[13 January 2009]
Much was made of how Bernie Mac and Isaac Hayes were linked by more than just their deaths on the same August weekend. They both represented a certain generation and caliber of strong black man, proud and solid citizens enjoying respect and admiration for how they both performed and handled their business. But aside from the movie Soul Men, they came from different quadrants of the black pop universe, and otherwise weren’t usually mentioned in the same context.
Miriam Makeba, Odetta and Eartha Kitt, on the other hand, share much more in common than the proximity of their passings (Makeba shortly before Thanksgiving, Odetta shortly afterwards, and Kitt on Christmas Day). They broke new ground in their respective corners of the musical universe. They had their greatest impact in an era charged with upheaval across racial, geopolitical and cultural lines. They provided new images of what strong, self-assured black women could look like. They enjoyed respect and admiration years after their heydays.
And it’s folly to imagine who might fill their shoes. Even if someone talented and fearless enough to continue in their footsteps emerged, these three sistas left huge marks on American society and how we see ourselves in it, marks so huge that those footsteps point toward new, uncharted directions hardly imagined when they began their careers more than half a century ago.
Odetta Holmes was a singer with aspirations for the stage when she shifted gears and became a folk singer just as that scene took off in the early ‘50s. She became one of the genre’s stars, and would be cited as an influence on its second wave, including Bob Dylan and Joan Baez (she would return the favor in 1965 by recording an album of Dylan songs). Although she would sing everything from blues to spirituals to jazz-inflected material over the years, and recorded and performed right up to the very end, she’s best known not for what she sang but where she often sang it: at concerts and rallies throughout the turbulent ‘60s, including the 1963 March on Washington. She was called “the Voice of the Civil Rights Movement”, her smoky alto and forceful guitar playing conveying both the long tradition of African-American music as expression of resistance and sustenance, and the universal cries for freedom and justice.
Around the same time that Odetta’s star began to rise, Makeba was pursuing a pop career in South Africa. Like Odetta, she lent her talents to the struggle, appearing in a 1959 anti-apartheid film and supporting its screenings in Europe. For that South Africa revoked her passport, and she spent most of her adult life in exile, literally a citizen of the world.
She continued to sing, blending her native language and musical heritage with messages of hope and freedom. With international hits like “Pata Pata” and a slot on Paul Simon’s 1987 Graceland tour, she was known throughout the world as “Mama Africa”, the voice of not just her homeland but, in fact, all of the continent. She also devoted much of her work to advancing the cause of justice; what turned out to be her last performance was in support of an Italian writer standing up against mafia influence in his hometown.
Kitt was not as well known as Odetta and Makeba as an outspoken political voice, although her career took a hit in the late ‘60s for her anti-Vietnam war stand. Her major victories came in the arena of images, proving that a black woman could ooze sex appeal without being branded as a voracious she-beast. Today, “Santa Baby” is a winking, clever Christmas confection as evergreen as the tree itself, but Kitt was the one to make it a hit in the early ‘50s, as part of her nightclub act of come-hither-but-only-if-you’ve-got-bucks banter.
Kitt traded on her persona to play a campy Catwoman on the campy Batman TV series in the ‘60s, and stayed in the business long enough to do what all great divas have done: get rediscovered by a younger generation not saddled by what the old folks thought (i.e., outlive the “campy” label), and enjoy a bit of a comeback, making a few dance records and opening a revived New York City cabaret space in 2007. But never did she trade in crassness or tawdry shtick, even when she was flirting with men much younger than her on stage. She was always a woman of class and refinement, both on and off the stage.
The temptation when giants pass is to play the parlor game of who will fill their shoes. But these women both fully represented and completely transcended their moments, to the point where we’re better off wondering what new archetypes are out there waiting to be created, rather than casting about for successors to inhabit the old ones.
It’s probably easiest, for those who would insist on such matters, to point to a possible “next” Odetta. That would be Tracy Chapman: she’s a black singer with a rich, expressive voice, she plays acoustic guitar from within the folk tradition, and she’s got a rep for songs about peace and justice. She even paid tribute to Odetta at a 2004 Kennedy Center awards program.
But as her new CD Our Bright Future (Atlantic) reflects, Chapman’s music is far more personal and introspective than Odetta’s was. Even her more socially-focused tunes these days are less direct than “Talkin’ Bout a Revolution” from her debut 20 years ago, let alone the fire-and-brimstone Odetta was hurling against Jim Crow in the ‘60s. In fact, one could argue that Odetta’s triumphs made it possible for Chapman (and other black women with guitars, while we’re at it) to pursue her own path, whatever she wanted that path to be.
The days of a “Mama Africa” would seem to be behind us, as well. Without apartheid to galvanize the world’s attention, and with many of the current crises on the continent too complex for simple moralizing, there is no urge to find another singular voice to represent Africa on the world pop stage. The closest there’s been to another pan-African global star has been Fela Anikulapo Kuti, whose Nigerian high-octane Afrobeat continues to inspire bands and DJ’s worldwide. But while his music lives on, and his sons Femi and Seun build upon their father’s legacy with their own bands (Positive Force and Egypt 80, respectively), there’s no one figure that is commonly acknowledged as the current face of African music.
Perhaps that’s because such a face would have to take in everything from the Malian desert electric blues of Tinariwen to the hip-hop offshoots being churned out by, among way too many to note, the South African duo Sweat.X. That may also be because the many challenges Africa faces these days—genocide, civil wars, corruption, all of which feeding into and exasperating economic instability, and yes there’s more—need more than just one advocate.
As for Kitt, there’s no shortage of sistas unafraid to flaunt it nowadays. But they don’t do it much through innuendo, subtlety and sass anymore, and they certainly don’t do it in old-school nightclubs. After two decades of Madonna, Janet Jackson, and a legion of pop stars who consider them role models, it’s hard to imagine that anyone will leapfrog past all of them to learn from Kitt herself (although the desire to be a multi-platform star of stage, screen and studio began in earnest with Kitt).
Even retro-thinking performers like Amy Winehouse and Solange Knowles didn’t go so far as to snatch a page explicitly from Kitt’s book. Part of that is because Kitt’s musical legacy belongs to the lounge act era, not the rock era, and there’s still a bit of a gulf between the two (notwithstanding younger acts at home in cabaret settings, or older pop singers trotting out the Great American Songbook). But perhaps it’s also because Kitt embodied the image of a frothy, upscale sex kitten so purrfectly that it’s simply part of the air we breathe, and we’ve never had cause to question where exactly it started.
Perhaps Odetta herself put it best for National Public Radio in 2005. When asked if she saw a young Odetta on the scene, she laughed off the inquiry by observing, “No, and hopefully I don’t …Whoever has a talent has their own talent, and unless there’s a duplication going I guess they would be 75 now.” In other words, every performer of distinction is a one-of-a-kind creation. Performers who, beyond their own unique talents, come to represent a certain time, place or historical moment are defined by their eras as much as by their gifts.
As we progress through the eras to come, there will be issues, causes and plenty of chances for someone to answer a call. We don’t yet know what call, and we don’t yet know who will answer. All we can say for sure is that when Odetta, Miriam Makeba and Eartha Kitt came along, no one knew who they were. And all they did was help change the world.