened to the music, liked it, and started going to the clubs and buying more music.”

When asked if the younger generation should be encouraged to open their minds to alternative genres of music versus what is being force-fed to them by the media, Robinson was indifferent. To him, it is simply about being an individual and the individual journey one must make to find themselves. 

“If anything, I would like to be the standard bearer for doing your own fucking thing.”


Fuckfest (1989)

King Of The Jews (1991)

Let Me Be A Woman (1995)

Serenade in Red (1997) 

An Evil Heat (2002)

The Narcotic Story( 2007)







Isaac Hayes, Bad Mutha

By Michael A. Gonzales • Sep 1st, 2008 • Category: features

Behind every great music critic is an indulgent parent. You know, that long suffering parental unit who didn’t scream when you temporarily changed your forename to Vicious or Elton (as I did in the fifth grade), didn’t curse you out when you blasted reruns of The Partridge Family and treated them as though they were real relatives — nor did they have a heart attack when you wore your grandma’s wig while pretending to be The Beatles.

In any case, it was my codependent mom who kept me supplied with enough pop life-stimulants to get hooked on spinning black vinyl forever. From bingeing on glossy fan magazines (Tiger Beat, Right On! ) to overdosing on a prized 7” of Queen’s painfully beautiful “Somebody to Love” and blaring the latest orchestrated Gamble & Huff production, Mom made sure her baby boy had his fix.

Still, no matter how many blunts have been passed over the years, I’ll never forget that fall day in 1971 when I was eight years old and my black wax supplier brought me my first album: Isaac Hayes’s majestic soundtrack for Shaft.

Even though I had not seen the movie, the lyrical storyteller in Hayes brilliant single brought the character to live for me. At the time, I had no idea Isaac was a bad mother who had helped build the sonic brick house of Stax Records in the Sixties. Along with his then-writing partner David Porter, the duo composed some 200 songs under the name the Soul Children. Reeling off a string of hits for Stax luminaries like Sam & Dave (”Soul Man” and “Hold On, I’m Comin’”), Carla Thomas (”B-A-B-Y”) and Johnnie Taylor (”I Got to Love Somebody’s Baby,” “I Had a Dream”), these boys had the Midas touch for gutbucket soul.

Indeed, my introduction to the musical magic of Isaac Hayes was the hypnotic hi-hat intro and the watery wah-wah guitar of the title track “Theme from Shaft.” A funky overture that baptized the nation with the nectar of muddy waters of Memphis, the song was played on a zillion radio stations, hitting #1 on both the pop and R&B charts. Still, no matter how many times the track was pumped over the airwaves, I wasn’t content until it was spinning on my own clunky stereo.

Though it might be hard to believe today, in the post-civil rights era of 1971, there were no black super heroes seen on screen. But once that badass black private dick swung through the tenement windows of urban American pop culture, we too had a champion to call our own. Before the blaxploitation days of swaggering sisters and mumbling macks, the boys in the ’hood had to be content with pretending to be either Bond or Batman (I don’t even want to think about the amount of times I was forced to KA-POW! my little brother for refusing to play Robin).

Shaft was directed by former Life magazine photographer Gordon Parks, whose gritty pictorials of rowdy Harlem street gangs and roguish Chicago detectives proved he had the right eye to convey the hard rock dynamics of the titular character. As the Negro link between John Cassavetes and Martin Scorsese, the masterful Parks used the romantic decay of Seventies New York City as the perfect character, and not merely a backdrop.

Hearing Haye’s ultra-cool “Theme from Shaft” as actor Richard Roundtree strutted past the B-movie marquees in Times Square or the tense “Walk From Regio’s” as he strolled through Greenwich Village, was enough to make this Manhattan-centric uptown boy drool with Big Apple delight.

After Quincy Jones, who had constructed jazzy scores for a handful of Sidney Lumet films (his exciting music from The Anderson Tapes was a favorite), Isaac was only the second black man to compose a major Hollywood soundtrack. “Having never written a score before, I was a little nervous that I would mess up,” he admitted to me in a 1995 interview as we drove around Memphis in a white Caddie.

