By Albert Samaha
By Darwin BondGraham
By Keegan Hamilton
By Anna Merlan
By Anna Merlan
By Tessa Stuart
By Tessa Stuart
By Albert Samaha
What Black American culture—musical and otherwise—lacks for now isn't talent or ambition, but the unmistakable presence of some kind of spiritual genius: the sense that something other than or even more than human is speaking through whatever fragile mortal vessel is burdened with repping for the divine, the magical, the supernatural, the ancestral. You can still feel it when you go hear Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman, Aretha Franklin, or Cecil Taylor, or when you read Toni Morrison—living Orishas who carry on a tradition whose true genius lies in making forms and notions as abstract, complex, and philosophical as soul, jazz, or the blues so deeply and universally felt. But such transcendence is rare now, given how desperate, soul-crushing, and immobilizing modern American life has become for the poorest strata of our folk, and how dissolute, dispersed, and distanced from that resource-poor, but culturally rich, heavyweight strata the rest of us are becoming. And, like Morrison cautioned a few years ago, where the culture is going now, not even the music may be enough to save us.
The yin and yang of it is simple: You don't get the insatiable hunger (or the Black acculturation) that made James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, and Michael Jackson run, not walk, out the 'hood without there being a 'hood—the Olympic obstacle-course incubator of much musical Black genius as we know it. As George Clinton likes to say, "Without the humps, there's no getting over." (Next stop: hip-hop—and maybe the last stop, too, though who knows, maybe the next humbling god of the kulcha will be a starchitect or a superstring theorist, the Michael Jackson of D-branes, black P-branes, and dark-energy engineering.) Black Americans are inherently and even literally "damaged goods," a people whose central struggle has been overcoming the non-person status we got stamped and stomped into us during slavery and post-Reconstruction and resonates even now, if you happen to be Black and poor enough. (As M-1 of dead prez wondered out loud, "What are we going to do to get all this poverty off of us?") As a people, we have become past-masters of devising strategies for erasing the erasure. Dreaming up what's still the most sublime visual representation of this process is what makes Jean-Michel Basquiat's work not just ingenious, but righteous and profound. His dreaming up the most self-flagellating erasure of self to stymie the erasure is what makes Michael Jackson's story so numbing, so macabre, so absurdly Stephen King.
The scariest thing about the Motown legacy, as my father likes to argue, is that you could have gone into any Black American community at the time and found raw talents equal to any of the label's polished fruit: the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, or Holland-Dozier-Holland—all my love for the mighty D and its denizens notwithstanding. Berry Gordy just industrialized the process, the same as Harvard or the CIA has always done for the brightest prospective servants of the Evil Empire. The wisdom of Berry's intervention is borne out by the fact that since Motown left Detroit, the city's production of extraordinary musical talent can be measured in droplets: the Clark Sisters, Geri Allen, Jeff Mills, Derrick May, Kenny Garrett, J Dilla. But Michael himself is our best proof that Motown didn't have a lock on the young, Black, and gifted pool, as he and his siblings were born in Gary, Indiana: a town otherwise only notable for electing our good brother Richard Hatcher to a 20-year mayoral term and for hosting the historic 1972 National Black Political Convention, a gathering where our most politically educated folk (the Black Panther Party excepted) chose to shun Shirley Chisholm's presidential run. Unlike Motown, no one could ever accuse my Black radical tradition of blithely practicing unity for the community. Or of possessing the vision and infrastructure required to pull a cat like Michael up from the abysmal basement of America and groom him for world domination.
Motown saved Michael from Gary, Indiana: no small feat. Michael and his family remain among the few Negroes of note to escape from the now century-old city, which today has a Black American population of 84 percent. These numbers would mean nothing if we were talking about a small Caribbean nation, but they tend to represent a sign of the apocalypse where urban America is concerned. The Gary of 2009 is considered the 17th most dangerous city in America, which may be an improvement. The real question of the hour is, How many other Black American men born in Gary in 1958 lived to see their 24th birthday in 1982, the year Thriller broke the world open louder than a cobalt bomb and remade Black American success in Michael's before-and-after image? Where Black modernity is concerned, Michael is the real missing link: the "bridge of sighs" between the Way We Were and What We've Become in what Nelson George has astutely dubbed the "Post-Soul Era"—the only race-coded "post" neologism grounded in actual history and not puffery. Michael's post-Motown life and career are a testament to all the cultural greatness that Motown and the chitlin circuit wrought, but also all the acute identity crises those entities helped set in motion in the same funky breath.