Friday, July 08, 2016

Fingersnaps, Real Love and No Drama

When the young poets and artists at my Chicago book talk finger-snapped in response to something I had to say about Mary J. Blige's vision, I thought it was some idiosyncratic holdover from the beatnik coffee shop (the bookstore was part coffee shop after all). When I heard everyone doing it at the underground hip hop/poetry slam later that evening, I realized it was bigger than that. When I was speaking to a group of middle school students in Memphis, and they started doing it, I realized I was really out of touch.

Still, each time, it was something more than novel and more than nice. It was beautiful and encouraging. I quickly got, when those fingers snapped, we were hearing each other. When those fingers snapped, Chicago and Memphis resonated off one another.

That was meaningful, because the two visits (each with multiple "events") had been pretty different.

Talking in Chicago, I was thrilled to have a journalist ask me what I learned about Blige's process. That got to the heart of what I'd hoped to achieve from the beginning--to describe this artist as an artist, rather than the way pop culture figures, particularly women, are more often described--as Superwomen, as Horatio Alger stories or as fodder for gossip. Though the one reason I would have liked to have had access to Blige would be to get deeper into that answer, my research and my interviews yielded a number of answers, most notably that Blige is a generous collaborationist, especially as she's grown, humble enough to consistently embrace the scariest challenges as opportunities. Of all the interviews I read or collected, nothing showed that trait more clearly than the story told by the Higgens sisters songwriting team, who described how struck they were by Blige's openness, thoughtfulness and conscientiousness. (Give or take my couple hundred page essay, it's those varied testimonials that make me hope Blige does read the book.)

A theme that stood out in Chicago was just how important it is that Blige found a way to escape the trap of being a tragic blues figure, Blige's focus since about September 11, 2001. And this theme fed directly into one of Chicago's central questions. When the industry itself has become a tragic shadow of itself, what is the fan's responsibility to answer the call of the music, the call for community. Afterward, at a beautiful underground event called TheRAPy 101--part three rap features, part discussion of style and philosophy, part open poetry reading and hip hop jam--it hit me that the whole of the evening was helping me to better understand the title of my book, Real Love, No Drama. All of us in the room were chasing and grasping a real world concept of love, all of us shielded for those few hours from the drama outside (57 shootings that weekend in the city), all of us recharging to go back out into the world.

The students at Memphis's Soulsville Charter School deepened that meaning. I talked to a Stax Music Academy group and then a work-oriented Mployee summer program, over a hundred students total, and they schooled me in all kinds of ways. We watched the "No More Drama" video together (a video that came out before some of them were born), and they told me (alongside great input by their teachers) how that music and that video carried forward both the traditions of hip hop and soul. First, they described those forms of music in non-musical terms--as ways of knowing who you are and ways of living in the world around you. Of course they could also tell me the technical elements--the montage of sounds,  the gospel in the vocals and the overall build of the song--but they told me so much more than all that. They saw the way Blige used the video to highlight the connections between Blacks and whites and Latinos, and they recognized the way that connection extended to the call for an end of war. When we made those connections, that was when the fingers started snapping.

The students were very open about how they connected to the ideas in the song. I have to thank instructor Harry Cash for being every bit the hype man we all needed. He asked the students to raise their hands if they knew drama in their friendships, and in their family lives, and in their school. At each call, the room would explode with hands in the air. (Eddie Floyd couldn't have got more hands in the air.) In the Mployees group, it was heartbreaking when Cash asked the packed room how many of the kids had lost friends to the drama in the streets--virtually every hand went up.

But even more importantly, some soft spoken young men and women went to great pains to define just what drama meant and how it tied all of these struggles (in the world and in their lives) together. They explained that "no more drama" meant not to let your emotions get the best of you, to not just react to what's going on but find a way to reflect on the situation and strategize a way to solve these problems. One young woman in the back of the room told us she heard her own voice in Mary's. She heard the pain she felt; she heard the loss of two dear friends. To this young woman, the call for "no more drama" was "what it means to live as a young Black woman in this world."