Yet, in a record-breaking four days, holed-up in a MGM recording studio with studio rats the Bar-Kays and the Memphis Strings & Horns, brother Hayes created a funky template that later inspired the soulful musings of Curtis Mayfield (Super Fly), Marvin Gaye (Trouble Man), James Brown (Black Caesar) and Willie Hutch (The Mack). After Shaft, black film soundtracks would never be the same.

Still, not everyone was as thrilled by symphonic soul and bawdy lyrics as I was — least of all my third grade teacher, Miss Wilson. Attending a proper Negro private academy called The Modern School, we were expected to be perfect ladies and gentleman at all times. Needless to say, this was easier for some than others.

Though The Modern School was in the heart of the ’hood, it was the kind of classy joint where the teachers played Mozart during lunch. I had once been forced to prance on stage at the Audubon Ballroom (the same spot where Malcolm X was slain) in black ballet slippers and colorful balloons tied to my wrists while the Fifth Dimensions wailed “Up, Up and Away.” Forget about Martin Luther King’s dream — this was his acid trip.

Every Friday afternoon our class was encouraged to bring their own music to school to play for the other students. Of course, I couldn’t wait to share the wicked Shaft soundtrack with the class. Regally sitting at a paper cluttered desk, Miss Wilson instructed me to walk over to the antiquated stereo — I think the needle was made of wood — and put on the disc.

Yet, once Isaac sang the songs raunchy (by ’71 standards) first line, “Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks? (SHAFT!) Ya damn right!” the fun was over. Clad in a quaint print dress and an ill-fitting wig, light-skinned Miss Wilson leapt from her paper-cluttered desk and sprinted across the carpeted floor like Wilma Rudolph. “What kind of music is this supposed to be?” she screamed, accidentally scratching the needle across the wax. Cringing as Miss Wilson ruined my record, I was stunned by her blushing reaction.

Carelessly shoving the damaged record back into its sleeve, Miss Wilson curtly dropped the album cover on my desk. Having regained her buppie composure, she hovered for a moment before screeching through clinched teeth. “Please, don’t bring anything like this to class ever again.”

The following year, at the 1972 Academy Awards, Isaac Hayes’ revolutionary soundtrack won an Oscar for Best Score.

Originally published at Riffs & Revolutions by Michael A. Gonzales.

An Open Letter From Nona Hendryx On The State Of Nawleans, State Of The Nation

By Nona Hendryx • Jul 13th, 2008 • Category: features

After 400 years of blood, sweat & tears + a few mo, I’m in Nawleans fo the Ess-endz Fest (a 3 day black invasion of N. Orleans, I’ve caught sight of only about 100 or so white folks). I’m here with Sarah Dash to sing a couple of Labelle songs in a Essence tribute to a ‘Living Icon’ Patti LaBelle, our sister and the glorious lead singer of Labelle.

3 years after Katrina, huffed & puffed and blew the house of cards, betta known as levees down and turned lives upside down & inside out and ripped the wool from the eyes of the world about the state of the Nation known as The United States of America.
Today I saw a old friend in Nawleans weep about the devastation from Katrina, 3 years on. A strong, can do kinda woman who’s heart has been broken and slow to repair.

Through my eyes…People are living life in ‘parallel universe’ matrices; artificial environments that humans see as real.

Politicians sworn to serve and lead, old and new emperors dressed in old and new clothes!

The Middle Class; A parallel universe said to be related to ours, that may contain extinct humans; non existent.

The Rich have money to balm their wounds and soothe their conscience, bury their dead and fly away to another reality.

(Another reality; The French Quarter, famous and infamous for housing and encouraging the seven deadly sins, the water never touched! God is…??????????????)

The poorest of the poor who had nothing left to lose were stripped of their dignity, in the Dome, in Fema trailers, in hospitals and morgues and now in a city starved of it’s life blood, it’s people, scattered not too unlike the past, only this time they didn’t use auction blocks but buses.

H.O.P.E, an organization that bussed about 1,000 youths in blue & red t-shirts with wheel barrels and shovels, plastic bags, etc from all over The United States of America. They were spending part of their summer vacation helping to clear some remnants of the huge devastation to homes and communities. They were singing along with a youth band, drinking water and cheering each other!

