As Always, In Parting, RILPS, Don Cornelius.

It is entirely possible that you did not know. Conjurers are rarely still aware of the ripples their handiwork incites, years after they uncork the lightning in their bottles. The world looks different now, like a dystopia that displaces its elders, like a nether region that edges brothers like you right on out of the game.

Your mansion, cold and underinhabited, may’ve felt like an ice floe.

We will never know.

But we are sure that it would’ve taken more than reassurance of your relevance to keep you here. If all you had needed were confirmations of your impact, you could’ve slipped into the back of any black wedding reception or family reunion, could’ve glanced in the general direction of a public school dance troupe, could’ve listened to the hooks in any number of hip-hop songs, keened your ear to the affected baritone of brothers who’d give anything to sound as effortlessly smooth as you. You needn’t have even left your home; there is Centric. There are the chanteuses and crooners who are your contemporaries, still rockin’ steady, still beautifully wooing, still owing you a world they would never have known if you hadn’t created it. There are Crooklyn‘s closing credits. There is the devastated, ever-lovingly devoted ?uestlove.

There are the voices of our parents whenever they talk about how “baaaad” the Soul Train dancers were, their tones still crackling with energy of yore, as they add, “I coulda been one of them, man,” or “I thought I was one.”

You see? It didn’t end with them. What you built was no sprint; this is a relay. Our parents bore your baton. And though your passing may cause the slightest quaver,  the most momentary stumble, we hold it now.

We know the dissonance between the generations. We know your era questions whether ours knows the true meaning of “good music,” or worse, whether we are capable of creating it at all.

You needn’t worry. We understand your labor. We know it has given us opportunities we’ve both cherished and squandered. We realize we would never have had the artistic community, the mainstream exposure, and the simple, undiluted fun we now freely enjoy in musical performance and appreciation were it not for you.

Soul Train was a space for us to shuffle off the coil of code-switching. There, our legends didn’t have to perform for audiences who regarded them as little more than organ-grinders. And our young men had a space where dancing could be un-self-conscious, could have grace and power and coolness and aggression, could escape the stigma of effeminacy. Our young ladies could explore their fashion sense, draping themselves in hood couture, half-shirts and high-waisted pants and maxidresses, while angling their arms, legs, hips and torsos in ways reminiscent of Ernie Barnes’ art.

We understood you, Mr. Cornelius, with few exceptions—until now. As a culture, we still struggle to reconcile suicide. It distances us in ways other deaths tend not to, and when the act is committed by a recluse like yourself, it’s even more bewildering.

But we can love without fully understanding. And we can mourn all that we’ve lost in you, apart from longing to know the mysteries that led you to leave us.

As always, in parting, we wish you love, peace, and soul.

Constants for the Wanderer: Mali Music.

I hadn’t heard of Mali Music before the Gospel Music Channel started incessantly airing Deitrick Haddon’s debut feature film, Blessed and Cursed, which I LOVE for reasons that could probably fill a whole other post. Another day. But yeah, Mali Music played Deitrick’s cohort who “backslides” because he experiences a betrayal as a member of Deitrick’s choir. He then becomes instrumental in setting Deitrick’s character up, inviting him to a club where he encourages him to get completely smashed, while someone tapes the whole drunken mess and takes it back to the Bishop who employed him as a worship leader.

Mali Music doesn’t have very many lines. His most memorable one is something along the lines of, “I’m sick of church. I’m sick of gospel. I’m sick of Bishop. I’m done.”

While I’ve never been there, I understand.

My mother’s marriage fell apart while she and my stepfather were serving as part of our church leadership staff. At the time, I was writing and performing a lot of Christian spoken word—this was before it was en vogue; it was almost unheard of back then, in 1999 and 2000. Arts ministries are relatively new and while drama and liturgical dance were in full bloom, poetry was just becoming a viable ministry medium.

So our family was high profile at our local assembly. My parents were well-liked, sought after, even, when congregants had problems they wanted discussed with discretion, compassion, and respect. And I was kind of this retreating enigma–as soon as church dismissed, I tended to duck out to the car and hide while my parents spent an hour or more post-church-socializing–until I was behind a microphone on the pulpit, rapid-fire reciting admonitions and observations about the crumbling state of the church. (It was your typical fare: get right, we’re too judgmental, be who God made you, don’t conform… but it was delivered so quickly no one caught that it was kind of critical.)

