By Angelika Beener
A few months ago I wrote a piece on a commemoration of Ray Charles’ 85th anniversary. During a late evening chat with my best friend, the topic of my piece led to a discussion around the architects of the soul music genre. No surprises there, as it’s a guarantee that at some point our conversation will center around music. It’s been that way for 22 years, when as high schoolers we’d dissertate Stevie Wonder’s album concepts and apotheosize Donny Hathaway’s virtuosity into the wee small hours of the morning. As we worked our way through the years of the genre’s development, Marvin Gaye was inevitably addressed. In an attempt to frame a shared idea, we pondered his birth date.
“1945,” I hesitantly stated, my voice climbing into a crescendo of uncertainty. “I think it’s 1942,” my best friend replied, with a little more assuredness in his chronology. We tossed a few more years around, thoughtfully contextualizing our reasoning, when I heard the sound of small feet pattering toward my bedroom.
“Riley,” I thought. In true motherly fashion, I quickly prepared for my 7-year-old’s entrance—which at this hour, usually comes with a puppy-eyed plea to sleep in my bed—with my best “get back to bed” retort when he flatly stated, “It’s 1939.” I was quiet for a moment. “Did you hear Riley?” I asked with a taken aback chuckle. My best friend chuckled back, “Yeah, I did!”
I perked up from my relaxed position to open my nearby laptop and did a quick verification. He was right! As we had the information we needed, we then referenced Sam Cooke, who was brought up earlier in the conversation. “Yeah, and he’s born on my birthday,” Riley added. My fingertips back on the keyboard, I discovered that this too is a matter of fact. If it wasn’t for his quick shift in conversation to rationalize his opinion of why my bed was the much better option for the evening, with the stuffed animal still protectively locked under his arm, I may not have remembered that I was, in that moment, speaking to a first grader.
And that’s no accident.
When Paul McCartney collaborated with Kanye West early last year, the Twitterverse lost its proverbial wits when fans of West ignorantly praised him for shining a light on “newcomer” McCartney. “Who is Paul Mcartney [sic]?” and “This Paul McCartney guy gonna be huge!” were just a couple of the eyebrow-raising, jaw-dropping blunders that spread across the Internet like wildfire—sparking outrage, sneers, and SMH-like responses from people who understood how reckless, ridiculous, and sad it was that the 21-time GRAMMY® Award winner and two-time Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee had slipped through the cracks of American music history.
I make a point to say “American music history” because although the British Invasion forerunners hailed from across the pond, their foundation was indisputably influenced by and dependent on Black American artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Arthur Alexander, and the monster roll call of Motown masters. In the Kanye West epoch of utter oblivion, this becomes a multi-layered concern, for if you don’t know the members of The Beatles, then the music they built their legacy upon—Black music—is pushed even further into the shadows, swallowed up by the abysm of crafted negligence and consequential indifference.
Ahmir Thompson AKA Questlove took to Facebook soon after McCartneygate to vent his frustration on the matter, passionately waving his finger at those of us raising young children today. “Music ain’t so magical that it will transcend and trickle down to the next generation,” he warned. “Music has to be passed down, not just left at the side of the road to be discovered.”
Passing music down is an unspoken mantra in my home, as imperative as imparting how we treat our friends and why eating our vegetables keeps us healthy. But the narrative is essential. Otherwise, not only will the music sit stranded on the side of the road, but the inextricable cultural context will park a seat right next to it.
As Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life masterwork hit its 40-year milestone a few days ago, I am particularly reminded of that cautioning. As we try to stand against the waves of racially motivated brutality that have gripped our nation, Wonder’s prose has never been more fitting. But it’s not the confronting of racism, housing discrimination, our government and corruption alone. It’s a rejoicing of new life, an ode to musical predecessors and the innocence of childhood; love and heartache; and ultimately, hope. It’s the quintessential exemplification of art and society’s intimacy.
Born toward the closing of the 1970s, I had an abundance of great music at my disposal. My father was one of several musicians in my family, Soul Train was on the air, my mother possessed an enviably vast and large record collection, and video hadn’t killed the radio star quite yet. I witnessed Wonder usher in a holiday for MLK, Michael Jackson moonwalk to “Billie Jean” on Motown 25, and the ascension of The Purple One all in real time. My father and uncle being jazz musicians gave me a vocabulary, history and an exposure to beauty that heightened everything else around me. As hip-hop climbed its way to mainstream status, my siblings and I revisited many of the songs we heard coming up through the art of sampling, with connections and parallels providing a platform for constant conversation at home (usually including “That ain’t nothing but Otis Redding” or “James Brown” and occasionally a nod of approval if it was done with some particular finesse). The longevity of an artist’s career in those days made for simultaneous appreciation from both our parents’ generation and our own. When Aretha Franklin was “Jump(ing) to It” and riding on a “Freeway of Love,” or Diana Ross was “… Coming Out,” it allowed for a shared experience of both sentimentality and discovery.
There is a different level of effort and intentionality needed today to keep the tradition of passing our music down progressive. As a mom, there’s no better way to teach lessons in life to my little boy: Listening to Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” together creates an opportunity to discuss the impetus of the song, activism, courage, and artist responsibility; watching Motown 25 teaches him about artistic lineage, the embodiment of community, torch-bearing and torch-passing; seeing a documentary on Clark Terry’s inspiring lifetime of generosity helped my son to be less hard on himself while practicing his own instrument, and inspired a compassion for our elderly that is now entirely and uniquely his own.
Sure, my son knows a Fetty Wop song or two (and for me as a native New Yorker born in the South Bronx at the dawn of hip-hop, that does grate a bit), but more often he will quote a Michael Jackson lyric, casually sing several bars of Thelonious Monk’s intricate “Light Blue” while coloring, and look in the mirror after a haircut to gleefully report that he looks “just like Nat ‘King’ Cole.” Our music—and therefore our culture—is embodied in his everyday living, not observed from the outside looking in through some nostalgic lens, or worse yet, completely ignored altogether. It’s a living, breathing circulation in the heart, mind, and soul. What our new National Museum of African American History and Culture does on a broad level, we as parents must do on a smaller yet perpetual level. It’s not solely for the purpose of my son not embarrassing me or himself on social media in ten years, or even so he can impress me and my friends with his independent research of liner notes and fast facts. The honorable act of ensuring his understanding of his cultural inheritance is the best portal to self-discovery and consequently a firm footing against a society hell-bent on diminishing our collective genius.
Angelika Beener is an award-winning journalist, with a dynamic career in the music business that stretches over the last 18 years. Angelika is a member of the Jazz Journalists Association and she has contributed pieces to various media outlets and organizations, including DownBeat, Jazz at Lincoln Center,National Public Radio, and Nextbop, among others, and lectures on event panels about jazz journalism in the contexts of race, gender, and generation. Angelika has taken on her most personal career endeavor to date with the creation of Kultured Child, set to launch February 2017. Angelika’s essay, “We Must Begin to Tell Our Young…” is part of the Living Legends Foundation’s series on “The State of Black Music and Beyond.”