- Nona Hendryx

The King and Me By Michael A. Gonzales

By Michael A. Gonzales • Jul 13th, 2008 • Category: features


“Elvis was the king of rock ‘n’ roll, huh? I guess somebody forgot to tell the folks up in Harlem listening to James Brown” — Black street comedian on 59th Street (circa 1986)”
Elvis Presley was my nigga: forget the fact that on his dying day on August 16th, 1977, the so-called King of Rock ‘n’ Roll was grossly overweight and popping more pills than a pharmaceutical student. Definitely, it might be best to ignore the oft spoken truths that to this day linger like an unchained melody that define the master of hypnotic hips and unmovable hair as a momma’s boy who boned teenaged girls years before R. Kelly was born, munched peanut butter and banana sandwiches, and blasted TV sets in the hallowed hotel rooms above the neon glow of Vegas.
Even if there are many folks that agreed with Brit-author Martin Amis when he wrote, “Elvis was a talented hick destroyed by success”, to me he was so much more. Like the other Caucasians in my then-personal canon of pop culture cool (which included Sean Connery, Elton John, Henry Winkler, Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood), Elvis had a style, swagger, and charisma that radiated beyond the confines of the television screen.
Though too young to recall the red, white and blue tears people wept when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, or the shattered glass streets of chocolate cities across America when Martin Luther King was slain, the untimely announcement of Elvis’ last gasp rocked my world. Having dealt with death only a few times in my then young life (mother’s suicidal friend Thomas, grandma’s aged boyfriend Joe), I was devastated by the announcement of Elvis’ demise. As my first rock idol in the days before I realized that black dudes were supposed to reject Presley on principle, I watched with rabid interest as folks across the country cried while sharing their favorite Elvis memories with the newscaster.
In a Kodak flash, I relived those many late nights when me and baby brother would stay-up past our bedtime just to sneak peeks at the Elvis flicks that were broadcast occasionally in the midnight hour on the CBS Late Movie. From the fury of Jailhouse Rock to the kitsch of Viva Las Vegas to the goofiness of Speedway, we were both enthralled by the manic energy of Elvis. While mom had a monthly subscription to Ebony and Sepia magazines, and had even enrolled us in an after-school class in Black History, we never realized that we could be considered traitors to the race for digging the sounds of a guitar strumming bad boy standing on the hood of a stock car or tonguing down va-va-voom Ann Margret.
Spending the latter part of the summer of ‘77 at Aunt Ricky’s crib in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, where she, Uncle Ed and older cousin Denise were the only brown faces in the community, issues of race were never discussed. With the exception of the peaceful image of M.L.K. on Sunday morning church fans (a constant reminder that a mere few years before, down south brothers and sisters were still sitting in the back of the bus or being bitten by police dogs), there was no talk of integration, race relations or the countless student uprisings that still rumbled in colleges campuses.
In her late-thirtes, Aunt Ricky was a beautiful brown-skinned woman with a wide smile, a thick body (Uncle Ed called her “butterball”), and a voice that had a stern singsong lilt that she used years later for preaching in the pulpit of a various churches in the wilds of Pennsylvania. Dressed in a multicolored housedress, Aunt Ricky leaned back in a brown living-room chair, exhaling heavily. Gazing at my emotional reaction to the news of Elvis’ exploding heart, Aunt Ricky unexpectedly dropped a bomb on me. “You know, Elvis was a racist, right?” she declared. Without the hint of a smile, it was obvious she was serious as a bottle of moonshine.
Turning away from the tear stained faces being transmitted from in front of the pearly gates of Graceland, I was puzzled. “You know”, Aunt Ricky continued, “he once told a reporter, ‘The only thing colored folks can do for me is shine my shoes and buy my records.’ Now, if that’s not racist, you tell me what is”. In a low-talking voice that was damn near a Marlon mumble, I said, “That can’t be true. Elvis would never say anything like that”. Coming from the melting pot of New York City, I had never experienced, at least not to my knowledge, the kind of racism that still simmered on the other side of the George Washington Bridge. Other than a white cop, who had threatened to kick my black ass two years before (admittedly, I did call him a “pig” first, but that is a whole other tale), I had no idea that such strained relationships between the races still existed.
