Artists continually suffer for refusing to bow to the morality police. Yet, like this Kentuckian, we are all Unbridled Spirits, refusing to conceit to itty bitty morality pity. It’s a shame that one has to chant louder, write faster, read quicker, exercise harder, know more and listen with more compassion, isn’t it? Naw, that’s just old skewl.
“Si tu savais auquel point j’ai de l’affection pour toi dou-dou, tu n’aurais pas me faite ca. Hmmm, je veux savoir.”
Translation: “If you knew how much affection I had for you, boo, you would not have done me like that. Hmm, I wanna know.”
Ok, forgive me if I missed any specifics in the few translations I offer here, but the points remain clear. I first heard Black So Man in Bankass, a small town six hours by bush-taxi from the regional capital, Mopti, a half-day by bus journey from Bamako, Mali’s capital. Bankass was closer to the border of Black So Man’s native Burkina Faso.
Mali and Burkinabe share many things culturally: a porous border in that region (despite the infamous Gendarmerie), and both colonial language and dialects of Mande, i.e. French as well as Bambara and Jula, comprising the regional lingua franca in spite of imperial political boundaries demarcating artificial nation-states. Compared to Sénégal and Côte d’Ivoire, the two nations were ‘relatively’ saved from the squander of colonialism- apparently the French didn’t find many resources in the land-locked, dry, arid, climates to extrapolate- other than the folks! Even one of Burkina Faso’s largest city’s Bobojulaso (literally “the home of the Bobo and Jula peoples’ father) reflects the breadth of cultural kinship amongst Mande speaking peoples right from Guinea on the coast, through to Burkinabe deep in the Sahel.
Ali F., a close friend that I met in Bankass, and I would spend hours chatting (bavarder) speaking about all matters of life, and inevitably his lingering studies or my ongoing Peace Corps projects. We would also speak about music and, importantly lyrics, both translating and interpreting for one another. Ali explained to me that Adji, the song mentioned at the head of this article, openly expressed intimacy readily observable in that area between same-sex friends, which also represented a social contract, which the artist then detailed and critiqued Adji’s default. Yet, this is not just another tale of love and abandonment- that would be too superficial and therefore untrue to an artist’s ability and therefore moral responsibility to be sincere. Seen in the context of the whole album ‘Tout Le Monde et Personne’ (“Everybody and Nobody”) was a direct critique of Burkina Faso’s socio-political regime. Lest one misunderstand the message, Black So Man met an ultimately fatal road accident and was silenced. Political, indeed, they were in power and used it oppressively. Socio? Well, moral policing in quite anti-social. Despite this hate, Black So Man’s lyrics live on to encourage youth cultures throughout the region.
Ali and I developed such a close relationship that in western terminology not even ‘dating’ comes close. Here I am reminded of how western, particularly American machismo discourages caring between men, shying away from all forms of physical intimacy for fear of being labeled a homosexual. It’s as if American men may only know the intimate touch of his own mother. In this respect, they are all like orphans, in need of spiritual healing. In our attempts to assert our manhood- to man up- we miss out on rather rich relationships that put all those insecurities to rest and allow folks to move on to the real business of self love.
“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child/Just a long way from my home,” wails the ole Negro Spiritual, cultivated underneath the sweet southern sun between the calming, warm breeze and swaying cotton. As if evidence that these sentiments of these Diasporic Blues indeed travelled a long way from the Sahel, generations later Burkinabe rapper Black So Man chants: ”Je suis malade, oh Dieux/Le fait que ma mère ne soit plus/Alors que [ce] qu’elle a planté a maintenant produit” (“I am sick, oh God/The fact that my mother is not anymore, whereas what she planted is now coming to fruition”). And then there’s always Mali’s Blues-man originale, Ali Faraka Toure, or even the more contemporary Rokia Traore. These ‘Blues’ are real old skewl.
“We have to work twice as hard to get half as far,” aunty said.
