Luther Is Drag

The Death of Vandross

by Diepiriye Kuku

22 September 2009


To “Luther” a beat

To “Luther” a beat
Fantasia’s song ends were fans really begin. Imagine listening to a song on the radio with a group of friends. At first, note how we all pipe up and cheer. Like the game show Name That Tune, fans know the song from the first note. One might snap her fingers, and another might jump up and start the two-step, waiting for the beat to drop. And if someone like Fantasia is your friend, one might even start singing; yet we all know the lyrics and, most importantly, the riffs. By the bridge, everybody is bumping their heads; the chorus is so tough, and gravity pulls that beat down from a head bop to the pelvis were we might start to jam.

Everybody is crooning by the end of the song, and certainly by the time Luther starts what seems like an Ella Fitzgerald style Be-Bop riff: Luther bounces “B-b-b-b-baby” between his lips. Trying to copy him is a feat—not everyone can do it—and that’s also why he is Luther Vandross, meaning he could do it, and as a fan, he loved it. As a humanitarian, he shared.

And it’s Fantasia’s own Be-Bop “B-b-b-b-baby” that polishes off the Luther crowning of this remake. Again, we, alongside Luther, are aficionados of this music. It’s like Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater director Judith Jamison opens her choreography in Love Stories: “Black people dance at home.” After the tune on the radio does its bit, Fantasia lays in with:

I love my man. I need my man. Take care of my man ... I get a little concerned about it. I get a little upset sometimes. ‘Cause if you ever think I’ma let you take away what God has given me, you betta think again!

By this point, Fantasia is screaming, something Luther never did. Luther yelled, crooned, hummed, moaned, groaned, belted, trilled, and colored most of his notes, but he’s not a screamer. Yet this is Fantasia’s version, and in true Luther form, she’s gotta do her thang. It’s a fierce cover where she adlibs the end. Her girlfriends can be heard in the background egging her on, “That’s right…” one says. “She sho’ betta…” smirks another. Googling lyrics for this song are of no use as few have bothered to give this music a clear listen; this music is way too bad. It’s the individual diversity that makes the Griot; otherwise the stories are all the same.

I don’t need no cure
All of this music can be said to be Luthered genres of Gospel, which, along with Blues, is itself a Luthered genre of Negro spirituals. While Mariah Carey is the sampling queen, she really Luthered one of her very few straight covers. Arranged by Mariah, alongside Corey Rooney and Dru Hill, our diva partnered with 90s Soul balladeers Dru Hill to bring out the very best of Prince’s 1984 The Beautiful Ones; this song represents yet another reason why the album Purple Rain reigns influential.

It’s eerie how Dru Hill wails “why oh why” over and over, Mariah backing him up almost ethereally as she goes way high while the gentleman swings low; their contrast almost competes with one another, yet ultimately compliments their riffing. It sends chills right down the spine. “The melody is strangely hypnotic,” explains the blogger otherwisecommitted in listing the diva’s top ten favorites, “adding a touch of musical menace to the melodrama halfway through the song, where Mariah traded callouts with Dru Hill, trying to convince him of her love.”

Mariah records few of the songs she Luthers, preferring to devote these tunes to her fans, and hence does so in concerts. Mariah Luthered SOS Band’s Just Be Good to Me and addresses Aretha as “incomparable” to introduce her version of “Don’t Play that Song for Me.” Yet the hands down most dramatic covering of Mariah as the modern diva of Luthering was her classic performance at VH1’s Diva’s Live.

At 2000’s Divas, one of many of Mariah’s appearances on the famed franchise, girlfriend paid homage to the reigning diva that night, the Boss Miss Diana Ross. Mariah opened her performance with Love Hangover. Then, as if tailor-made for her gay male fans, this diva takes off into whisking Ross’ definitive disco bass riff with her own hit “Heartbreaker” before polishing off the tune by blending in “Love to Love You Baby” by Disco diva originale, Donna Summer. Talk about fierce. 

For fans, Luther’s definitive Luthering, however, is “Superstar / Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do).” Simultaneously paying homage to the Carpenters (“Superstar”) and Aretha Franklin (“Until You Come Back to Me”), such a feat is barely repeatable, only skimmed by Mariah’s performance at Diva’s starring—as her appearances tend to become—Diana Ross.

