Cicely

My sister shared some things with me today about her experience of watching the major television event, Roots, in the 70s. A bit before my time (I watched it much later), she can vividly remember that other black families would come over to our little house when it was on. It brought people together. And its notable that she can recall the role and performance of one woman in particular.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the impact of the great Cicely Tyson extended to these shores as great Artists transcend their geography. A standard bearer for excellence, the significance of her complexion is equally as relevant as her talent and honed craft. The things that my sister believed about herself had much to do with what she was taught and not taught by the world she inhabited. The making and unmaking starts very early. So when she watched Ms Tyson on screen she saw her kin. Though culturally different, a woman as dark and beautiful as she was, with an undeniable presence. Not what they told her at school. You don’t learn and unlearn who you are every February. The work to excavate one’s true worth is a daily endeavour, and inspiration can take the form of a book you read or a great actress lighting up the screen with grace and extraordinary command. It’s not baiting to testify. It also doesn’t edify to be silent on things that matter to people and how they percieve themselves. The seeds that Ms Tyson sowed on her journey as an actress have produced fruit in many fields of imagination. That’s something worthy of acknowledgement alongside her illustrious body of work that lives. Continuity in life and what one hopes for in the aftermath is to have served purpose in time. The rest and restitution is deep and dark waters and the light hovers over it.

On Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On

January 20th 2021

Happy 50th anniversary to the song, What’s Going On, gifted to a nation and the world by Marvin Gaye and Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson of The Four Tops. A timeless artistic statement that begat a song suite that moved the proverbial mountain. If it was a question without the mark in 1971, it is an unmarked question still being asked in 2021. Perhaps Amanda Gorman’s profound and timely words in her presidential inaguration poem, The Hill We Climb, delivered in Marvin’s home state, is an answer to the rhetorical question which will move the conversation forward. Whatever the case may be, What’s Going On is a mirror of the future that was yesterday and might yet be tomorrow. A perfect groove for its and our imperfect time. Prophetic in the slow drag of change for those who want all the smoke and more. How long it has been is easier to ascertain than how far. It has travelled 50 short years of joy and pain in repetition.

On one level, the title song and the majority of the album (5 of the 9 songs) is a duet with James Jamerson’s majestic Bass guitar playing. It is a fitting tribute to Jamerson and The Funk Brothers, the unsung heart of the Motown sound, and a fitting farewell to the Detroit era of the company that Berry Gordy built. Hard to believe that Marvin had to fight for it to get released. Berry, to his credit, has admitted that he (and his much lauded quality control) got this one wrong as history has proven. The great melodies on top of The Funk Brothers’s dynamic rhythm section which Marvin affectionately refered to as the black bottoms were taken to the heavens by David Van De Pitte’s orchestral string arrangements. The strings are not required to soften the sting when Marvin speaks of institutional oppression aka police brutality (“trigger happy policing”) and indifference (“send that boy off to die”) on Inner City Blues. The strings help to paint the soundscape of empathetic pity when he laments ecological apathy on Mercy, Mercy Me (“fish full of mercury”). The strings also heighten the intensity and sense of urgency when he makes a passionate plea for the children to be saved on Save The Children (“Who really cares to save a world that is destined to die”).

There is unselfconscious pride and joy in Marvin’s expression of faith when he exalts the love for and fellowship he has with God on track 5, God Is My Friend (“Don’t go and talk about my father”). It takes on even more poignancy when you factor in Marvin’s death by the hands of his biological father. As one who was and is informed by the Christian faith and doctrine, I felt a kinship with the Artist and the music on spiritual grounds conveyed in both the musical and lyrical sentiments. Right On and Wholy Holy are as elemental as John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme with its mantra, though I’ve since learned that it was actually Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew which was the notable Jazz album influence on Marvin’s venture into this unprecedented music, along with Lester Young’s horn playing. James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James was another album Marvin cited as an influence on What’s Going On.

The album’s universality is revealed in the layers and Marvin’s candid nature didn’t shy away from the autobiographical underbelly that underpins a song like Flying High (In The Friendly Sky), about the boy (old slang for Heroin) “who makes slaves out of men”. The plight of many soldiers who fought and survived an unceremonious war in Vietnam only to be unwelcomed home is given sensitively rendered and compassionate voice. Those letters his brother wrote to him about his experience in ‘Nam marked him deeply. Its also no secret that Marvin had a long battle to the end with demons that poisoned his mind and body. But he felt God was at work during the What’s Going On sessions and was able to find temporary respite from psychosexual battles in his mind that a lot of people who were raised in Church and exposed to both sides of the flipped coin of hypocrisy at home go through (Sexual healing takes on a deeper meaning). A duel of religious fervour and unrighteous idignation which betrays the spiritual integrity of the gospel message. The fall is no respecter of persons. We might not all have experienced the horror of an imperial attempt at conquest that was the Vietnam war but we all have our own internal wars and battles we fight daily and in some seasons of our lives. Our own vices and the devices that wage against our sanity and soul. Marvin put the listener inside the mind of the slave of the ‘boy’. It’s a mini-masterpiece of personification and humanism.