Social protests interrupted the school year in Mali so regularly that at twenty or so years old, Ali F. was still studying in middle school, yet remained as steadfast towards his goal of continuing his education, as he was critical of the conditions that produced this “Système du Vampire,” another Black So Man beat. Social critique and youth culture are inseparable. Yet, the more educators- caretaker y compris- shield youth from these realities, under the guise of protecting their innocence, the more youth (are forced to) rely on pop culture to provide them the esteem and sheer rhetoric of resistance. This paternalistic view of youth has been the western puritanical, middle class model of the ages. They simply protect the power they arrogantly assume over others.
“La verité a assez durée” (“the truth has been a long time comin’”)
In these ‘systems of vampires’ truth is always a voice of dissent. In Nigeria government forces raided Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti’s home cum village twice, beating and raping women indiscriminately. They also threw his mother out of the window. Fela must have been full of rage by this point, yet like an artist turned madness into artistry. Black So Man might have thought of Fela, too, as he paid homage to his momma: Où est ma mère mon Dieux/Le fait que tu ne sois plus (“Where is my mother, my God/The fact that you are no more… ”).
In the USA, as late as this century the Dixie Chicks were blacklisted in Hollywood and weak-ass promoters put them down, effectively terrorizing and therefore silencing all in their industry. But Hazel Scott was Blacklisted back in the fifties before Civil Rights, so even that tune had been sung before. Eartha Kitt, Nina Simone, James Baldwin, Richard Wright and a whole string of other ‘uppity’ American Negroes left American’s shiny shores for France. Imagine Negritude and the Harlem Renaissance -- we CREATE culture even in our waves. And oh how motherless these figures must have felt, expatriating by force. For sure, they lived in exile -- at home their choices were between soul murder and suicide!
Elsewhere, some ‘faggot’ might be fired from a school by the snotty nosed moral police. At least the faggot ends up with his hide. And sadly the best that can be said of those too weak to resist abuse, which they see as power, and act accordingly -- abusively -- is that they use words to commit their murderous acts, not bullets. Their weakness is their lack of a sympathetic ear, which like any tyranny is based on fear. Power can be so irresponsibly wielded in order to shade truth or face the one in the mirror; insecurities, weakness and abuse make one ugly. But even the ugly aren’t out of reach of redemption. Courage can be cultivated. That’s why the singers mentioned here are educators. Alongside pop stardom, they maintain their popularity in the more traditional sense as griots (or jeli/jele as these keepers of the oral tradition are know in mane speaking lands), chanting songs of praise, redeeming the system by relaying the truth embedded in the Blues. Yet, notice the beat, it keeps us pushing on. Bob Marley wailed:
Forget your sorrows and dance/Forget you sickness and dance/Forget your troubles and dance/Forget your weakness and dance
You could simultaneously hear his pain and strength in the way he colors each note blue. Moreover, as an artist, Marley had the fulfillment of knowing how he was helping us all heal. In even a truncated lifetime, that brother actually got to spread his medicine, his message of self-love, forgiveness and, crucially, therefore recovery. Talk about Black love and love of humanity! His force is unstoppable. He is long gone, but never forgotten. Even kids remind me of that.
Entertainer Hazel Scott emigrated, and stands early in a long tradition of African-Americans asserting the privilege to leave the bondage of white supremacy and moral policing in the United States. See, all these stars were at the top of their game. In 1950, Hazel Scott was the first Black person to host her own show, i.e. the first Black face on primetime TV not cleaning, serving, shuffling and smiling (“suffering and smiling,” says Fela). Yet, even today, even I might be, as poet Kate Rushin puts it, “the only Black friend of 34 individual white people,” polishing this off in ‘The Bridge Poem’ Rushin says: “Find some other way to be political and hip.” And anyway, that era’s moral police quickly shut down Hazel Scott for opposing racial segregation; even still she refused to be McCarthyism’s victim. She refused to be silenced.
