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By Mark Anthony Neal | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)


Monday, July 30, 2012.


In his review of Amiri Baraka’s Blues People, Ralph Ellison famously accused Baraka of giving The Blues…the blues.  Ellison was of the belief that art should stand on its own, a point of view recently echoed by scholar Joan Morgan, who suggested that her only expectation of artists is that they produce the best art they were capable of.  Baraka, in comparison, was driven by other concerns; the expectation that Black art, particularly music, should reflect and inspire the political possibilities; that is should function as a form of protest and agitation for those who would never have the platform to “name evil in the world.”  It was an old debate when Ellison and Baraka took it up, nearly forty years after Langston Hughes (“The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”) and George S. Schuler (“The Negro Art-Hokum”) debated whether there was such as thing as Black art at all, let alone a political Black art.


The irony of contemporary mainstream Black music, is that there are too few examples that uphold the integrity of the art or a tradition of protest, let alone the ability to do both.  And contrary to popular belief, rap music is far from being the worse offender.  However clunky and messy Rihanna and Nicki Minaj’s devotion may be to the carnival-esque, its a welcome counter to the bland have your “pie-in-the-sky-in-your-new-Lexus” that is found in most contemporary Gospel music. Rihanna and Minaj don’t need to be silenced, they just need access to more dynamic visual-media platforms (so say Greg Tate) and some serious engagement with the work of Katherine Dunham, Carmen De Lavallade, and Grace Jones (to name a few).


Much of the criticism targeted at Rihanna and Minaj has much to do with their hyper-visibility within corporate media structures that has long figured out the bottom-line value of spectacles of blackness; how else do you explain Basketball Wives and Love and Hip-Hop.  Fact is, there are no legitimate measures to make claims that Black music is fundamentally worse now than it has been during previous generations (let alone a concrete criteria for what we might define as “worse).  What is true is that it is much more difficult to find what some might claim as “better” music, owing to many factors, including the fact that what have historically been trusted media outlets within our own communities cannot be easily distinguished from the very corporate entities that are exploiting our talents and our desires (and yes, we are complicit) in the first place—despite what Tom Joyner, Cathy Hughes and Debra Lee tell you.


You can’t claim to speak for “the people,” while running ads from predatory lenders and companies that support (one step removed) “Shoot First” and Voter Disenfranchisement laws, like State Farm, who months after Trayvon Martin’s shooting death, are still tethered to ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Company), an entity largely responsible for the introduction of bills regarding “Shoot First” laws in State legislatures.




Alison Crockett will never claim to sing “for the people,”  yet with her new recording, Mommy, What’s a Depression?, in the spirit of the Occupy Movement, literally occupies Black music on behalf  of the myriad issues that affect the everyday lives of folk who can never, legitimately, hope to benefit from the lives of the so-called 1%.  With it’s double-worded title—a nod to economic realities that have looked like a depression for many even before the 2008 economic crash and the mental health issues that afflict far too many brilliant and productive citizens—Mommy, What’s a Depression? recalls a time when Black music captured the full range of human emotions, instead of simply our desires to be desired and to consume and be consumed.  As Crockett notes on her blog Diva Against Insanity “I thought real long and hard about what I wanted to say with this record…The point is that on this record I'm trying to make more than just music. On this record I want to reach your brain (or at least your subconscious) even as it makes you move your behind.”


To be sure when an artist starts talking about “more than just music” it rarely inspires the belief that aesthetics will outweigh dogma and ideology (check KRS-One’s oeuvre for a reference); Marvin Gaye was most explicitly concerned with the artistic value of What’s Going On?, not the goal of recording, what is arguably, the most perfect balance of pop and politics.  In the case of Crockett, it is to her credit that she never loses sight of that balance; a balance that has been cultivated throughout her career on recordings like On Becoming a Woman (2003) and the phenomenal Bare (2007).  Indeed, part of her rationale for launching a blog was to offer a broader context for her music: “I think of the blog as an extension of [Mommy, What’s a Depression?]; I found I have so much more to say than I could put into lyrics and sounds.”


