“Zoom, I wish the world were truly happy”: Barack and the blues

Otis Redding, Al Green, Isaac Hayes, the Isley Brothers, the O’Jays, the more contemporary Maxwell and Eric Benet, or even Michael Jackson — the black one, not the white one, you know, the little Black boy from the Gary ghetto. Or, imagine President Barack Obama as Bill Withers, alone on a broad stage, or leading a carefully orchestrated band, slapping a guitar, crooning about “Grandma’s hands”. This kind of leadership rarely leads to crusades. Can you see Keith Sweat begging on bended knees, his falsetto prostrating himself, drowned in his willingness to show his vulnerability and therefore his strength?

By sharing his iPod playlists, by breaking it down on Ellen the way he did, grooving but holding back to match the host and let her shine, all makes clear to those sensitized, that he is the (first) blues president. If Bill Clinton, with his jazz sax on late night talk shows was the jazz president, then Clinton was Kenny G or Herb Alpert — awesome, but something wholly different than the blues. So What, one might ask? The difference is that Miles Davis, John Coltrane, even Duke Ellington and especially Louis Armstrong, all had the blues. They refused defeat that taints the souls of the assimilated into believing the hype. They perceived a world ridden with conflict and injustice, filthy with the greed, anger and stupidity of riot, war and hunger. Yet, they were fierce enough to look and create beauty.

Can’t you imagine one or both of the Obamas in the shower singing “People don’t let money / Don’t let money change you — almighty dollar” into a loufah in the shower? Or Barack with foam on face and razor in had in front of the bathroom mirror shouting along with Nina: “They keep on sayin’ ‘Too SLOW!’ But that’s just the trouble, too slow!” Or Barack doing the shackles-on-my-feet dance, sliding back and forth across the floor, bending his arms next to his waist, snapping his fingers, raising his shoulders with his lips puckered out, “I don’t care about your past, I just our love to last!” With the way the first couple kisses and embraces, you know that Barry White and Luther Vandross are not far away in spirit.

The blues, describes Cornel West, is “a philosophical disposition towards the world… a tragic comic hope, a way of looking unflinchingly at despair and still enduring!” I cannot speak for masses of whites. However, without fail, African-Americans I have spoken to see Obama’s swagger when he walks into the room. That brother is as smooth as Guinness stout under the sweet Southern delta sun. Smooth, we add, is wholly different from slick. George Bush was as slick as Elvis Presley’s imitative lyrics and beats. Naturally, Elvis has left the building.

Slaying the man

The fact of the matter is that our president knows how to shake his rump and “drop it like it’s hot”. The first lady likely knows how to bump-n-grind. Malia and Sasha would surely be exposed to this, and so certainly, their folks would responsibly mediate. Like when my family sits together and watches TV, commentary coming from each cousin, aunt and uncle; we don’t absorb those images uncritically, nor should any American. Frankly, images on big and small screens still tokenize difference. No longer the white House: Imagine Barack humming along to what Marvin said in ‘72:

Politics and hypocrites

Is turning us all into lunatics

Can you take the guns from our sons?

Right all the wrongs this administration has done?

Peace and freedom is the issue

Do you have a plan wager?

If you’ve got a plan

If you’ve got a master plan

Got to vote for you”

Having had these conversations marinate into his consciousness year after year, stewing around his social ideas, efforts and political ambitions, Barack is certainly accountable to his own sentiments around how we deal with each other on an interpersonal basis. Where some worship the omnipotent power of almighty God, black liberation theology presses forward Jesus’ message of redemption — that there is a Buddha in each and everyone of that that must be honored, and this is the awesome omnipotent power which humbles humanity.

Neither Christians nor are Africans in America the only blues people, as the poetic walls of Angel Island eerily reveal. Officials detained these Chinese emigrants for months in order to interrogate and discern their class background; laborers from China were strictly and explicitly forbidden. This was in stark contrast to those who filtered through Ellis Island on the East Coast — those who our government mainly welcomed.

There is something specific to the experience of becoming a person of color in America that produces this sort of blues, the sort of Socratic self-questioning, the “tragicomic hope”. West admires the blues sentiments seen in such universalized thinkers as Chekhov. He cites the prophetic tradition exhibited by the actions of Mamie Till Mobley upon her 14-year-old son’s state sanctioned murder at the hands of terrorists in 1955, at a time and in a place where the individual, unpunished actions violently trounced any challenge to Jim and Jane Crow. Following her decision to leave her son’s casket open, so that the world may see his young, heavily brutalized body, West says:

The high point of the black response to American terrorism (or niggerization) is found in the compassionate and courageous voice of Emmett Till’s mother, who stepped up to the lectern at Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago in 1955 at the funeral of her fourteen-year-old son, after his murder by American terrorists, and said: “I don’t have a minute to hate. I’ll pursue justice for the rest of my life.”

