"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can break my heart..." Linda McCartney

Posts Tagged ‘Gladys Knight’

One Of These Things Is Not Like The Other

In R&B, Rap Music, Sesame Street, Television on January 9, 2010 at 3:04 am

Seems there’s another Rap versus R&B debate raging.  Does rap music affect the community more than R&B? Hmmm…

I recall listening to the stories my grandmother told.  A woman born in 1908, she annually, deliberately and melodically relived the pain of the “disappearance” of not one but two sons, both of whom (in separate instances, six years apart) rose early in the morning to go to work at the steel mill.  They  never made it back home and were neither seen nor heard from again.

I recall  the sneering, disdainful voices of men, (who knew if they were really police officers or not) as they reduced my proud, educated  but physically small father to a puddle of mutter of “Yes sir” and “no sir” as we made our way by car from the Bronx to Charleston, SC every summer to spend with the grandparents there.

Grandma owned and operated a funeral home.  Her venerated pastor, the Reverend Preleau, owned his church and  the corner grocery store.  Her youngest son owned and operated the neighborhood juke joint.  There was a church and a candy store on every corner.  There was a launderer, several beauty parlors, the numbers runners.  Only time whites came into our little slice was to collect on the penny insurance policies everyone in the neighborhood seemed to have.

The teachers in our school were surrogate parents.  As were any and all neighbors sitting out on their front porches, listening to our speech, observing our behaviors.  No one paid for child care. Everyone, it seemed, was our “cousin.” Our neighborhood was pretty self-sustaining.  Integration was not what was discussed much around grandma’s dinner table.

There was much more conversation whenever a “colored” appeared on TV.  People literally shouted from their windows to announce “colored on TV!” People stopped what they were doing and gathered to watch. Mother and Grandma especially liked Moms Mabley, Nipsey Russell, Louis Armstrong, Judy Pace, Brock Peters, Flip Wilson, Nat King Cole, Bill Cosby, Diahann Carroll, Sammy Davis, Jr., Ivan Dixon, Georg Sanford Brown, Cicely Tyson, Harry Belafonte, Joe Tex, Jackie Wilson, Scatman Crothers— Mahalia Jackson.

We listened intently to Tony Brown, Julian Bond, Jesse Jackson, Dr.King, Malcolm X, John Lewis, Thurgood Marshall.

But the music–  the music was ubiquitous.  It was always, always, always on.  I can’t remember ever awakening to a day without music.  And the music galvanized the community.  It was restorative and painful; inciting and exciting.  It was fun and upbeat.  It was sober and melancholy.  It was silly and serious but most of all it was wholly and completely and uniquely ours.

In 1964, Dr. Martin Luther Jr. delivered the opening address to the Berlin Jazz Festival:

“Jazz speaks for life,” King said. “The blues tell the story of life’s difficulties — and, if you think for a moment, you realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music.”

No one but a Black woman could sound like Aretha Franklin or Tammi Terrell or Gladys Knight or Chaka Khan.  No one other than a Black man could sound like David Ruffin, Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson or Donny Hathaway.  R&B integrated and synthesized the best of jazz, blues, swing and gospel.  Anybody who wasn’t Black at the time could only try to imitate it and failing that, try to squelch it.

R&B will always be associated with the Civil Rights Revolution.  Indeed, R&B is its soundtrack. This is triumphant music, from “Patches” by Clarence Carter, to “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye and all the myriad voices before, during, after and in between. To this day I vividly remember where I was and what I was doing when I first heard “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud),” “Thank You For Lettin’ Me Be Myself,” “Hot Fun In The Summertime” “Respect,” “Ball Of Confusion,” “Respect Yourself,” “A Change Is Gonna Come,” “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” “Living For The City,” “Summertime” (Billy Stewart version)…  So, so, so many songs.

The power, the TRUTH, the authenticity of real instruments and virgin voices influenced the consciousness of the whole country and brought together an entire community, collectively informed and encouraged by a uniquely shared experience– Like one big “Sunday go to meetin’.”

Rap music has its place.  It speaks for a generation and an experience that is truth and authentic to many.  But it’s not spiritually or politically transformative.  Its focus is individual and narcissistic rather than universal and transcendent.

It invites others to merely listen to their sorrow not know it. There is no narrative growth and change. Cadence, technique and technology without the heart.  Rap is the People Magazine of “music” (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Rap says ‘If you buy this, I get money,’ while R&B says ‘If you feel like I do, we can all be free.”

R&B is voice.  It is a soul.  It is a living soul– with voice.  It is connected to a history that traversed continents and centuries, took lives and liberties,  and required legislation and the law (gradually, in fits and starts), to change.

One thing is not necessarily better than the other, but to use a line from Sesame Street “one of these things is not like the other.”  Oil is not like water however both may successfully fulfill a specific purpose.  Which now is  more affecting than the other?   The one that performs best when the need is most great.

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