Crockett’s musical ideas find a wide range of expression.  To call her an R&B vocalist would be too limiting; to call her a Soul artist is too conjure a tradition she is indebted to, but  not defined by.  On Mommy, What’s a Depression? Crockett’s gestures to Go-Go, Jazz, Santigold-styled Funk, gut-bucket Blues, Trip-Hop, Tin-Pan Alley, and what I like to refer to as “Cosmopolitan Soul” (see Foreign Exchange or Julie Dexter).  Like her previous recordings where she’s covered pop-Soul icons like Janet Jackson (“When I Think of You”) and Sade (“Love is Stronger Than Pride” or classic Soul recordings—Crockett’s stripped version of “Isn’t She Lovely” would bring Stevie Wonder to tears—Crockett is not afraid to take on a giant or two.  On Mommy, What’s a Depression, that honor goes to Donny Hathaway, as Crockett covers his version of the Gary McFarland penned “Sack Full of Dream” (also previously recorded by Grady Tate and most recently pianist Onaje Allan Gumbs with vocals by actor Obba Babatunde).


Thematically, Crockett takes aim at the 1% on tracks like “Gentrification” and American imperialism on the track “My Man’s Gone Now,” which in the spirit of non-partisanship, holds both President’s Bush and Obama accountable.  On “Talkin Like You Know,” Crockett takes on  “professional” pundits: “objective my ass, you don’t give a damn,” replete with a Go-Go Beat (and shout-out to the late Little Benny), making explicit that s, he is offering a critique to the political culture of Washington, DC and, and acknowledging how localized musical forms like Go-Go offer critical resistance.


Nowhere is Crockett’s vision most sharp than on her update of Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues” with “Trouble in the Lowlands (Backwater Blues).” With a nod also to Gil Scott-Heron’s “H2o Blues,” “Trouble in the Lowlands” is a tribute to the survivors of Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf region oil spill, featuring comments from Presidents #43 & #44 (again in the spirit of non-partisanship) about both “natural” disasters--wrapped around laugh tracks to highlight just how absurd the Federal Government’s response was in both cases.


Using “Backwater Blues” as a prime example, part of the brilliance of Crockett’s Mommy, What’s a Depression?, is her ability to use music to highlight the cyclical nature of the trauma many in America are experiencing.  In adding her voice to the “Dream Act” generation, Crockett’s reaches back to an old composition “The Old Country,” originally recorded on a Nancy Wilson/Julian “Cannonball” Adderley collaboration from 1961, which featured lyrics by Curtis Lewis—a popular Black composer from the era of Tin Pan Alley—and music by Adderley.  The song, in Crockett’s hands, makes clear the connection between the history of citizenship and origin in the United States.  As Crockett writes, “I really love the song because I believe it's a story about our country: immigration.  With the exception of us black folks whose ancestors got off a different kind of boat, almost everyone else in this country has an ‘old country’.” 


Crockett, makes direct links to the Great Depression of the 1930s with the medley of the Gershwins’ “They All Laughed” (1937), Harold Arlen’s “I’ve Got the World on a String” (1932) and Bob Thiele’s hopeful “What a Wonderful World,” originally recorded in 1968 by Louis Armstrong in a gesture towards racial harmony in the midst of the Black Power era.  Thiele was the longtime head of Impulse Records, where he worked with John Coltrane and Oliver Nelson, among many, and later his own Flying Dutchmen Records, which was the recording home of Gil Scott Heron early in his career.  All three songs represent efforts in their historic moments, to divert attention away from the social and economic crises of the time.  Reflecting the mediated sonic quality of the song—recorded as if on what would have been inferior audio equipment from the 1930s—Crockett interjects her own views into the narrative, albeit comically, effective undermining the rosy view that the songs’ composers and lyricists intended (“damn trickle down economics | been thirty years and ain't nothing trickled down to me yet”).


Other standouts on Mommy, What’s a Depression?  include “I Am a Million,” “H-U-M-a-N” and “Come Back as a Flower” which features spoken-word artist Ursula Rucker. The latter track is a truly obscure cover from Stevie Wonder’s oft-dismissed The Secret Life of Plants, (1979) though Francesca Royster’s forthcoming book Sounding Like a No-No: Queer Sounds and Eccentric Acts in the Post-Soul Era (University of Minnesota Press), should put the album in its proper context.  Crockett’s version of the song, featuring the multi-tracking of her vocals, has the feel of the fictitious Sweet Honey in the Rock Do the Stevie Wonder Songbook.


It does a disservice to Alison Crockett’s talents and art, to reduce Mommy, What’s a Depression? to a protest album;  it is so much more.  The shame is that so few will ever know, just how much more.


Mark Anthony Neal is the author of five books including the forthcoming "Looking for Leroy: (Il)Legible Black Masculinities" (New York University Press) and Professor of African & African-American Studies at Duke University. He is founder and managing editor of NewBlackman and host of the weekly webcast Left of Black. Follow him on Twitter @NewBlackMan.


Not Just Another Protest Album: Alison Crockett’s ‘Mommy, What’s a Depression?’

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