I got a lot of, “When you gon’ write me a poem?” and a lot of requests for performances–at weddings, children’s birthday parties, and funerals. I even did a housewarming once. I felt defined by what people called My Gift, as though I wasn’t much more to anyone than a performer–and a niche one at that, only marketed to church groups and youth conferences.

So I stopped.

My parents left our church. A year or so later, they broke up altogether. I felt like I couldn’t discuss that with anyone at church—it would’ve been a betrayal to my parents, who were still held in high regard by the congregants—but it was a really difficult time for me. Their whole 11-year marriage had been a difficult time for me. And though I enjoyed church–the hallowed way I felt upon entering, the utterly cleansed way I felt walking out, the warm embraces of people who didn’t know my secrets and didn’t need to, to be warm and welcoming–I was always quietly recoiling from it.

I didn’t belong. Anyone who attended church with me, at any point in my life, would disagree. I was a model church member. I dutifully turned to scriptures, took copious notes, highlighted key verses. I raised my hand to answer biblical questions in youth group. I performed at church block parties and washed cars to raise money for the building fund. I passed out bag lunches and Chick tracts to the community. I told strangers that Jesus loved them. I made my all my decisions, particularly those related to private and public conduct, with the very earnest belief that I was being constantly surveilled—by Christ, a nearby congregant, or both.

And these things did give me great joy. I loved everyone I prayed and worked and believed alongside.

But I never felt like I was one of them. My mind was always somewhere else, concocting stories. Writing about “secular things.” I didn’t have much interest in only being a Christian poet or a Christian novelist or a Christian anything. I tried it, making sure that all my stories had a wayward, tortured soul who had a conversion experience by narrative’s end and all my poems referenced scriptures and the Savior. But that felt false somehow–or if not false, then certainly forced. I wanted to use the gifts and talents God knew I’d have when He created me, in any way I saw fit. I didn’t feel a responsibility to contain them, so that they were only functional within a Youth Sunday or special service context.

I just wanted to be a citizen of the world, a writer, a wanderer. I wanted to be like Jesus: everywhere and ever speaking in parables.

But how do you explain that without sounding like a heretic?

You don’t.

You don’t.

But back to Mali Music. I was struck by his character’s frustration in Blessed and Cursed. It stemmed, as a lot of frustration does, from being misunderstood, from being treated with distrust when your intentions are noble. And his response to that frustration was, like mine, the wrong one.

I don’t know much about this artist yet. Sunday, he appeared on the BET Awards, in one of its Music Matters segments. In a post-awards interview, some artist who performed on Music Matters last year, said of Mali Music, whose name he didn’t remember, “His performance gave me chills.” It was unclear whether or not he knew that Mali Music was a Christian artist; it seemed that he didn’t. But he was moved, repeating that phrase twice: “gave me chills,” in a tone that suggested that he didn’t understand how it had happened.

I was on Twitter when he performed, and my timeline had a similar response: “Googling Mali Music.” and “I didn’t know this cat was gospel. He’s not wack.”

I began to feel about him the way I feel about anyone I encounter these days who has cracked the code, who’s found a way to be like Jesus–a citizen of the world, a philosopher/artist/thinker, a wanderer–everywhere and ever speaking in parables–without being confined or cast out.

I think, “Good for him.” I think, “That could be me.”

This morning, I found a song of his from two years ago: “Foolish.” It’s part of a project I didn’t know existed, called Gumbo Red. And the lyrics convey that resonant frustration, this idea that people have to be who we expect them to be in order to be ministerial or even Christian: seminary graduates, skilled musicians, scripture memorizers. The through-line is that God uses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, which is a scripture oft-misinterpreted, if you ask me. Sometimes, people just trot this verse out when they want to use an Isley Brothers sample in a gospel song.

But this song seems to get the scripture right–at least as I understand it. Sometimes the role of art in the Great Commission is just to leave someone feeling moved, without expressly stating why you’re able to do it. This seems to be something Mali Music understands.

There’s another piece to this, involving the Holy Hip-Hop Movement that got its start a few years before I started reading poetry at church and how Mali Music definitely seems to exist within the confines context of that movement, even as his work seems to transcend it. But again: different post, different day.

Sojourner Songs: A Mommy-Daughter Mixtape.

In just over two months, you will be one year old. You are what I imagine you will be: preternaturally strong, exploratory (insomuch that you have made every square inch of our apartment your personal safari), and formidable (insomuch that I’m almost intimidated by the way you lean forward, stare me down, and growl at me when I scold you).

