Hell Yeah, There’s Still Slam-Banging Black Music

Forget namby-pamby post-racialism. Raise your fist and nod your head to the beat.

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As a rule, black folk have not always been well-served by labeling, 'tis true. Labels have not always been our friends. Labels can get you hurt; labels can get you enslaved; labels can get you sterilized; labels can get you disowned, evicted, Tuskegee experimented; labels can get you misunderstood and miseducated.

Still, not all labels are created equal or are intent on spreading mischief and inequality around. Some labels we take more kindly to than others. “My n*gga” comes to mind. So does the one we adopted in the 1960s when we came to our senses and decided we'd rather be called “blacks” than Negroes—this just minutes after we'd gotten the media to anthropologically uppercase the “N” of our now-defunct tribal name. American-born black folk are the only black folk on the planet without a country to unambivalently call their own. (Yes, many of us thought we weren't ambivalent anymore on Nov. 4, 2008, but seeing 60,000 Americans of paler hue screaming to get their country “back” from their Hawaiian-born president has revived darky ambivalence about American citizenship all over again.) This ambivalence is why we decided in the 1960s to affect a revolution of the mind and make being black (and, after Heidegger, “Black Being”) its own nation-state. At which point everything black folk thought and did became a thing of beauty and something to get all loud and proud about—black style, black dance, black comedy, black cuisine, black consciousness, black astrophysics, black architecture and most especially black music. Simply put, we woke up one morning in the late ‘60s, turned the whole world black—and then looked upon our creation and decided it was better than good; it was superbad. We didn't have a choice really; Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali, Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Miles Davis were the starting five on our dream team.

Now our good brother Cord Jefferson is asking whether black music is still applicable to the music made by our people today. I have to first say being old-school as a furthermucker, I get suspicious when folk want to de-racialize and de-black-ify things, which are so clearly and irrefutably pro-blackenacious. We've recently had an epidemic run up on all things black, a post-up on black as it were, with newfangled terminology like post-racial and post-black coming around these parts trying to insinuate that we can now move past the idea of blacknuss, (how Rahsaan Roland Kirk spelled it) as the battle cry of our Republic.

While I like parsing race semantics as much as the next philologist (not to be confused with a cat who studies all things outta Philly) at a certain point, one has to just know when you've entered the realm of the naively unscientific, the demonstrably ahistorical and the patently absurd. Dispensing with the rubric, black music is clearly such an endeavor where we'd risk not only losing our soul but our rhetorical edge and swagger and in the name of whut, Negro, whut? Some lame, nebulous and namby-pamby post-racialism, that's what. As a power-fisted catchall, black music not only still rocks the bells and your world but enjoys the privileges and benefits of being the only term that indexes, codifies and gathers force from the entire range of musical practices produced by people of African descent for thousands of years worldwide. It's also the only one that immediately brings the politics of the music into the conversation slam-bang. (“N****r music” does this as well but only among select, discriminating company, or if you're a member of the White Citizens’ Council circa 1957 and enjoy tossing Chuck Berry and Little Richard 78s into bonfires.)

Generally speaking, when you put black in front of anything, you signify to the world that you’re ready to rumble over it. When you put “black” before “music” though, you also get to show nothing but love to all the many splendored forms of genius that comprise the total black music matrix: spirituals, gospel, classic blues, Delta blues, Chicago blues, Piedmont blues, ragtime, jazz, big band swing, bebop, doowop, ska, zydeco, free jazz, mambo, hard-core, heavy metal, hip-hop, dub, funk, rock and roll, Southern soul, rhythm and blues, house, krunk, techno, Motown, contemporary R&B, juju, reggae, tango, calypso, kweito, mbaqanga, reggaeton, drum ‘n bass, trip-hop, Afrobeat, bounce, ra-ra, Yoruba, Dogon, Gnawa, bomba, salsa, zouk, tambo—and it don't stop.

Consider this the Pan-Afrikanist definition of black music: One pointing up a historical continuum that harkens back, as the entire human race does, to our species’ beginnings in the Motherland, and specifically back to the first folk to make music, art, love and prayer on earth, the San Khoi of Southwestern Africa, also known as the Bush people of the Kalahari—and a people whose own music sounds like they prefigured everything from Mozart to Motown.

Now we could get mighty long-winded and claim all these stylings as the inventions of people of African descent. But we could also point out that all of that music betrays remarkably analogous approaches to melody, rhythm, timbre and harmony—and that many generations of learned musicologists hear these mutual characteristics as peculiarly Negroidal and African in origin. We further suggest that if upon hearing this music, you suddenly get the urge to jump out on the dance floor and express yourself, get a grip. Because it would behoove your ass to see what folk of local origin are aerodynamically and synchronically doing with their bodies while said music is playing. That way you A) know what time it is B) check yourself before you wreck yourself, unless that is your intention and your God given, drunken and/or spastic right and C) don't hurt nobody. We've personally found that a combination of the hip-hop head nod and the white-boy shuffle works in situations where the locals are more adept but one doesn't want to look all stiff while hot music and ting (sic) are going down.

Brother Cord has also raised the question of whether black music is still black if people who are not black are considered to be playing black music, too. Why, he asks, aren't those non-Kantor singing, non-Hebrew or Yiddish-rhyming Beastie Boys thought of as making “Jewish music”? Two answers to this non-conundrum come to mind. One is from that esteemed musicologist Brother Wynton Marsalis who pointed out that anybody in the world today who plays music with a steady backbeat is playing African-American music, no matter whether they're Korean, Appalachian, Ashkenazi, Aleutian, Swedish, whatever. That's because “backbeat” is an African-American invention. (So is the sound of “country music,” but that’s a whole other essay). I'm also reminded of something Brother KRS One once said in response to whether American-born black folk could rightly be described as Africans: “Just because you put kittens in the oven, it doesn’t mean you get biscuits.” I don't rightly know what that means either, but it sounds deep and oddly apropos. Especially for a people like ours who seem destined to always be stuck in America somewhere in-between something legitimate and something questionably Other—like “First African-American President” or “Rabid Socialist,” like “Skip Gates” or “Born Suspect,” like “Facebook Friend” or “Birther.”

It's in times of mass hysteria and racial confusion like these that I take great comfort in the certainty that all we got to do in America is stay black and die, and that whether we're listening to Miriam Makeba, Chaka Khan, Oumou Sangare, Joni Mitchell, Celia Cruz, Joan Jett, Etta James or Susana Baca, we're listening to a spin on (per the Art Ensemble of Chicago's fabulous term) “Great Black Music, Ancient and To The Future.”

Greg Tate is a writer and musician who lives in Harlem. He is currently working on a book about the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, for Riverhead Press.

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