That hit me hard because it so clearly echoed something a woman named Alexis Baptist said to me during an interview with Atlanta's WRFG (for a show called Class Chronicles). Some backstory... When I learned Ms. Baptist was going to interview me, I was more than a little starstruck. We didn't know each other, but I'd known who she was since about 1990 when I first saw her in a film called Takeover, about homeless people organizing in different parts of the country. A teenager perhaps a couple of years younger than Blige at the time, Baptist had been one of the most eloquent spokespersons for the cause. The movie made a big impression on me, and I'd been in touch with the movement from that day forward, but I didn't know Ms. Baptist. When Alexis interviewed me and told me how Mary helped her find who she was over the years, I couldn't have been more deeply moved. To hear that hurting middle schooler say much the same thing about where she was right now, it was almost too much.

And plenty enough to remind me the real reasons why I write and why I wrote a book about Mary J. Blige. These testimonials sum up for me what music does best, often without even using words. It's certainly what's it's done for me. Like Woody Guthrie once said, I write to repay "the debt I owe." One of the most satisfying outcomes of both of these visits was that they became talks about how much we need each other.

That's appropriate. Blige arrived as a part of the largest women's movement in pop music history. She was immediately draped with the mantle, "Queen of Hip Hop Soul" and embraced the responsibility for the social movements that gave her that title. It's very unlikely Blige sees class consciousness as the key to the future that I do, but she never lets go of her connection to the working class sensibility of her audience. She trusts that connection, and she nurtures it. She takes pride in who she is, and she takes pride in her audience.

For all of those reasons, all of our conversations about Blige wind up being conversations about ourselves, individually and collectively. Though she generally keeps her music secular, this is one way her Pentecostal roots speak most loudly. The question stays on the table, what is our music calling us to do?

There's a kind of answer in that moment when the fingersnaps began to swell in Memphis. It was in the midst of talking about all of this pain, and I found those fingersnaps telling me to just lay it all out there. In a world where all the news is pain and violence and division, our music calls for us to find a way to love and a way to build unity. As the fingersnaps came, I fumbled for the words, but I know my main call was for all of those students to raise their voices in every way they can--the world needs to hear them more than ever.

The fingersnaps told me they were way ahead of me, and I was right where I needed to be. DA

(Note: Thank you to the Guild Complex's Lisa Wagner for the first two pics, both from TheRAPy 101. I have no pictures from our Stax/Soulsville events, but I couldn't resist including a photo of the beautiful students who lend voice to the program.)

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

All Hands on Deck

I received more response to this Facebook status than most things I've written in the past year. Perhaps a blog is a place to put such things.

I was born into a boom economy that is not coming back. There are objective, tangible reasons why that moment in history is behind us, and even mainstream economists have been talking about this for over three decades. We live in a new world that calls us to think in new ways. The voices on my morning news, so intent on killing our way out of each crisis, are all united by the desire to return to a world that doesn't exist. The hope I see is in the great many they don't represent--the majority of my students, co-workers, my friends and neighbors. Everywhere around me, when I look at real people rather than their framed corporate media interpretations, I see love and compassion. I see people who would be happy to move forward into a brave new world of possibility. All of this unthinking reaction is an addiction we have to give up if we are going to find our way out of the middle ages and into the promise of the 21st Century. 

What I hate most about election years is that I know, no matter the nominees, this will be a year sowing division and hate, and it will be driving deep divisions between people who would otherwise get along--worst of all, it will be dividing and conquering people who have more reason than ever before to find unity. That old world's gone, and we need all hands on deck (all races, spiritual beliefs, genders and cultures) if we have any hope of building the new one.

Thursday, November 19, 2015


Named after a Christmas Elf,
Assumed tribute to a hair band from Jersey,
You were our Edward Scissorhands,
Krueger nails clipped,
Became razorblades.

You sat,
Doing that stretch we called your yoga,
And waited,
For attention,
For any privilege at all,
For permission to be present.

You were, after all, a refugee,
From the tyranny of some eugenics experiment
Centuries old;
That long back
And those deer legs
Worked against you,
Gave you relentless pain
And an early death.

Still, thankfulness eases my anger and hurt.

