As a kid I listened to my favorite high-voiced divas croon and trill through lyrics of love and loss and recovery as if I had known that same experience. Not only could I match their range with my pre-pubescent voice, but there is certainly a quality of strength and simultaneously vulnerability in these high pitches, which also explains our love for the male falsetto, or even the castrato in the — circa 1650-1750 — castration of boys to preserve that ‘classic’ boyhood soprano. Perhaps this high pitch also allows us to channel castration anxieties, as Freud might have said. Whatever the case, I certainly faced a world that threatened to castrate me, lest I act straight.
Through my family, I was exposed to Patti LaBelle whispering, hollering, then shouting and wailing on “You Are My Friend”. Yet, speaking directly to the video-mesmerized XY generation, as a kid of 11 years old when “All Cried Out” hit Billboard’s #8 position in October 1986, my heart was already all cried out. I listened to these divas shout about how they had invested all of themselves, yell about a betrayal of trust, and holler about the pain of abandonment, neatly pressing the beat and rhythm forward. Indeed, this unique mix of power and vulnerability is shown through the quality of Lisa Lisa’s voice, or even Full Force’s (not to leave Force MD’s out of a mention powerful voices) skirting across the butch and the femme.
This mirrored my process of coming to terms with my sexuality in a time and space were such things were not annunciated, let alone discussed, so I had learned to bury my feelings. This only intensified the anguish of middle school crushes lived out in teen mags, and through heartthrobs like Marvin Gaye, the Gap Band, New Edition, Prince, WHAM!, and those sweet DeBarge boys. Outside of the music, I was silent.
“There you are, holding her hand / I am lost / Dying to understand”, Mariah quailed, gently explaining a similar anguish I felt years later over loosing my first love. I was the first man he had loved, and he was my first love; once we split, he dated a mutual friend. I did not know how to explain the layers of pain I felt, watching him walk around campus holding her hand. And there was no script for all this tenderness.
Again, I found myself as isolated as I had been as a kid, listening to Lisa Lisa rip Bowlegged Lou and Paul Anthony apart. I sang with her out loud while I quietly wept over not being able to realize this love, over loosing something so precious and refreshing to me, and a space where I had first known love. We were really too young to come to each other’s side, so like to patriarchal men, we preyed on one another, and, as he says, nearly devoured one another, ripping one another apart. “And what have I learned”, as George Michael asks, “From all this pain?”
On the outside, people thought that I was fine, just like when I was 11 years old, learning to love myself, mourning for the lack of recognition of this love anywhere around me; the loss felt the same. I made great grades, emerged as a leader in and out of school, and was relatively popular; I was determined to shine so brightly as to distract others from noticing my sexuality and broadening my shame. Was that what George Michael was doing all those years? Luther? Even Liberace, and countless others for whom the closet disguises. The tears of this clown were read by many as cool, impenetrable strength. “Everyone laughs when the Joker’s down”, said Sergio Mendes and Brazil ’66. I searched everywhere to help explain the anguish I felt.
There’s always a joker in the packThere’s always a lonely clown
The poor laughing fool falls on his back
And ev’ryone laughs when he’s down
There’s always a funny man in the game
But he’s only funny by mistake
But ev’ryone laughs at him, just the same
They don’t see his lonely heart break
They don’t care as long as there is a jester, just a fool
As foolish as he can be
There’s always a joker, that’s a rule
But fate deals the hand and I see
The joker is me
“Sadness in my eyes / No one guessed, well no one tried / You smiled at me”, George explains of the healing power of love washing over his hardened heart. Luckily, time and space separated us, and I was able to find a space of healing. I went abroad and met a man who was prepared to talk back to me. He was able to stand up to the hard shell I had developed since childhood in order to secure myself from what I perceived as a harsh world. He embraced me on those cold, cold nights of the Alsatian winter. In the cool of the eve, he held me through the night, and sometimes I cried from the joy I experienced.
“For every single memory / Has become a part of me” — Michael’s bluesy voice on this line weakens me and tears threaten to flow down my face each time I hear it. “Well, I’ve been in love”, he says more strongly, stressing just how intense he feels this loss, how personal this loss became precisely because he had not been able to share it in his public persona. There was no script for this man coming out from such a loss of a love he had obliged to deny, so he supplied the theme himself. George Michael succinctly lyricized this sense of fullness, pureness and innocence of falling in love through “Jesus to a Child”. And this was the very sentiment I felt at 11 years old, singing right along with Lisa Lisa, or years later wrapped in Anita Baker’s album Rapture. There I was, a queer kid, denying who I was despite all the energy flowing around me, and certainly through me to experience love. No, this was denied me, under the unimaginable threat that each and every gay kid at one point ponder: What if my family won’t accept me?
For the majority culture — the straight world — there are few normative provocations over whether or not we will continue to know the embracing care of family, friends, schoolmates, teachers, and other mentors and leaders to whom we look for guidance at these tender ages. Silence around sexuality meant that most of what I was able to live was lived vicariously through song. Concealing these experiences was maddening, a pain that I found could be relieved through wailing. Once I was able to put my finger on that, I paid closer attention to the source, at least its North American avatar: Negro Spirituals. My granddaddy sat in a quiet room and sang gospel and spirituals each evening when he came home from work. If you should ever wonder “How I Got Over”, Mahalia Jackson can surely show you the way. And sometimes, I really do “feel like shoutin / I feel like shoutin’ / I feel like shoutin'”… like Mahalia, not out of anguish or pain, but out of sheer joy and the power of fellowship in music (notice how differently Jackson responds to the fellowship of her mixed-cord concerts versus her black church revivals).
I later moved to Mali and discovered that our root of the blues penetrates some of Africa’s oldest civilizations and cultures. From original desert blues man Ali Farka Toure, to the classic Ami Koita wailing “‘Yaafa, yaafa'” (‘Yaafa n ma’ = Forgive me, forgive me in Bambara), to contemporaries like Rokia Traore and Habib Koite, there are very strong examples of the African rootedness of this sensibility towards this feeling of fullness as a socio-religio-cultural means by which to tap into the fullness of our human potential, and to contextualize any of life’s inevitable emotional highs and lows.
One sees this throughout the religio-spiritual practices throughout the African Diaspora. It allowed for individuality and an absolute respect for diversity, since each one’s talents are unique and special. It also recognizes that the context of suffering is joy, and the context of happiness is also sadness. Each is omnipresent, neither sadness drilling us into depression, nor losing ourselves to euphoria, but a genuine acceptance of this spectrum of what Buddhism calls “life-conditions”. That’s A Love Supreme, and so Dr. Cornel West calls us a “Blues people“, with a keen tragic-comic predisposition. We fluctuate through the spectrum of hell to happiness even in a single moment, and it is this aspect of the endurance of the human spirit that wailing works itself into fate.
In a live version of “Dr. Feelgood”, Aretha recorded over ten minutes of her and her sisters simply wailing. It feels so damn good that, like sex, we’re not sure if she is wailing in pleasure or in pain. And that’s just it, there’s often little difference between the two. As opposed to a controlled, subdued, and more hierarchical praxis of spirituality, surrendering ourselves to ourselves through these wailing sessions, we are able to develop a keener sensibility to be able to discern, and better appreciate the that difference. For many, drunk and high on the dance floor is their only space of solace. Yet, early on, I started to develop something better — I could turn my soul over to the music, anywhere anytime. By surrendering ourselves to ourselves, we also tap into immeasurable deposits of strength latent in the human spirit. Otherwise we’re just dull.