Thursday, August 07, 2008
Brilliant black musician, once promising disappears in a vortex of drugs alcohol, public expectation and the dark side of his or her own genius. I thought of my first sentence not because of Sly Stone, Albert Ayler, Rick James, Sam Cooke, Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Hartman, and Billie Holiday, but because of D’Angelo. In an uncharacteristically poignant article in the August issue of Spin, the magazine tried to track down the artist, a man who all but disappeared from the pop universe only years after he and his abs pretty much dominated it with his “Untitled” video, that song from his masterpiece, Voodoo (for my money, the only album in league with Radiohead’s Kid A for album of the decade). The article was depressing enough not only in its depiction of D’Angelo’s tragic fall and halfhearted attempts at rise, but also of the other casualties of 90’s hard to classify black music: Lauryn Hill and Maxwell. But what really depressed me was this:
“When I create things I almost have to dumb it down a little, because low record sales for me is seen like a failure. The new minstrel movement in hip-hop doesn’t allow the audience to believe the artist is smart. I love Kid A, but I don’t think D’Angelo would be allowed to sing ‘Cut the kids in half’ over and over and be taken seriously. It’d be like, ‘What’s wrong with that boy?’”
That was a quote from Questlove, drummer and creative force behind the Roots, one of the most respected bands in rock. I cannot imagine a quote that depressed me more this year. Fine, somebody out there must be buying Steppin fetch—er, Soulja Boy, but are we really still doing this? Have we really gone such a short distance that intelligence is still snubbed or looked upon with suspicion, if not outright hostility? It’s easy to lay the blame at hip-hop but rap made bands like A Tribe Called Quest, Outkast, Fugees and the Roots. But why in 2008 do people who transcend any form of formula still have to play dumb?
I remember talking to friend back in Jamaica who was appalled when I told her that back in school I played dumb to keep friends. It didn’t work of course but that didn’t stop me from setting my mind on dim when I entered the workplace, even when I went to church, never the most welcoming the place for any sort of brain. But can we talk about this? Until I read this article I thought I was one of few people hit with the pressure of dimming myself so that my “people’ can get it. Of all the interviews I’ve had the most stupid was from a fellow Jamaican who couldn’t think of something more profound than “did you write the book to get girls?” I complained and was told that it was all about publicity and fun and sometimes one had to play the game. What game was that actually, pin the tail on the dumb-ass-sex-mad Negro? I was offended by the question. I’m as irreverent as anybody and pride myself on a perverted sense of humour, but I bristle at stupidity and go apeshit at dumbness commoditized and thrust upon me. I can’t even think of a musician who wouldn’t find that question ridiculous. But it took me back to an earlier time when the slighter you were, the more normal you were because in black communities all over there’s still nothing more freaky than intelligence. This probably explains the colossal failure of that whole generation of smart, spunky black female musicians who rose up in the early 90’s. Even Joi, whose story is more frustrating than most gave up after trying everything, including remaking herself into the pop bimbo she was probably pressured to be.
Are we really still allergic to intelligence? Are we so stuck on formula that anyone who breaks it must suffer? How did Prince and Andre 3000 get away with it, by imitating rockers? I’ve been to readings where I push up the more scandalous parts of my novels largely because I’m dealing with an audience that does not know nor will ever care what existential struggle means. Chris Rock nailed this generation in his landmark routine known funnily enough as “The Routine” where he went where nobody did since Richard Pryor, distinguishing between black people and niggers. Rock squashed nerve after nerve after nerve but he left his masterstroke for last. “If there was one thing niggers love the most and were proud of the most, it was to NOT KNOW.” True blackness was measured by how little you knew and how less you cared. People like myself and most of my friends could only nod and laugh because we’ve all been there, accused of playing white because we knew the capital of Zaire and that Titus may be the most misunderstood of Shakespeare’s plays. We see it whenever we criticize a sentimentalist panderer like Tyler Perry and receive the onslaught of attack right afterwards.
My problem is that this ultimately infects both ways. I’m always disappointed when I have to dumb myself down, but it also creates in me my own prejudice where when I run into black audiences or groups or people and immediately set myself on dim and try to keep the TS Elliot and Chuck D quotes to a minimum. I went to dinner with authors Mat Johnson, Victor Lavalle and some others last January and almost hit the floor when discussion immediately turned to favourite tracks on the new Radiohead album. I had to confront my own prejudice right there and then, surprised that I still had them. But then I realized these writers were in the same boat I’m in, writing out on a limb with challenging literary fiction (Lavalle’s The Ecstatic, Johnson’s recent Incognegro) despite knowing how easy it is to shut up, shut down and write Blacka Da Berry, Chocolate Desire Part 3. We all know how it feels, reading at a black bookstore and being told by the owner what a difficult sell you are. We all know the feeling of doing a good reading, answering good questions and still watching the audience going off to buy Omar Tyree or whichever rapper’s mom just put out a book.
Don’t get me wrong, stupidity doesn’t discriminate. People buy US, Star and Globe, magazines of such dubious worth that a typical article would use, “but we believe” or “One can only assume” as declarative statements. In other words white people can be pretty damn stupid too. But it’s the glorification of ignorance, the association of dimness with your degree of blackness that troubles me. It bothers me that Questlove has to dumb things down because we won’t get it. It saddens me that D’Angelo will face a horde of people who only care if he still has his abs. I’m worried about the masterpieces I will never get to listen to because we’re not ready. And I’m, horrified that maybe, just maybe, the people out there don’t care anyway.