In that prophetic tradition, I say: The Man enslaved black bodied women, men and children, selling their offspring off in a bid to exploit their labor and keep their minds weak. The Man exploited his women, bartering them off like property handled more delicately than their field hands; she was the vessel to birth him male progeny to carry on his wealth and prestige. The Man scared white men throughout America into thinking that people of color were their innate enemies, pariah’s on their land and resources. The Man lured immigrants to his shores under the guise of streets paved in gold, yet relegated them to scrub and polish the glass floor upon which The Man stood, under which they would stand for generations despite their hopefulness. Yet, even The Man can change, or change will come to The Man.

Sometimes I had to cry all night long

Yes I did

Sometimes I had to give up right for what I knew was wrong

Yes it’s been an uphill journey

It’s sure’s been a long way comin’

Yes it has

It’s been real hard

Every step of the way

But I believe, I believe

This evenin’ my change is come

Yeah I tell you that

My change is come.

Aretha released this incantation in 1967, paraphrasing Sam Cooke who had written and released the cut only a few short years earlier just before his untimely death. In many of his speeches, Barack has evoked the spirit of the blues, and yet I have since learned that this sentiment evaded most Americans precisely because of the systematically skewed reporting. Certainly, media bias often falls under the purview of other conspiracy theorists, though realizing that the media has had one of the largest lobbying budgets gave many Americans the wake up call we should have had during the Reagan privatization era where restrictions media market dominance eroded.

Yet, even the New York Times missed Reverend Joseph Lowery’s references in the inaugural benediction to the Negro National Anthem and the cultural practice of playing the dozens. Jill Nelson succinctly laid this out in her Huffington Post article “The Audacity of Whiteness: Framing Barack Obama”. Notably Barack called on the Huffington Post journalist at his first press conference instead of just sticking to the good ole boys from the good ole (lobbying) networks. For them, a change had not yet come, as Nelson points out below, speaking about the frustration felt by masses of American Blacks navigating the melting pot, multi-kulti culture that bell hooks fiercely unmasks as a “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” world:

For two years I’d managed, along with most black people, to go along with one of the unspoken shibboleths to the election of Barack Obama and kept my mouth closed about racial issues, fearing that such a discussion would be harmful to Obama. This in spite of Bill Clinton showing his ass in South Carolina; Hillary’s absurd suggestion that Obama wouldn’t know what to do when the phone rang at 3 AM; and John McCain’s barely veiled white supremacist campaign. Yet, the failure of much of the media to recognize the words of the Negro National Anthem as the first words of Reverend Joseph Lowery’s benediction at the inauguration was truly pitiful. That, followed by the general incomprehension of the rhyme at the end of Lowery’s remarks — “When black will not be asked to get in back/When brown can stick around…” — and then its erroneous attribution by a CNN employee to a civil rights song, rather than rooted in African American folk and oral tradition and the dozens — a game of verbal insult and one-upmanship — made it impossible to maintain silence.”

Be damned if He’s Misstra Know It All!

In Grant park on the night of America’s victory in November 2008, Barack opened with: “It’s been a long time coming, but tonight, because of what we did on this date in this election at this defining moment, change has come to America.” It is my sincere hope that readers don’t miss that. Barack has a deep and personal understanding of this unique and complex American history. A cool, smooth, blues man has come to lead the nation. “Barack Obama is a Stevie Wonder geek,” according to Rolling Stone. “If I had one musical hero, it would have to be Stevie Wonder… When I was at that point where you start getting involved in music, Stevie had that run with Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Fulfillingness’ First Finale and Innervisions, and then Songs in the Key of Life. Those are as brilliant a set of five albums as we’ve ever seen.”

Each of those albums makes direct and poignant critiques of the political figures and rhetoric of their day. These albums only emerged from Little Stevie’s repertoire after asserting creative control at Motown; many artists simply fled Berry Gordy’s heavy-handed cross-over sales tactics to sanitize their music for the masses. Each album is eerily just as relevant today or even in Frederick Douglas’ day, all of which Barack pointed out in his seamless, 37-minute speech, “A More Perfect Union”, which was every bit as mesmerizing as Stevie Wonder’s lengthy beats. What Stevie had to say exceeded pop music’s typical three and half minute sound bites and were not intended to cater to the needs of the faint hearted. Each October 15th, it is Stevie’s version of Happy Birthday we chant as I blow candles and make a wish. “We’ll make the dream become a reality,” Stevie sang, the album sleeve showing a baby grand piano on fire and an image of Dr. King inside.

My mother takes every opportunity to remind me that Songs in the Key of Life got her through my terrible two’s. Choreographing and performing to “Another Star” during my junior year in college helped me mend my first broken heart. Mending our nation’s broken hearts and age ole conflicts both Barack and Stevie seemed to say: Love’s in need of love today.