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Black Men Ski: on the Drizzyfication of Black Music

By Mark Anthony Neal | @NewBlackMan | NewBlackMan (in Exile)

Thursday, January 07, 2016.

The question was forwarded by one of my more astute students, wondering aloud about the general demobilization of Black rebellion in the past generation, and the ways that the “State, has redirected Black aggression onto something other than the intended target,” as represented in the music.  The ensuing discussion, in a class focused on the politics of Black popular culture, led us to an evaluation of what is *not* being heard--and by absence we were not necessarily talking about lyrical content that could easily map onto the Black Lives that Matter--but rather sonic diversity, as in what kind of sounds do we hear, or even more alarmingly, what kinds of sounds do folk not even know that are not hearing?

A perusal of Black radio in the 1970s, or trip to the local mom and pop record store--how’s that for an archaic reference, when even Tower Records is recalled in nostalgia--or even a warm summer evening on The Stoop (the Twitter of the Analog Generation) meant that one would hear voices like Barry White, Isaac Hayes, Teddy Pendergrass (with and without The Bluenotes), or even Joe Simon in regular rotation.  

Who is singing a Black Male Bottom in contemporary R&B?  And while I know some of our more misguided think-piece denizens will want to correlate the lack of the “vocal bass” in contemporary R&B with transitions of Black masculinity and gender in general (as embodying some sort of unquantifiable loss), the reality is that such claims could also be made about the Top.

Who is this generation’s Ted Mills (of Blue Magic Fame), Russell Thompkins, Jr. (of Stylistics Fame), Tony Washington--the queer, out lead singer of The Dynamic Superiors--let alone Philip Bailey and Smokey Robinson or the Soul Man Diva Sylvester? And before anyone responds with The Dream or Raheem DeVaughn, understand we’re talking about an era in which you could not listen to Black radio and not hear a falsetto voice.

Look I love me some “Hotline Bling”, but in the Drizzyfication of contemporary Black music--what we might more appropriately identify as the “Drake Drone,” not to be mistaken for the “Fetty Wap whine"--listeners in the mainstream have been denied full access to the wide range of Black male vocalizations--and thus are denied access to a fuller range of Black emotions and ideas, as conceptualized as sound.

This is not even to consider such issues at the level of genre, where we can, admittedly celebrate the generational collapsing of something that might get called R&B with something that might be called “Hip-Hop,” though neither are what I would call them twenty-years ago, though that honestly is not the problem.  

And it is here that we might consider Mark “Stew” Stewart--Passing Strange in moments of Afro-Diapororic travel, in ways that the late Richard Iton would identify as the ‘R-O-U-T-E-S” of diaspora as opposed to the more nominal roots we set beneath us. Though in another iteration it could be Chocolate Genius aka Marc Anthony Thompson, “Chasing Strange” or as another way to say Negroes--whether they are a problem or not--sitting as it were, reading the news in the Colored Section with Donnie, and never being heard, let alone seen, via any thing that could claim, a public, mainstream affinity with that which gets identified as Blackness.

In 2006 Stew performed “Black Man Ski” in a TED-talk highlighting the queering of being a Black Man in Aspen who happens to ski--this in the years before a Black POTUS or Don Lemon’s emergence  as an arbiter of all things Black (and pathological) on a cable news channel of some note who oroginal lead anchor was a Black man by the name of Bernard Shaw (stew on that for a moment).

“Black Man Ski” also appears on Stew and the Negro Problem’s 2012 recording Making It.  Perhaps as an index of a shift, Drake appears in his 2015 music video “Hotline Bling,”  in a sartorial style that, in passing, might be described as Black Aspen chic--with requisite snow sport movements, ‘cause ain’t nobody really ice-skating in the hood.   The absurdity of Stew’s original image is now writ normative via the body of the requisite Black post-racial subject (of Canadian origins), whose own ability to explore and disclose the emotive interiority of said post-Racial subject, is hailed as novel--and perhaps rightfully so.

But to listen to listen to Stew is to be reminded that one person’s “Rock Musical” was two generations ago, just another of another series of nights on this thing called the Chitlin Circuit; a young Army vet, picking them lines behind the Brothers Isley, and while a few too many would claim that this gentleman did not contribute to this enterprise that we call Black music, despite the fact that his  spirit runs through everyone of of those 3+3 iterations of those Brothers Isley, which no one would deny represents the genius of Black Musical production.

Or three Women from South Jersey and Philadelphia, singing they won’t be fooled again or another Carolina genius--and I’m talking North, as in the same state that produced Coltrane and Nina Simone-- playing in the cosmic slop, and these are just a few markers from the top of somebody’s head, who fucks with an archive that was just as expansive as it was then, as it is now when it’s being curated by Youtube, Pandora or Apple Music.  

Everybody can sing “On My Own” along with Patti, and it might be the unblackest shit she’s done, for those who quantify such things, and what does it mean that somebody will claim it as her closing statement for a career that began in the 1960s and continues now--she on some 21st century version of the chitlin’ circuit, where items from Whole Food sit in the green room, as opposed to the actual chitlins (or her sweet potato pies) that were once the item of choice.  

And we’re not romanticizing the trauma and violence of being Black when the chitlin circuit was really the only way out for a generation of artists who knew they could never, ever leave, but there’s something to be said about the stank and funk, and the squalor and the dankness of Blackness that has all be squeezed out of the most accessible examples of the tradition.

The Weeknd ain’t nothin’ but Ne-Yo with an interesting hairdo, and neither are as interesting as Bobby--"The King of R&B"--Brown was in his prime, and don’t nobody remember Luther Ingram or Johnnie Taylor or Billy Preston or DJ Rogers or Bobby Blue Bland  to name just a few.  Recalling that Bobby Womack once covered Bob Dylan, looking at that Watchtower, about a decade before U2 began to feature the song on tour.  The common link being that gentleman strumming them lines behind the Brothers Isley.

And this is not about the sheer nostalgia of wishin’, ‘cause there ain’t nothin’ wrong with Negroes wishin’,  but allowing the music to take us to the freedom that we imagine, or more apropos perhaps, have not yet imagined--to consider a tradition that not only inspires folk to take to the streets, but to imagine a future and a freedom, where such instances are no longer necessary.  Freedom is about the will to dream it, and the struggle to create the space for that dreaming. Freedom is the late Sekou Sundiata reminding us that we are the dream of  “some slave...whenever they got a little space to climb inside their heads and be free.”


An early draft of this essay was prepared for  the Performing Blackness Symposium: "Stew, The Negro Problem and Passing Strange" curated by Professor Lisa B. Thompson at the University of Texas at Austin.

Black Men Ski: on the Drizzyfication of Black Music

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