“It’s true”, Aunt Ricky declared with so much conviction, one would have thought she had been in the room when the venomous words were supposedly uttered. “You know what they say?”
“What’s that?” I wondered.
“White is right”, she answered. Feeling betrayed by both Elvis and Aunt Ricky, I excused myself from the room. Personally, I didn’t want to believe it, but who was I to question the wisdom of a grown-up?
Years later, I wondered why none of the adults in my life ever bothered to school us kids about the early days of black music, when a rowdy Negro named Ike Turner (whose 1951 “Rocket 88″ was recorded at Sun Studios a few years before Elvis shuffled through those same doors) was considered the first true rock star. Not once did one of the elders put a copy of Little Richard’s “Tutti Fruitti” on the stereo and declare, “This is the true king, kid. Now, bow down”.
In his masterful Last Train to Memphis (1994), author Peter Guralnick, cites a piece that appeared in Jet magazine on in 1957: “Tracing that rumored racial slur to its source was like running a gopher to earth.” Some said Presley had said it in Boston, which Elvis had never visited. Some said it was on Edward Murrow’s show, on which Elvis had never appeared. Jet sent Louie Robinson to the set of “Jailhouse Rock”: “When asked if he ever made the remark, Mississippi-born Elvis declared: ‘I never said anything like that, and people who know me know I wouldn’t have said it”.
Robinson then spoke to people “who were in a position to know” and heard from Dr W. A Zuber, “a Negro physician in Tupelo” that Elvis Presley used to “go round to Negro ’sanctified meetings’; from pianist Dudley Brooks that he “faces everybody as a man”, and from Presley himself that he had gone to colored churches as a kid, churches like Reverend Brewster’s, and that “he could honestly never hope to equal the musical achievements of Fats Domino or the Inkspots’ Bill Kenny”.
“To Elvis”, Jet concluded in its August 1st, issue, “people are people regardless of race, color or creed.”
In 1985, five years before composing his satirical anthem “Elvis is Dead”, which featured a cameo from Little Richard, I met Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid. Flipping through the cluttered bins inside Sounds record shop on New York’s sleazy St. Marks Place, I recognized the musician’s wild styled locks and funky attire from a recent band photo published in the arty magazine East Village Eye.
After introducing myself, we chatted for about 20 minutes about movies, science fiction novels, and of course, music. “What do you do?” Vernon asked.
“Well, besides working at Tower Records, I’m a writer that doesn’t write”, I confessed.
“Me and some friends have started an organization called The Black Rock Coalition”, Vernon said. “We’re meeting this Saturday in the Village Voice offices. Perhaps you should come by”.
“Yeah,” I answered, not really understanding what he could possibility mean; Jimi Hendrix was dead and Sly Stone might as well have been, so what was this strange beast known as Black Rock? With the exception of Prince and the Bad Brains, I thought, how many others of color are doing the wild electric on stage or vinyl. “But, I’m not a musician. The only things I play are records,” I said..
Chuckling, Vernon answered, “Don’t worry ’bout that. Yeah, it’s about the music, but it’s also about so much more. We got filmmakers, writers, all kinds of folks. Just come over to the Voice offices about two o’clock or so”.
Without a hint of irony, I showed-up at the B.R.C. meeting clad in sneakers, jeans, and a colorful t-shirt of Elvis’ face superimposed on a Confederate flag. Standing on lower Broadway outside the newspaper offices with a collective of folks, I was uncomfortable. Feeling less bohemian than the rest of the bunch, I leaned against the wall and waited until it was time to file into the building.
A soulful clique of spirited people who would have a major influence over a generation of new jack artists developing their own personal cult-nat-freaky-deke-nu-blax-aesthetic, gathered on the sidewalk. The tribe included cultural critic Greg Tate, bluesman Michael Hill, trumpet player Flip Barnes, poet Tracie Morris, singer Cassandra Wilson, guitarist Jean Paul Bourelly, keyboardist Bruce Mack, producer Craig Street, bassist Melvin Gibbs, future musical genius Me’Shell Ndegeocello and, of course Vernon Reid.
“Is that Elvis shirt supposed to be a joke?” asked a kooky looking dude with bugged eyes and dreadlocks. With a goofy voice that reminded me of Richard Pryor, he introduced himself as Darius James. A satirical performance artist who also wrote for lit-mag Between C&D, Darius would later pen the celebrated surreal novel Negrophobia and the semi-autobiographical history of ’70s cinema That’s Blaxploitation: Roots of the Baadasssss ‘Tude (Rated X by an All’Whyte Jury).