After all,
Without your genetic roulette,
You don't exist--
To be abandoned,
To be adopted,
To be taken for granted,
To be,
Just another dog.

(In fact,
The doggiest dog
We could ever imagine.)

I found myself playing
Eat Your Face
With your sister.
I wasn't very good,
But I tried.
And trying,
I found some better part
Of myself.

You taught me much about love,
About compassion,
About presence,
About persistence.

In the end,
You cheese mooching,
Bombast barking,
Dog hair dust-storm,...

You whale talking,
Hard kissing,
Always game friend,
I miss you.

There's no way to overstate how much,
I'm better
For you.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Message in Her Music (or What Might Make a Book Tour More than Just Another Book Tour)

In less than five months, University of Texas Press will be publishing my first book in twenty years. While I've spent the better part of three years focused on the art of Mary J. Blige, this book is also the logical culmination of my three decades writing about music.

My first published piece for Rock & Rap Confidential drew connections between the segregation of radio formats where I lived in Oklahoma and the open racism at my school. The Klan was leafletting campus, fraternity brothers were donning blackface and serenading their sisters for Plantation Week, and Oklahoma State University's Black Student Union was organizing marches in response. This all happened at the same moment Artists United Against Apartheid made a record, "Sun City," that supported an arts boycott against South Africa. Not only did that record clue me into the reasons Nelson Mandela had been sitting in jail close to three decades, its mix of musicians--from Darlene Love and Nona Hendryx to DJ Kool Herc and Melle Mel to Ray Baretto and Ruben Blades to Lotti Golden and L. Shankar--alerted me to how much truly great music didn't reach my ears because of systemic presumptions about the demographics of artists and the prejudices of their audiences.

Mary J. Blige arrived at a time when hip hop and R&B were challenging countless such assumptions. She also arrived about the time my first child, my eldest daughter, was born, when I was listening to more women artists than men (and more Black women artists than any other group) because they spoke to both my everyday concerns and my social consciousness in a way much contemporary music didn't. Since that time, Mary J. Blige's music has been a good friend, reassuring me and pushing me forward as I try to reconcile my failings with my dreams in a world of economic insecurity and fearful uncertainty.

Writing about Mary J. Blige means writing about art that confronts and overturns assumptions about the significance of popular music and how that music is made. It's art that renders academic any divisions between the personal and the political. It's art that fights the distance between artist and audience. It's popular art that unites around a concept of class consciousness obscured and denied by the main currents of popular culture.

For that reason, when we start selling this book, I'd like to use opportunities to sign the book and speak about the book as ways of talking about, as Mary puts it, the message in the music--the beats, the samples, the most soothing of the vocals and the roughest ones, too. While I worked on it, I met countless people who told me how much Mary meant to them. There was almost always a story behind that--a particular long, dark night, a night Mary helped them to get through. So, I hope we'll get together and talk about these things. My 30 years of teaching writing and writing about what music teaches me have repeatedly shown me it's all really one big story. Just as Mary says every single show that she's thankful for every single fan for allowing her to do what she does best, I think the story I'm trying to tell is really the story of all those fans (myself included) and the artist that binds them together.

Writing about music over the years has brought me into ongoing dialogue with men and women fighting for a better future than the one on the horizon. They're fighting to make their voices heard and to ensure the free speech rights that allow it. They're fighting for healthy food, safe housing, a living wage, accessible health care, environmental justice, compassionate immigration policy, good public schools and clean drinking water. They're fighting for an understanding that Black Lives Matter and that 100,000 Poets, Writers, Musicians and Artists want Change. Mary J. Blige's music speaks to and for millions of people on every front of such struggle.

So, when I'm peddling this book, I would hope we might use that conversation to have more of these conversations. Mary J. Blige's career has been based on tying her struggle to the struggle of her fans, and that call pleads for us to respond in kind. Toward that end, I would greatly appreciate it if anyone who reads my blog might consider ways to invite discussions of this book into the discussions going on in your community. Please let me know what thoughts you have. You can write me here or email me at

As my old friend Ron Casanova used to say,

Through Peace, Love and Understanding...