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By I. Augustus Durham | @IMeansWhatISays | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)

 


Photo: Andrew Burton


Thursday, May 07, 2015.

 

The Super Fly soundtrack is a classic for the genre of funk/soul music, and a benchmark for the black cinema score, akin to Isaac Hayes’s Shaft or Aretha Franklin’s Sparkle. Therefore, when perusing his track list, Curtis Mayfield could have chosen any number of songs as Soul Train “fare” for his January 6, 1973 appearance—blue-light special “Give Me Your Love (Love Song)” (my JAM!), funk-laced “Pusherman”, or “Little Child Runnin’ Wild”. Instead, Mayfield performed, understandably, the title track, “Superfly”, and the first single “Freddie’s Dead”, the soundtrack’s most melancholic offering.

 

Even Wikipedia suggests, “[t]he arrangement is driven by . . . a melancholy string orchestration.” But the most intriguing aspect of the “Freddie’s Dead” performance is that regardless of its accouterments, young, gifted and black folks—natural-haired and crop-topped—dance! Collectively bopping. Rhythmically isolating. They dance to the funeral dirge sitting in the pocket.

 

Surmising what to say here amidst the occurrences in Baltimore, I kept arriving at Mayfield’s Zodiac twoness (during the Soul Train interview, Jennifer Boykin asks Mayfield’s sign: Gemini!), which could easily be considered prophetic, and the melancholic genius of his episodic B-selection from the vinyl’s A-Side. Having heard the full interview, one presumes that if she theorizes Freddie Gray’s death, then Baltimore becomes the milieu for the Mayfield interview’s intelligibility. Although The Wire never conjures glitter or gold, the Baltimore televised during those five seasons elicits (post)modern double consciousness insofar as perhaps viewers never took seriously that serial life is not but a dream for Freddie, his kith and kin, even on HBO where a high cost is charged to telecast what many deem “low living”.

 

Nevertheless, the song’s melancholy emerges through lyrical inversion in Erykah Badu’s “Master Teacher”. Mayfield sings, “All I want is some piece of mind/With a little love I’m trying to find/This could be such a beautiful world/ . . .”. Erykah reconfigures Curtis: “I am known to stay awake/A beautiful world I’m trying to find/I’ve been in search of myself/A beautiful world is just too hard for me to find/Said it’s just too hard for me to find/I’m in the search of something new/Searching in me, searching inside you (and that’s for real)/What if there was no niggas only master teachers?/I stay woke”; Curtis echoes “dreams”. If one staged an intervention around niggas (and authenticity) via R. A. T. Judy (1994) to address why Freddie(Gray)’s dead, death by eye contact maps a long history of the “nigga” as “badman”: “nigga is misread as nigger. . . . The nigga of hard core blurs with the gang-banger, mack daddy, new-jack, and drug-dealer, becoming an index of the moral despair engendered by a thoroughly dehumanizing oppression, and hence inevitably bearing a trace of that dehumanization” (Judy 217).

 

If the exegesis is correct, as “the eye”/I. sees it, Freddie was “asking for it” by daring to even look at “the man”: treatment like a rag doll enfolded upon itself; doubling his back as a do-over of the double bind; boxing him in crateless as Brown, Henry rethought; breaking his neck, but not like Busta, because one’s life is the ultimate cost of his encoding as a “nigga”, even if the aggressor meant nigger. All the while, many never interrogate whether the people who read Freddie as such, vis-à-vis Nas, require decoding themselves.

 

But is this our newest obstacle, which honestly and melancholically finds its rehearsal again here: have we always and ever misread the victim instead of convening a reading circle about the “victor”? The perpetrators, and others like them, that led to Freddie being dead never conceive of him as a master teacher because they consistently enter bastions of power deeply invested in civilizing “us” through what James Cone calls, via lynching, “public service announcements”, whether one of “us” attends UVA, plays with a toy gun in a nearby park, experiences (black) social life with her peers only to be shot in the head, or, by stunning subterfuge, encounters “the machine” that publicly boycotts any hint of its attachment to fostering “authenticity”, even in the face of a historicized apparatus set up by “dem” to capture “we”—a noose—, by suggesting that such a hateful occasion was “a result of ignorance and bad judgment”, only to proceed in publishing an open letter from the “victor” where his salutation is not even addressed to aggrieved community. It is quite amazing how the powerful protect the very ones who continuously ruin their brand . . .

 

I digress.

 

Freddie’s death has awakened in many that they are sick and tired like Fannie Lou, and as much as it was a small minority of the “minority” who broke with the “black protest tradition” and “looted”, according to the always “truthful” media that “keeps them honest”, the perpetrators utilize that same rhetoric to qualify the badmen who do not know how to properly serve and protect, thus creating all things “equal”. Freddie as master teacher gives us the opportunity to listen anew to Curtis and Erykah making musical decisions that signal mastery: for Curtis, the key change; for Erykah, the newness after the count. This is to say, maybe Curtis chooses to perform “Freddie’s Dead” because he comprehends that the black aesthetic tradition, at its best, turns mourning—our collective melancholy—into dancing, trades in sackcloth and ashes as the grave clothes you wore during the work week only to put on joy and gladness when your humanity was affirmed by your brothers and sisters once every seven days, even while tripping the light fantastic.

 

This twoness is blackness, which is to say humanness. And yet, the sobering conundrum left in the wake of Freddie being dead is: if Freddie is a Baduian master teacher, how many more teachable moments have to be convened on black bodies before our peers in the classroom called society stay woke? Truly everything depends on that awoke-ness because that is indeed the difference between the makings, or breakings, of us all . . . namely you!

 

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I. Augustus Durham is a third-year doctoral candidate in English at Duke University. His work focuses on blackness, melancholy and genius.

 

Freddie (Gray)’s Dead

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