“Er, no,” I answered. Slightly insulted, I lit a Newport.
“If I were you, I would tell people it was”, Darius snorted. Embarrassed, I wanted to melt into the concrete like a black Santeria candle. “So, I guess you must be a fan of Otis Blackwell, huh?”
“Who?” I asked. God, why did all the weirdoes generate towards me, I wondered? “Otis, who…”
“Man, you wearin’ that redneck on your shirt and you don’t even know the real deal”, Darius spat, droplets of spittle stained my glasses. Simultaneously reminding me of Daffy Duck and Goldie the Pimp, there was an endearing quality to his madness. “Otis was the bad piano playin’ Brooklyn brother who wrote ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ and ‘All Shook Up’”, Darius snickered. “Shit, I think your boy Elvis might have got them both for the price of a pickled pig foot, a fried chicken wing, and a bottle of cream soda. He might not have stole the soul, but he bought it mighty cheap”.
“You’re joking, right? ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ was written by…”
“A black man!” Darius screamed, sounding like one of the sugar high kids on the Stevie Wonder track (from Songs in the Key of Life, 1976) of the same name. “Yeah, and he also wrote ‘Great Balls of Fire,’ ‘Fever,’ and ‘Handy Man’. Dude had one bad songwriting mojo going down”.
“You’re serious, right?” I asked.
“If I’m lying, I’m flying and believe me, I ain’t no mothership. In fact, I ain’t dropped acid since I was in high school in New Haven”.
Upstairs, the dank meeting room was filled-up to capacity. Me and my new buddy Darius sat next to one another and listened to lengthy rants for the next few hours: record company politics, lack of diversity on radio, the underrated power chords of former Funkadelic ax-men Mike Hampton and Eddie Hazel, finding a venue for a BRC fund-raiser, the color problem at MTV, racism in New York nightclubs and the frustration of defining “what exactly is Black Rock, anyway?”
Like Amiri Baraka getting off the subway in Harlem to kick-start the Black Arts Movement in 1965, it was obvious that everyone in that room believed themselves to be a “pioneer of the new order”. Fighting a rhythmic revolution that challenged the mainstream’s fear of blackness (be it black music or black people), I was convinced the agenda of the Black Rock Coalition would change the world.
Twenty years later, though “Black Rock” is still a foster child fighting for acceptance, artists like Apollo Heights and Martha Redbone gives me hope for the future.
In a 2002 interview with rapper Chuck D., who dissed (”Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me/You see, straight up racist that sucker was simple and plain”) Presley on the classic Public Enemy track (which also served as the opening theme to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing) “Fight the Power”, said, “As a musicologist — and I consider myself one — there was always a great deal of respect for Elvis, especially during his Sun sessions . . . As black people, we all knew that. My whole thing was the one-sidedness - like, Elvis’ icon status in America made it like nobody else counted. My heroes came from someone else. My heroes came before him. My heroes were probably his heroes. As far as Elvis being ‘ The King,’ I couldn’t buy that”.
Certainly, the real issue is how come Elvis got anointed “the king”, while Little Richard is seen as a hysterical sissy, Ike Turner is better known as a wife beater, and Chuck Berry is a musical footnote who once sang about his ding-a-ling. Still, this cultural Apartheid goes back further than Elvis’ popularity: Count Basie vs. Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington vs. George Gershwin. Oh, and lets not forget the self-proclaimed King of Jazz, the aptly named Paul Whiteman.
Twenty-eight years after the pale-faced teddy bear Elvis suddenly slumped on the cold tiles, not much has changed on the pop-cult landscape. White is still right, which would surely explain why we’re watching Eminem’s 8 Mile instead of Live from Queensbridge: The Saga of Marly Marl, Justin Timberlake is considered more of a soul stirrer than Carl Thomas, a frump like Fergie is a bigger star than Res, and most minority music writers are still relegated to the rear review pages of Rolling Stone and Blender.
I just don’t understand how me acknowledging the brilliance of Elvis or wailing timeless tracks like “Suspicious Minds” or “Heartbreak Hotel” when they blare through stereo speakers is going to change Planet Pop’s perception of race and originality. Just be content that Elvis’ gritty message song “In the Ghetto” hasn’t been cited as the first rap record: the king is dead, long live the king.

