Return of the Soul Man Pulpit
On February 1, 1960, four young men—black students at HBCU North Carolina A&T—sat-in at a lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, in an effort to challenge segregation practices in the South. Their brave efforts became the stimulus for a full-blown youth movement that helped bring vitality and swagger to the Civil Rights Movement. Even as—in various locales across the South—members of the burgeoning Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) were staring down police offers, racist protesters, and the Civil Rights old-guard, there was another revolution occurring in popular music. That revolution—soul music—would become the soundtrack to the most important twentieth-century social movement in the United States. Indeed, it was an era when the “Soul Man”—the secular and gendered compatriot of the “Race Man”—became the “voice” of that movement. Do I Speak for the World? is an apt query for the “Soul Man,” and this is what is so compelling about Gerald Levert’s latest release: it is a bold (and blatantly commercial) attempt to bring soul music back to the world.
Do I Speak for The World? is Gerald Levert’s eighth solo recording. While that might not make him the “greatest Soul singer of his generation,” as Cornel West suggests on the second track, he is by far the most consistent. He is also, arguably, the most cautious. It has been clear for some time that Levert has hit his creative plateau, relying on the “grits and gravy” formula that works for his core audience. That said, he is to be commended for remaining so commercially viable with a decidedly “throw-back” style, a style that has only recently made a comeback through artists like Anthony Hamilton, Calvin Richardson, Ricky Fante and Urban Mystique. Indeed, after being in the game for nearly two decades, including his days as lead vocalist for the group Levert, Gerald Levert may have legitimate competition for the first time in his career. Do I Speak for World?, a disc that explicitly courts the controversies of the day, is an obvious attempt to distance himself from both the competition and the mundane themes that have come to dominate contemporary R&B. Radio personality Tom Joyner is fond of talking about “partying with a purpose”; Do I Speak for the World? is Levert’s attempt to “R&B” (‘rhythm and bullshit’ to some) “with a purpose.”
Do I Speak for the World? also marks Levert’s return to the Atlantic label, after the collapse of Elektra, which had been his home for 13 years. Atlantic wasn’t thrilled with Levert’s desire to make a recording like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?; as a result, the recording doesn’t quite represent the fullness of his vision. Atlantic’s desires won out, explaining, for instance, the rather tepid choice of “One Million Times” as the lead single.
To his credit, Levert sees “politics” not simply in terms of the kinds of issues that marked the debates during the past election season. As he told Bet.com, “As you come of age, you realize the things that are important. You realize about your health… These things make you think about the whole concept of the world. It becomes deeper than how much money you’ve got, how many cars, women, whatever. That’s what this album is about.” Levert’s comments reflect a worldview in which interpersonal relationships and the drama of the “everyday” are an extension of the political, as was the case when soul and R&B were more socially meaningful. Thus a song like the formulaic ballad “So What (If You Got a Baby)” becomes an interesting discussion of blended families and black men embracing the concept of “other-fathering”, whereby it don’t matter if the child is yours. Black women, of course, have been “other-mothering” for more than a century.
The more explicit political tracks on Do I Speak for the World? are found in the opening suite. The introductory track is indebted to Gaye - the resonances of “What’s Going On?” and “Soon I’ll Be Loving You” are obvious—but as it segues into the title track, it is also clear that Levert is not driven by nostalgia. When he starts jumping up and down in the pulpit (figuratively, though likely literally, given his performance style), he taps into that ghetto theodicy that my man Michael Eric Dyson so lucidly describes in his book on Tupac Shakur. Akin to Kanye’s notion that “Jesus Walks” even for the “hustlers, killers, murderers, drug dealers [and] the scrippers”, Levert’s “Soul Man” moralist is an equal opportunity provider: “Do I speak for the grandmas and grandpas / Do I speak for the fatherless babies / Do I speak for the priests / Do I speak for the profit takers / Do I speak for those fighting for me in Iraq / Do I speak for the President / Do I speak, do I speak…”
If the “Race Man” and the “Soul Man” were charged with speaking for the subaltern masses—via the vernacular styles of those very subalterns—there was obviously going to be a fair amount of self-martyrdom. Do I Speak for the World? is not beyond such fetishes: in “Crucify Me” Levert sings “Just crucify me / Go ahead and just beat me down / I’m still delivering a new sound”. Sandwiched between the title track and “Crucify Me” is an appearance by media personality Tavis Smiley and public intellectual Cornel West. The appearance by the duo gives Levert’s political move some credibility—surely Smiley and West are two of the most bankable bourgeois activists on the scene today (the jury is still out on whether they are truly in the tradition of celebrity Gramscians).
While Do I Speak for the World? owes a great deal to the “Soul Man” tradition, it is equally influenced by cultural nationalist commercialism that marked the music of Philadelphia International Records (PIR) during Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s heyday in the mid-1970s. Levert has often suggested that the main thing to have separated him from his father (Eddie Levert) and The O’Jays was that the elder Levert was into a “political thing.” The early criticism of Gerald was that he was “Eddie lite”, but now that he has spent a career establishing some distance from his father’s legacy, it is both safe and legitimate for him to lay claim to it. Both “Click a Glass” (a post-soul update on the O’Jay’s “Family Reunion”) and “What Happened to the Lovin” are right out of the Gamble and Huff playbook; the latter might ring as the most affecting track on Do I Speak for the World?
No Gerald Levert recording would be complete without a classic “grits and gravy” throw-down ballad. Though “Duty Calls” tries too hard, the true gem is “Lay You Down”. The song is more than a passing tribute to the late Rick James, whose own underrated vocal stylings clearly influenced Gerald Levert throughout his career.
On some level, Do I Speak for the World? is a brave effort on Gerald Levert’s part. But given the generally dismal state of contemporary corporate R&B (and soul), any recording artist that chooses to break with the “rhythm and bullshit” formula (and I do realize that folks need to pay the bills) can be seen as an iconoclast. In reality, Gerald Levert is never going to be anything other than one of the most solid and consistent R&B vocalists of his generation. Thankfully, that still counts for something.
// Notes from the Road
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