To celebrate your upcoming voyage into newly broken ground, I am packing you a satchel full of things you’ll need to know and of things I hope you’ll come to love.

I have written it before and I’ll repeat myself often: growing up a blackgirl in our country is a singular experience. It is, at times, an iridescent wonder; at other times, it’s an odyssey more treacherous than treasured.

But thank our God that you were born to this lot; it is a lovely one. And in the event that a tempest tosses you off-course and you forget how magnificent our syndicate of sisters truly is, pull back the flap of leather that preserves these mementos of self-worth and remember, my love.

Remember who you are.

1. Lena Horne Sings the ABCs

Lena Horne is our royalty, our Glinda. Benevolent and achingly beautiful even dressed down in denim. She is the embodiment of elegance, and I like to believe we are all born with a measure of what was given to her in abundance. Tap in.

2. India.Arie Sings the ABCs

You already love this. Perhaps when you’re a bit older, you will tell me what value you’ve found in it. I’ve found my own. We’ll compare notes then.

3. Patti LaBelle Sings the ABCs

I’m not a big Patti LaBelle fan, but even I can’t deny how far she dug her foot into this little ditty. For your part, when you heard this for the first time, you leaned in as you are wont to do when things are important to you, and you watched the Muppets shake gospel tambourines to what is, arguably, one of the most important songs you’ll ever learn. You always absorb the alphabet. Though you can’t yet recite it, you understand its potency, that from it, all the words of our everyday world are formed. And what better way to hear it than with flat-footed soul?

4. Paul Simon Sings “Me and Julio Down By the Schoolyard” (with a little blackgirl accompanist)

Paul Simon is an incredible musician, but note how he’s nearly upstaged by the little girl beside him. This is the bold and expressive spirit I wish for you, the shoulder-shaking, full-lunged timbred, quick hand-clapping confidence of a girl who, at the young age of eight, has already found her space in the world.

5. Savion Glover Raps and Taps

Okay, Mommy admits this doesn’t entirely belong here, on a playlist of beautiful colored women. But Savion is always a good idea. You’ll see.

6. “Freedom is Coming” – Sarafina soundtrack

Leleti Khumalo is one of the most gorgeous women I’ve ever watched flit across a screen. As Sarafina, she is equal parts graceful rhythm and open defiance. Her performance is a cautionary tale about how close a young woman can come to losing her humanity in her fight for independence from injustice. Take note of this lesson and heed the position of the needle that guides your moral compass; it will serve you well.

7. “Mundeke” – Afrigo Band

We’ve danced to this. It is a Ugandan love song and you must be able to sense how much I love it, because you’re always quiet for its entire run. It’s almost as if you understand the language. Perhaps, in your way, you do.

8. “Kwazibani” – Nomfusi and the Lucky Charms

This song was written in honor of the singer’s mother, who passed away when she was 12, one of millions of victims of the AIDS pandemic slowly ebbing away so many of the world’s black women. May a reversal of this devastation reach our world within your lifetime.

9. “A Lovely Night” – Brandy, Cinderella

I can’t watch any part of Brandy’s Cinderella with you without crying. It reminds me of how miraculous it is to have a daughter, to whom I can impart all the wonders of my girlhood, with whom I can finally share all the pixie dust I sprinkled alone as an only child.

Listen closely.

Repeat all.

Rest in Peace, Phoebe Snow.

1952-2011

I have a lot that I want to say about the passing of Phoebe Snow. But I don’t have time to truly do it justice. So I’ll just state my intentions and hope they resonate with you. I want to talk about how listening to her makes me feel closer to my father, because without him, I may not have known who she was. One of my best memories with him is listening to “Poetry Man” for the first time, as he drove me around. At the time, I was constantly plagued by this idea that I didn’t know him well enough. All my knowledge felt superficial. Like, I knew him to be a fan of doo wop, R&B, and funk. I knew he likes Earth, Wind, and Fire and The Whispers. But watching him reflectively listen to this quiet song of longing gave me insight into a part of his character to which I’d never been exposed.

I want to talk also about how I just learned today that, while her career was at its peak, Snow gave birth to a daughter with severe brain damage and paused that career to care for her. When her daughter died four years ago, she started to perform again, as a kind of catharsis. But within three years, she too would experience brain trauma; she hemorrhaged in January of last year. As a relatively new mother who’s also at the genesis of a productive writing career, I can’t imagine how different life would be if my daughter hadn’t been born healthy and cognitively independent.