-Michael Gonzales

Reigning Femmes by Makkada B. Selah

By editor • Jul 13th, 2008 • Category: features

She calls herself ‘The Voice of the Young People’. 18 year-old Lil Mama is your favorite female rapper’s favorite rapper, because she’s got her head screwed on mad tight. From a part of Harlem “where the streets look like Africa,” Ma, who hit it big with the 2007 bleacher-stomp “Lip Gloss,” is on some real talk, big woman shit.
“I did a record with Lil Mama for my album,” says Missy Elliott. “I got a chance to meet her and get in the studio with her and she’s incredible. She’s a dope MC to be young like that.”
In the introduction to her rock-tinged break-up song “Emotional Rollercoaster”, in which she also sings the hook, she philosophizes

There are many girls. …going into womanhood… and they go through different emotional roller coasters and when you’re on a roller coaster in real life, you can’t get off in the middle of the ride. You got to ride it out until it stops. And at the end of that ride… that rollercoaster was fun even though it had a couple of twirls spins and drops that made you cry.

Homegirl don’t sound like she’s cried at all though, her voice hard as concrete.

“She got her own lil lane,” says Lady (Gangsta) Boo.  “She came out with a little catchy song about lip gloss. I mean ABC. It’s like damn that shit was hot. I like the fact that she did something different when girl MCs aren’t getting the recognition and the respect that we should be getting she came through saying ‘what’s up. I’m still here—and my lip gloss poppin.”

And she’s like the hoodchick-next-door. In the album’s obligatory T-Pain track “What it is” she’s “sexycool,” while rocking to a Go-Go beat—-but it doesn’t go any farther than that.  Lil Mama ain’t showin jack, yo—no skin no a-tall —nada— she bumps a turtleneck on her album cover, and kicks it mostly in hoodies and jeans in her videos.

“Oh, I’m so glad she decided not to go that route,” says Monie Love, “SO glad” referring to the raspy voiced young miss’s decision to keep her goodies in the jar.

As one of the few female rappers with a major label deal, hopefully she’s part of a movement to create a strong solid platform for more diverse female voices in hip-hop to be heard, to be marketed, and to be in a position to inspire young girls and women. Her father’s persistent push to get her single played on Hot 97 led to it blowing up the entire east coast and attracting the attention of Jive Records. Then she followed with a club joint with Chris Brown  “Shawty Get Loose”.  In one album soliloquy she says, “Now that it’s obvious that I’m true to the game, we gotta go deeper. We gotta get into the reality of life,” Homegirl  is not playing.

“What she has to bring is necessary, “ says MC Lyte, to whom she’s often compared, because of Mama’s talent for telling stories from varying points of view,  “She’s got some powerful songs. She’s got stories. She’s socially conscious about what’s going on around her… She has the capabilities to really turn heads and to really satisfy a culture of people with some hip-hop that lives.”

- Makkada B. Selah

The Redneck Negress (Slight Return)

By kandiacrazyhorse • Jul 13th, 2008 • Category: features

Well, as y’all know, for the past few weeks the City has been aurally preoccupied with this year’s JVC Jazz Festival. The period was bookended for this worn out rock critic. On one end by by the viral sensation of Snoop Dogg – Willie Nelson duet “My Medicine” turning up in my inbox. On the other by and being queried about Jonah Weiner’s filing on Lil’ Weezy and The Afronaut in Slate. The sum of the newsflash: Negroes is still freaky-deak…an’ they jes’ cain’t he’p it! Fittingly, I was also summoned to this BRC digital par-tay by Gregory Tate, the brer who cheekily dubbed me The Redneck Negress.
I ran a column of the same name down South during my tenure in North Cock-It-Back until recently. It only seems meet and proper to bring a bit of sepia twang to these proceedings – better the honky-tonk than the hoes down. We Afro-freaks love porch pickers, once unabashedly ate our watermelon while riveted to Hee Haw, are now running amok in New Amsterdam.
YEP it’s been a busy heady time of exploring whether jazz still exists. Believe I found some at the JVC closing ceremonies this past Saturday.