Whenever I listen to What’s Happening Brother, I can’t help but shed a tear in my heart for the love and camaraderie that Marvin had for his brother Frankie, and his community. Three years after the passing of Dr King, It was both a personal message of affinity in acknowledgment of the black struggle in America and one that extended to his ‘brothers’ in a time when it really was about unity and brotherly love cause all you had was faith, hope, and eachother against the tides of the times, the system, and the man. There were so many musical acts, writers and producers in soul music and the Jazz of the time that put out messages of brotherly (and sisterly) love in the black community, less than two decades after integration was passed into law. Curtis Mayfield. Aretha Franklin. The Staple Singers. Stevie Wonder. Donny Hathaway. Earth, Wind & Fire. Gladys Knight & The Pips. The Isley Brothers. The O’Jays. Gamble & Huff. The list is long. It was a golden age for sure.

I had already listened to the song Inner City Blues on a compilation cd that came with an edition of Vibe magazine in 1995 when I was 14. I still have that cd. The title song, and the What’s Going On album came into my life when I was 15 or 16 (depending on the the month). Up to that point, I was predominantly a Rap music fiend. Nas. Jeru The Damaja. The real boom bap kind of lyrical rap and pretty much anything I could get off the radio from DJ 279 on the Friday Nite Flava or Tim Westwood’s show. I also listened to The Lady Of Soul, Jenny Francis’s show on Choice FM. I was in love with her speaking voice. She played all the hot and cool r&b. Midtempo to slow jams. I listened to her show for years with a blank tape in the deck for recording. So many hours of listening pleasure. I watched Top Of The Pops and enjoyed the diverse pop and dance music of the time. But one afternoon What’s Going On would change my world and open me up in a way I had never experienced before through sound.

I remember being magnetically drawn to the What’s Going On album cover when I saw it on display in the record store, Our Price, on Kilburn High Road (coincidentally Marvin was once a Kilburn resident for a very brief time). Our Price has gone the way of a lot of record stores. It only exists now in fading memory. I often stopped by there on the way home from school to check out the latest R&B and Rap music releases. Or just to look at and sometimes listen to records I couldn’t afford to buy. Compact discs were so expensive in the 90s. Most of what little money I had after I tithed for Church, went on cassette and sometimes cd singles so buying a whole album was a big deal for me. I had to be sure. In Our Price, people were allowed to listen to a record they wanted to hear before purchasing and even if one didn’t make a purchase the staff were cool. They supplied the headphones. That afternoon I listened to the whole 35 minutes and 38 seconds of What’s Going On in the store. Fortunately nobody else was waiting to listen at the front, so they just left me alone and I lost or rather found myself in the music. I remember that wave after wave of colours saturated my mind and body. Seeing and feeling colours. I didn’t know anything about Synaesthesia at that time. Purely in terms of colour, the sonic experience was intensely emotional. I was emotionally overwhelmed. I’ve never forgotten the way it made me feel that first time. It was the beginning of a great and enduring love affair with the album and soul music. I went on to immerse myself in everything I could find going back to the Doo Wop era, from music to books and film. It was the chief inspiration for me to want to write songs and music. I didn’t know how but I was compelled to try. It remains the most impactful experience I have had as a music listener and lover.

I was almost born on Marvin’s birthday. I came to learn that I shared some uncanny parallel experiences with him when I read the posthumous biography that he was working on with David Ritz before he passed. Maybe there is something more in the connection that explains the experience I had that afternoon in Our Price. Life is full of mysteries.

Today

Paul. Medgar. Malcolm. Martin. Bodies of murder. Not all by the bullet. Hazel. Claudette. A day for one. A day for all. Slow death tames the loud and proud. They burried the living and laughed with them as they turned pages and cheeks. Mighty like Jehu. Zealous too. Lap the water with cuped hands and you keep your eyes open so that you don’t fall for the dream that sleeps with your unfaithful heart. That young man you see is that old man that sighs. Been here before. Been new. Been clean. Been old for sure. Been dead. Some die to live. Some love to death. And some tarry with the years they accumulate. Caesar takes his cut but no deals with black messiahs. Hoover up the Hamptons. Freddie’s dead as Curtis said. Been here before. Known the soil like they knew soul food. Like cotton. Like candy. Like us. We were sweet. We were lovers. She loved him dearly. Loved us to life. Dreams. That’s what it was. We were ideas. Not fixed. Not defined. We were possibilities for the pulled trigger to decipher. And bullets explore continents with names like Robeson. Evers. X. King. Scott. Colvin…….. ……… ………. ….. ……. ……… ….. …… …… ……. ……. …….. …….. ….. And years blow back to hunt the now before we wake with ideas to fix and define today.