What wonderful mothering. What enduring song.

Rest in peace, Mother Snow.

Be Grateful.

I get chills when I listen to this, and I wanted to share it with you today:

God has not promised me/sunshine.

That’s not the way it’s going to be.

But a little rain, mixed with God’s sunshine…

A little pain…

Makes me appreciate the good times.

If you’ve been following my work here, you’re well aware of how difficult my 2010 was. For the past year, the arteries of my blog have been clogged with musings about my tower of challenges. I value that writing; I’ll continue it. But today, I just want to be appreciative. Of my life. Of my child. Of my God. Of my abilities, my opportunities, my slowly increasing drive. Of my ideas, my future. Of my daughter’s health, of mine. Of my large, extended family. Of the fact that both my parents are still here–and better still, that they are so accessible. How beautiful it is to be able to build bridges of dreams with them and to cross the long-held reservoir of water underneath them.  And what of my daily increasing capacity to love, of this miraculous wonder whose tiny arms reach out, of their own accord, and search for mine, to provide a reanimating embrace at the end of a deeply exhausting day?

Can you imagine? Who could ever lament the obstacles of a life this full and this rich, without taking frequent reflective pauses to say, “Nevertheless…?”

I hope you’ve had a few moments today to take yours.

Let Aretha Be Your Soundtrack

cross-posted from PostBourgie:

Aretha Franklin, circa 1960s

Last week, a friend of my grandmother’s passed away, after a brief struggle with pancreatic cancer. She was chic, impeccably styled and coiffed, well-traveled, well-read, highly educated, and within three months of her diagnosis, she was gone.

For my grandmother, the loss is primary. Her memories with Miss Edna span decades. And in her late 60s, losing lifelong acquaintances is becoming an all too frequent an occurrence.

For my mother, the loss is secondary. She grew up admiring Miss Edna’s poise and the kind way she had of treating young people as equals. She spoke wistfully of her travels and achievements and, in some ways, perhaps, wanted to be quite like her.

For me, the loss is tertiary. What I remember most about Miss Edna is having to hide when she came to visit, because whenever she did, her beloved poodle, Pierre, was in tow, and I was terrified of him. When I was older, though, I wanted her courage. She’d gone after a PhD in middle-age, traveled to Africa alone and lived there for quite some time. She’d raised a son. She’d worked at Morgan State, Baltimore’s favored HBCU. I wanted an inkling of whatever motivated her.

In some ways, our relationships to Miss Edna mirror our relationships to Aretha Franklin.

Nana remembers her first as a dewy ingenue, singing solos with her Daddy’s choir, then as a source of wonder, when at just 19, she could sing heartache that resonated with the long-grown.

Mom remembers her “Soul Train” years: afros and and maxi-dresses and Rock Steady. She remembers breaking up and feeling like the world would stop if an Aretha record did. She played “Till You Come Back to Me” until the vinyl wore thin.

My earliest memories of Aretha are the iconography. I remember her performing, “Think” in a waitress uniform in The Blues Brothers. I remember the fun of spelling (and misspelling) “Respect” on the playground and hearing her cover of “Natural Woman” for the first time on a bra commercial.

But as in the case of Miss Edna, we all, in our own way, claim Aretha as ours. And news of her illness isn’t filtered through our gradations of acquaintance with her. The worry isn’t watered down through the generations.

Whether you heard her first in the 50s or just this week, you likely feel a kinship.

Aretha is your all-knowing aunt. The one who’s been everywhere and always has money and stays telling your mama what to do. The one who’s unlucky in love, but still sings tales of hopeless romance at your parents’ anniversary parties. She’s all brass, strutting into every room with her back straight and shoulders square, no matter how much weight they’re carrying, always wearing something that makes the crowd whoop, “Ooooh, girl! No, you didn’t… She’s known great loss and that glint of loneliness you think you see in her eyes isn’t imagined. And you wish you could tell her how much she’s adored. And you wish you could tell her to take better care of herself. And you wish you knew an accurate count of the women who emulate her.

But she wouldn’t entirely believe you.

You so desperately want her to, especially now, when her time here with you might be more limited, especially now, when you know so well what cancer is capable of.

At its most malevolent, cancer robs. It takes and it takes and it takes; it is insatiable. And you hate to hear that anyone’s body is being pillaged by it.

Hope, if you hope. Pray, if you pray. Wait.

And now, as ever, let Aretha be your soundtrack.