I was also happy to make the scene at some of my friends’ shows last week amidst the hullaballoo – Kamara Thomas of Earl Greyhound & Larune; Dom Flemons, Justin Robinson & Rhiannon Giddens of Carolina Chocolate Drops. Through them I got to delve behind the glitz and potential cynicism of Snoop an’ Akon’s ‘n Nelly’s reach-out-and-touch to Nashvegas.
Leading Larune, Sister Kamara is inspired by Myth America–from our downhome girl Dolly Parton to one of my all-time favorite master funkateers, Neil Young. Her sound is cosmic country, full of darkness, drone, continental drift and always soul and mystery. At the Honky-Tonk Angels party last Tuesday at Banjo Jim’s, she and Brother Gabriel and her man Gordon in town from touring with Shooter Jennings held it down sho’nuff. It was after the Witching Hour and June was my addled month of bittersweet mourning, so I don’t recall any specific songs from Bulgaria…but Postcards From Bulgaria is Larune’s album available now from the Periodic Label.

It sports cover art by Jezebel conjured from the camera obscura where Kara Walker encounters Fragonard. Bulgaria is Kamara’s horse opera though it also featured songs from her devastatingly talented musical partner Matt Whyte. She describes it as theatre about “death, suicide and Black Sea vacations.” IT is a good deal more than that: harkening the arrival of a major Afrolantica artist come into her own voice. Bulgaria is as conceptually rigorous and sonically adventurous as such long heralded suicide meditations by Melvin Van Peebles, Gil Scott-Heron and the late great Arthur Lee.
On Thursday last, I crossed the river even farther back into time and caught Carolina Chocolate Drops at Celebrate Brooklyn in Prospect Park. And a mighty fine prospect it was, tha Drops doing their thang before the largest audience I had witnessed thus far. Hailing from the Carolina Piedmont and Arizona, the trio’s blend of folk, bluegrass and the occasional nod to contemporary “urban” delights held everyone arrested. No surprise –they’ve been thrilling crowds from Merlefest to the Yay Area.
Rhiannon, Dom and Justin easily traded between banjo, fiddle, jug, kazoo, and a spot of freestyle Juba, rolling out songs from old-timey trad (“Starry Crown”) to Scottish standards sung in Gaelic (by she of many tongues Rhiannon) to sanctified blues (“City of Refuge”) and Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style” (no lie). If you’re unfamiliar with the glorious past of African American prewar string band repertoire and want to hear the chirren’s take on “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” check out their MySpace and acquire Dona Got A Ramblin’ Mind post-haste. As Dom has recently relocated to Inwood, here’s hoping we might get a regular uptown hootenanny going for us sons & daughters of Ham.
Viacom has yanked Snoop and his western shirt from YouTube, thwarting our giggles and cyber contact high, but perhaps you kicked off your Emancipation weekend with a swift sojourn to Larune’s 3 July gig with the Basement Band at Williamsburg’s Spike Hill, and will peep Carolina Chocolate Drops online. [www.carolinachocolatedrops.com] (unless you’re swinging through Mizzou and Arkansas this weekend). Brothers and sisters, it would be healthy, hopeful and, above all, liberating to scoot yer boots before dropping the bomb at Afro-Punk. I will be riding six Jimi-purple choppers when I come.