Miles

A complex beast is the capacity to make music that is more humane than we can sometimes be to each other. The horn plays the player as much as the player plays the horn. Francis might have been the miles of music he heard after she was gone. Do we always hurt the ones we love the most? And did that thought ever cross his mind?

Here in this candid moment we project the idea of him that is safest for us to hold. The totality of a life is not safe to hold. We are dangerous terrain and our journey to meet each other might be on an unpaved road. The sign says I Dare You. Travelling miles alongside you to discover a fraction of the universe that you are, is several lifetimes we will never live. But you can play Blue In Green. It will tell you something. Maybe enough to go down that unpaved road of the lover you uncoiled for.

Neck

Neck turns the head but the heart anchors down by the habour of time. Fortified walls have felt the fury of arrows with intent, to learn of flesh pierced by desire. So ancient, a love that captures futures for you. Kingdoms of dust blown away, I wait for the arrival of your shadow to light up my eyes.

Light Bearer

60 years later. Multiplied by countless lives lived with a possibility that didn’t exist before a 6 year old child walked bravely to school, escorted by bodyguards and unseen Angels. To bear light. To shift time forward. Ahead of the appointment. To shake earth beneath stubborn feet. Moving the mountain aside to make a pathway for light to travel through. Bearer of….a burden. Light is a burden to harness.

London

This Roman city has been my stomping ground for all my life, and like a woman, it remains a mystery to me. A beautiful and sometimes infuriating mystery. And with all its challenges and failings, it has a beating heart that dares you to embrace it. Its old architecture and industry built from the profits of the slave trade, colonialism and the far reaches of the British Empire are part of London’s legacy. As a post colonial descendant, I am able to harness the history of London as both a symbol and witness of the city’s possibilities. The immigrant blood that upholds the NHS and that has permeated its way into the life and culture of Londoners is only one of many ways in which the history contends with the present. I try to see the beauty, resilience and hope that escapes into the polluted London air. I see the London of the Arts. I think of the fact that London can claim Mozart, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley and Marvin Gaye as former residents. Its been the city of visionaries like William Blake. It gave the world the genius pathos of Charlie Chaplin. Its the city of Shakespeare and boasts the world’s greatest theatre scene and tradition. Charles Dickens did not hide the ugliness and brutality of London. Neither did Dizzee Rascal. As reflected in the Grime and Drill music, London has a screw face too. Knives and young lives have not been kind to eachother. But I’ll always be grateful to London because its where I found the great love of my life. She knows who she is. I hope that we will enjoy this city together again someday. A man can dream. I love London.

McCoy

Compositionally, I was hoping that some of the flavour of Duke’s Money Jungle, Thelonious Monk and the 70s era of my favourite Jazz pianist, McCoy Tyner, pictured here, who passed in March this year might be found in one of my latest musical pieces, ‘Continents’. One of my greatest concert regrets is missing his last gig in London at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz club. I had my ticket but as has happened on many occasions due to a deficient memory, I unremembered on the night it took place. It was only some days after that I realised it had past.

McCoy was the last man standing from what I believe to be the greatest Jazz quartet and one of the greatest groups of musicians in the long history of people banging, squeezing, and plucking on things to make music. Alongside John Coltrane, Elvin Jones and Jimmy Garrison, Tyner made music that lifted the level of consciousness and seemingly held down the foundations of something ancient and future, just beyond the grasp of comprehension. The abstract and formal, the beauty of McCoy’s comping and soloing on ‘My Favorite Things’ is a love letter to the questing nature and curiousity of what it is to be human. The technique and the soul was never in doubt, when McCoy played his instrument.

Down

You are my lower E string. You pulled me down to the depths. I have been with you all my years. And all my wars were fought with you. It is calm now. You gentle away the chaos. Long before I was chained to your wind, the ground held me tight. I looked down and never fell too hard to hurt you. Just in love.

The Count

Fated to believe that it really does count. That numbers add up. The crosses and knives cut deeper than words and silence. Knowing that the count starts before you, runs ahead of aspiration, and the novelistic length of your thoughts. That desire carries you as far as you let it linger. A kiss inverted. You swallow your own lies. But they taste good.