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...