Western eyes gazing upon Fela in a bikini on stage, dancing “sensually” as the neo-Cons term it in polite company will probably be too threatened and titillated by their own image and angst around Black sexuality to even hear the words coming out of the man’s mouth. Despite Fela singing about the foolishness of skin bleaching in ‘Yellow Fever’, or the moral decay amongst some woman’s son turned government soldier, then pitted against their own people in ‘Zombie’, western viewers have tended to only see an angry, “sensual” Negro, and they respond accordingly with all the moral inaptitude expected of those so out of touch with their own erotic energy. Fela Kuti sang madly, shirtless, painted face and probably angry.
Teacher Don't teach Me No Nonsense
My own father came of age listening to Fela, and hails from the same Niger Delta region about which recent repatriate Chinua Achebe wrote many, many moons ago Things Fall Apart, regarding one of the most infamous cross-cultural interactions on the planet: white colonizing Black. Here one more easily imagines the Christianized, puritanical zealots arriving on the shores, seeing women openly breastfeeding, and men in unclothed glory. Their gazes reduced the images they saw to licentiousness and sex, labeled the people as uncivilized, and worked tirelessly on a continuum of moral superiority that continues in intimate and global spaces even today. Picture classrooms, courtrooms, boardrooms, congressional rooms, dorm rooms, film rooms and all these spaces where people seek to define “normal” by demonizing anyone who exhibits the courage to be themselves. That there is still a lack of sincere dialogue across these radical cultural differences and worldviews is the matter of the day if we are ever to gain a sense of mutuality and respect.
The fact is that the iconic figures featured here, are all educators with captive youth audiences. They all harbor a massive youth following, and they embody pop culture. Like white-America’s Jerry Lee Lewis in his time, or Madonna in hers, pressing the envelope with raw erotic energy is the very reason why youth find these icons so attractive. Yet, not every artist is able to harness this energy into anything that’s well-basted and cured, not simply raw. Where today’s pop stars croon about superficial romantic love or lust- the very nightmare beneath the fear of Black sexuality in the western mind- Black men like Bob Marley and Fela “sensually” challenged the social climate, demanding that we ask more.
Interlude: “In France a skinny man died of a big disease with a little name”
Imagine Prince on the cover of his album ‘Dirty Mind’, in a G-string and raincoat. My aunt, a special education teacher for over 30 years, was a staunch James Brown and prince fan, and proudly displayed the poster which came with the album. I remember being shocked by his nakedness, but fortunately took my cues from my family, not the moral police in the wider/whiter world. We were willing to see prince in all his glory and appreciate that his power to reach us, and youth especially, replied upon his totality, not the minced bits and pieces. That mincing and censorship eventually lead his to protest his label and scribbled “slave” on his cheek through several videos. And how many employees suffer in silence in dead-end jobs, with dead-weight bosses who cannot even dream of asking their employees for more, let alone themselves.
Again, the critique here is that when we try to mince ourselves into bite-sized, “appropriate” pieces, we reject a great deal of our own talent, our own strength, squandering our own time and discouraging others. They see Prince as pornographic and relegate all the issues he discusses to this voyeuristic gaze, of which even they are ashamed to look upon. Unlike these pop educators, they cannot imagine any age-appropriate language to discuss these issues with you, and effectively abandon these kids. They teach youth that all use of erotic power is porn and dangerous, neglecting any opportunity to train youth to be whole, leading people like Prince to scream Let’s go crazy!
Prince surely sensed our need to free ourselves of these restraints. Love come quick/Love come in a hurry/There’re thieves in the temple tonight/They don’t care where they kick/Just as long as they hurt you/there are thieves in the temple tonight/Love if there, come save me/From all this cold despair. Oh, how misery adores company. Fortunately, so does love! Love is even available to haters, should they be brave enough to avail. Fortunately, a plethora of fans stuck around to hear Prince croon, and write in his trademark shorthand: Ghettos 2 the left of us/Flowers 2 the right/There'll be bread 4 all of us/If we can just bear the cross Indeed, there is room for us all.