-Kandia Crazy Horse

AFRORIOTGRRRL by Daphne A. Brooks

By daphneabrooks • Jul 13th, 2008 • Category: features

My regal 82-year old mother rang me the day after the BET Awards to let me know that she was through with Al Green. “I’ll listen to his old records, but Lord if I don’t know what has happened to him today. What a mess.” Moms couldn’t hang with the Reverend’s loopy streak, unveiled in all its finest glory during last week’s annual Negropalooza. I felt especially guilty for having encouraged her to tune back into the show to catch Green after the first 10 minutes had scared her so much that she’d already turned it off. “I’m honored and humbled by the Academy of the B.E.T. Awards… What you laughing at?” As generation Youtube “filmmakers” Mickey and CJ declare on their Chappelle-in-training wheels short short short “Al Green BET LOL”: “We laughing at you!” Reverend Al’s chitter-chatter and wide-eyed mugging (lifting his sunglasses-at-night, no less) amped up the talk of a “crazy” label that some have quietly attached to Green in the post-grits era, even as the nostalgic affection for his warm, rippling, post-juke joint Memphis soul has waxed and flowed among black folks for more than three decades now. Even white listeners have pledged their undying love for Green, especially after 1990s Negro-ologist Quentin Tarantino jacked up the volume on “Let’s Stay Together” while Bruce Willis stood idle in a Pulp Fiction barroom. Jon Stewart, several years back on The Daily Show, swooned over his soul legend guest, back in an era when even less black peeps were regulars on that show (two and counting, Jonny boy—yes, we can!). But actually listening to Al Green talk can sometimes lead you to wonder what is going on with one of the greatest R&B singers of the modern era. Non-sequitars, tangential allusions to God and well, God knows what else… It may be our own fault that we expect our classic soul men to deliver the gravitas 24/7—Sam’s aching, existential longing, Otis and Curtis’s Civil Rights striving, Marvin’s brooding social critique. But even Stevie, our long-running shining pan-Africanist musical prince, has played with the fringes of the goofy in and out of song. One of my good friends once noted how she occasionally has to hold back the laughs when Stevie adds “a little extra” to the bass in his voice late in the chorus of, well most of his uptempo songs… Stevie’s playfulness is a mark of the wonder-full richness and joy of black life that his music so brilliantly celebrates. So perhaps Green’s occasional conversational inanity can best be likened to a perpetual state of preacherly get-happiness. High on life and love of God, his meanderings are a reminder that Green long ago found permanent fuel in the ether-lightness of the spirit. Thanks be to Questlove and James Poyser for catching it in a bottle on Green’s new album Lay It Down. And Hallelujah! for a shorn Maxwell (where art thou, Embryanic tresses?!!!) for coming the closest to invoking the vintage Reverend’s balance of buoyant freeplay and sensual showboating during his electric silk cover of the exquisite “Simply Beautiful” for the BET Green Tribute segment. Maxwell’s genius crooning and prowling the stage (minus the over-the-top banter about “sexy shoes” toward the end of his performance) made fans like my Mom long for the old Al Green (“Now that little one at the end could blow!”). The Al that turned up at Carnegie Hall last Friday night was neither fair nor fowl. His madhatter mix of earnest balladeering (Green even semi-scolded an over-zealous fan who, at one point, threw him off his lyrical game at one point) while cutting up and leading a never-ending sing-a-long was clearly disappointing to some of the crowd who, like my Mom, fondly recall all that was magical about Al in his prime—especially his ability to find the warm center of a keyboard-drenched groove and massage it—and you—into pure release. The court-jester reverend comes off more as part non-sinister Joker and part English-speaking Pootie Tang, chuckling at his own jokes, flirting with mischief, and speaking earnestly on a completely different wavelength to his audience. Much of this makes Green something of a puzzle to incredulous younger listeners like my ex-partner (10 years my junior) who asked me on more than one occasion why I liked Al Green (he also gave me an amazing Japanese import DVD of Green in the studio… so thanks if you’re out there…). That’s a question that threw me off at first, but eventually it inspired me to think more closely about how to respond to him. The answer hit me over the head while watching Green’s truly old school/new school brother dancers studiously coming forward to do their thing whenever the beat crept higher than on “For the Good Times.” Sporting tuxes, meticulous cornrow dos, and some easy-as-summer breeze choreographed moves, Green’s dancers were all business about their play while the Reverend bobbed and weaved around and through singing (some? most?) of the verses of his string of classics. I’d never laughed with a singer so much at a show—even if I wasn’t sure half of the time what we were laughing at or for or about. The sheer pleasure of living? The miracle of making music? How ‘bout the fact that the Reverend, in his own special way—is continuing to teach us some new tricks about our emotional selves—by hamming it up, and reveling in the ridiculously ineffable, illogical language of love and happiness. -Daphne Brooks