The secret behind Luthering songs is creepy. It is the clear tradition of the West African griot. These soothsayers sing/rap at every gathering, accompanied by a chorus of various drums and bells, which equally pushes the feat (and feet) to new heights. Modern Griots like Mali’s Ami Koita or Salif Keita all Luther their traditional beats, too. In retelling history and raising memory to life, enabling memory to inform and support us today, it is important to keep the facts straight.

It’s the same in Gospel, of which Luther (and his greatest influence, Aretha) would have been steeped in since birth. And since we’re going there, we’d have to consider Mahalia Jackson, a real remix queen, taking songs composed in the cotton fields, healing souls note-by-note.

The Livin’ Is Easy
In its many permutations, from the Enchantress Nina Simone, opera diva Leontyn Price, to the showtimey Billy Stewart, the fantastical Janis Joplin with Jimi Hendrix. My favorite is Mahalia Jackson, which she Luthers in Luther’s Superstar sense. “A long way from home,” Mahalia drags out each note succinctly almost as a bridge to her rendition of Summertime. The cotton is indeed high.

Mahalia blending the two as Luther blends his song “If Only for One Night,” into his cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Creepin’”. “And it’s go’ be tonight,” Luther says slyly in the song’s transition. It’s clear that Luther is an artistic heir of Mahalia Jackson.

Another favorite version of “Summertime” comes from John Coltrane, where not even a single word is uttered. The force of this song’s narrative, coupled perhaps with the visuals provided by the Porgy and Bess stage play and its empathetic roots (a white Jew writing specifically about Black people in America, and for Black performers), each one of these artists seems to have encapsulated this song with their own flair; they each have truly Luthered “Summertime.”

The Question of the Missing Album Notes
Luthering is yet different from copying beats from influential artists and riding high. Witnessing and Testifying can be clearly heard in the Blues, what Cornel West calls a tragicomic disposition. Professor West describes this disposition born as cultivating the ability “to stare painful truths in the face and persevere without cynicism or pessimism.”

“You never say no,” Luther repeats, clarifying this most Soulful position on love. This loss of love is certain and specific. It’s love and abandon, yet unlike pop music, it’s love refusing to stop loving again. He is orphaned by love unrealized, and this is the love supreme. He is a motherless child of the highest order in this song, akin to Stevie Wonder on “As” singing: “Do you know you’re loved by somebody!” Again, all these lyrics are not on the beat and absent from the album notes.

Despite Stevie’s fierce lyrics, or Luther’s melismatic magic, these prophets drop the knowledge of redeeming power of love in adlibs and riffs. They improv it, making it up as full extension of their hearts. Rendering oneself so vulnerable and exposing one’s scars is risky business, at which many of today’s young pop divas would probably scoff.

No, today’s mini-divas want a “soldier” or “hood boy in wife beater and jeans.” It is they who act like bastards. That’s a true loss of Soul. Still buried inside the likes of these modern divas is a bit of Soul, though it may take aging to live and let it pull through.

“Nothing can stop me from loving,” these lyrics seem to say. “I’ll be lovin’ you ‘till the day that you are me and I am you,” Stevie concludes in “As,” before drifting off into a menagerie of his crooning both vocally and on the keyboards. “For you, love might bring a toast of wine, but the best for you I pray,” go this jazzy tune’s polyrhythmic beats.

“Nothing but death can keep us apart,” says a departing Nettie to her sister Celie in the film version of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. “M.I.S.T.E.R, period,” the benevolent patriarch has torn the two apart, condemning his young wife to a life of lovelessness, because he certainly was not prepared to show her any (nor to himself, that is until he forgives himself).

Yet despite years of not knowing if her sister Nettie was dead or alive, living literally under the hoof of an abusive husband in the Jim-and-Jane-Crow South, it is her love of the character Shug Avery that would eventually pull Miss Celie—and practically everyone else—through. Truly living the life of the oh-pressed, Celie was still able to find love long enough to sustain her until she got her family back. Notably, Miss Celie first had to find her own dignity, which only came through being able to express and feel love. When we deaden ourselves to the possibility of love, when we abandon love altogether, we abandon living.

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