One also sees it in Obama’s swagger and sway as he “marches” (implying a stiffness that doesn’t apply to the brother) through the aisles of congress and beside hoards of followers. Obama is pop because he does not fear his own erotic energy. In fact, because of his holistic approach to his own identity (embracing his babies’ mama before us, for example, or all of his heritage and klan, see the ‘A More Perfect Union’ speech or the inaugural stage), he has developed a very sensitive and sympathetic ear, and therefore a level of maturity rarely seen in even the most educated adults of today, hence his superstardom. He brings this maturity to the table, and therefore he is able to provide holistic solutions and resolutions to even our nation’s oldest and fundamental conflict: Inter-cultural dialogue. To reiterate, slavery and annihilation of the native population is the very sort of inter-cultural conflict of which there are even large theories to justify, and here I recall Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, as well as the social Darwinism of thinkers like Kant, but as far back as Shakespeare- all of which are widely accepted in western academia at every level. It amounts to cultural annihilation, perhaps more insidious than the physical slaying of men. Obviously then, such dialogue has never existed as we are a nation born of white supremacy, and that cord has yet to be severed.
Obama, even Fela, Marley, Prince and Black So Man do not represent a raw erotic energy, that’s mature, and provides a mature example to their youthful followers. Yet the more we uphold puritanical beliefs of a segregated and controlled identity, the more we steer off course. “We have to be certain that the present is not a pawn of the past, and that the past is a route by which we learn how we ought to go in the future,” said the recently deceased educator John Hope Franklin, whose pedagogic efforts supported the banning of racially segregated schools in our united America. Back in Bamako, Rokia Traore offers:
“Ko dunyia yé uati yé, jòn dé bè a tilé ké jòn tilè dunyia ban/Ka u’n sako kè, né na u’n tilé kè /Ka dòkili da, né na u’n tilé kè” (“We only live once, so let’s take advantage of it. Let’s work (together) in dignity, because we’re not timeless”)
Even today’s artists remain socially critical of so-called modern consumerist values. In Ivoirian group Magic System’s veritable club hit, Premier Gao, the brother says in a mélange of Jula and French: “I Wari ban nan/Elle a changé de copain, oh” (“money’s finished she changed boyfriends). Few western disco enthusiasts probably bother to listen, let alone consider the critique of modernity actually put forth here. Fewer notice that commercial Hip-Hop’s most successful commodity, 50 Cent, repeats this same message. Hence, despite the critical rhetoric on 50’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ Soundtrack, and in spite of the fierce lyrics of Fela and his “sensual” mesmerizing imagery, Black So Man and his staunchly critical lyrics and tone, or even James Brown hollering about I’m Black and I’m proud, damnit, we’re just angry, overly “sensual” Black men.
Our pride is threatening and therefore must be silenced. Black So Man was very effectively silenced, defeated corporeally, by those whose arrogance led them to abuse power. Marley belted and swooned his most riveting version of Get Up Stand Up very shortly after being shot by “forces.” And elsewhere some “sensual” Black man is scaring those terrorized by their own erotic energy and inability to live fully, embracing holistic approaches and solutions; he’s being told that he’s too hot to handle, too cold to hold, too “sensual” for the circumstances, and must therefore be annihilated. Yet, like this Kentuckian, we are all Unbridled Spirits, refusing to conceit to itty bitty morality pity. It’s a shame that one has to chant louder, write faster, read quicker, exercise harder, know more and listen with more compassion, isn’t it? Naw, that’s just old skewl. “Pride,” Aretha shouts, is “a deeper love.” When we love ourselves deeply, we cannot fear any aspects of our own power, and in fact use them in continuing to regenerate that empowering sense of wholeness. It’s pride, after all, and it is contagious (smile).
Another American émigré to France