I fell into you. A lucky catch. You caught me before my eyes landed on yours. Wide open. Iris to nose. I was born wild before I lived in you, but I was so eager to escape into a world with more breathing space to fail. Now when you crawl on your feet to get a word to me, I crawl on my knees to serve you.
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.
Teenage dreams were purple, I wore blue and saw red when it got to me. Temper the beast with green, and watch it grow on the other side of the grass I inhaled. Roll without it. Like luck. Washed out. Like denim. Once or twice. Leaves and lies.
Teenage love was letters sent to her mother’s address, with words that spied on her thoughts. She thought. And she’d reply in kind and cursive, signed with a four letter promise of peace and hair grease.
Teenage fears were dying young without knowing that I ever was. I stole and ran, got caught once. A cast hand was clutched by desperation. Who writes poetry for a mute heart? If they didn’t kill me in Harlesden then it wasn’t my time.
Teenage hope was a prayer and a song to quell an asthmatic larynx and shoot hoops to high school glory. It was trying to master lessons of speech therapy and fulfill the prophecy of a Physio. A narrow Queen’s Park corridor was a palace of practice to double dribble and carry my fate quietly.
An Igbo couple in Lagos, 1955, reads the caption. I still find myself in contemplation of the fact that once upon a time most lives lived were untold or rather undocumented. And it didn’t matter. Your world was a village. A town. Maybe the expanse of a city. And that’s all the world that might have known of you. The people you encountered. Perhaps they wouldn’t have a picture of you, so you would have only existed in the memories of people till they unremembered you. Cause you still existed in the memory. At least in real time, when you encountered and were accounted. So what can one do with images without a context? Maybe this is one of the chief reasons why fiction as a literary form is enduring and vital. These people caught in the lens of their lifetime could be any number of possibilities of character and story that is invented. It is probable, though I can’t prove it, that every human scenario has already been lived before so that even projections into vacant images to invent narratives are old tales retold in new clothes.
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.
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.
The writer, Ben Okri (my favourite living author), gave me some great advice. He said I should finish writing whatever it was I was writing. Whether it be music, a novel, a story, a play. Just finish whatever it was and don’t worry about what you do with it. So in the last few years I’ve worked towards finishing pieces and selecting some of the ones that feel most pertinent to my life experience. 22 years of writing as a musically illiterate synesthete has taught me a few things. Such as how life imitates or is foreshadowed by what is expressed creatively. Even years after the fact.
Whether my compositions are any good or not, is not for me to say, though I am pleased with some things. One can never be completely satisfied if they are as creatively ambitious as I am and have been. And failures are foundation stones for one’s character and growth. Its not fun to fail but its one of life’s greatest teachers. Vincent sold one out of the 900 paintings he poured his heart into. A failure in his own lifetime to some. To others he was beyond it. It doesn’t really matter. What counts isn’t the acclaim. If purpose finds you at work, doing what you are compelled to do and at a great risk of going over the edge of reason, who can say that it was not a victory that you even got the paint onto the canvas?
I have completed writing music that is inside me. Another deeply flawed human being has put some paint on the canvas to say something about life and love, pain and joy, fear and hope, death, desire, passion and things of the eternal. Whimsical and serious. Lofty and lo-fi. Between Heaven and the earth my feet lightly hovers above when I day dream. My music is some kind of dance for existence. A Tango Negro of the heart. A waltz of the soul. All my blood is in there. My laughter. My joy. My tears. A lot of tears are in there. I’ve cried a lot of nights into mornings. Quietly. But mostly my love.
“Some go hand in hand, and some go hand in love. Two by two they build their world of love.
Lion with a Lamb. Falcon with a Dove. Step by step they build a world of love.”
– Terry Callier, Timepeace
Timepeace was birthed many years after Terry Callier, a Chicagoan singer-songwriter, had been established as a Folk Jazz maverick on the indie scene. The unanimously positive critical reaction it recieved in the UK led to a career resurgence and his concerts which I never attended, grew significantly in numbers. He played often at The Jazz Cafe. Regrettably, I always missed his shows.
I spent many nights playing Timepeace on repeat in my late teenage years. Sometimes I wouldn’t get past Lazarus Man. When I did, I might have gotten stuck in the mud of Keep Your Heart Right. And if I did get beyond that one I would be overwhelmed by Java Sparrow. Thats how it would be. Keep Your Heart Right played a role in informing some aspects of my being. I’d hear the song in my head in all kinds of situations, encouraging me to do as it said. I’m grateful for it. It nourished me.
There was a period in my life when I was comfortably numb. It lasted about 5 years. But I never willfully closed my heart. Its a strange and inhuman experience to feel nothing. I became aware of the condition of my numbness when my father died. It didn’t begin there. Something inside me died before he passed. I was just cold. I essentially lost 5 years of my life to a state of numbness. Its notable that I wasn’t playing this album during those years. When my heart opened up again and I found myself, these songs would pop back into my head. They were already in my heart.
Timepeace is a part of me. I return to it every now and then. The title track talks of the things that we may have to contend with if we don’t get it together but it resolves to an idea of possibility and hope, that maybe we can build a world of love. In the 90s many recording artists and songwriters put out songs that were hopeful about resolving the challenges of war, poverty, racial prejudice and other ills. Sometimes the tempo the messages were planted on would throw the rider off the proverbial Horse. The paitient tempo of ‘Timepeace’ with Pharoah Sander’s wailing tenor sax serenading the lilting guitar rhythm on a journey just short of 9 minutes is one of my most satisfying and cathartic I have been on. That world of love is a beautiful dream worth living and hoping for, even in the evergrowing darkness of what is yet to come.
I was sold out but I’ve never been for sale. Never sailed. Always took the high way. Floated on love. Never sell the time you purchased with choice.
When I met my father several years after he had left, he remembered that I once wrote him a letter and signed it “with love and honour”. He said it meant a lot to him. I used to write a lot of letters. I was a letter writer to the extreme. A bygone thing. I think I got that from him. He used to write letters with promises of trips around the world when we lived apart. He was in London with my sister and his other family and we were in Imo State, Nigeria. In his letters he often said that we would all go to Rome as a family. Together. I believed him. Rome was the dream. Everytime I watched Roman Holiday which starred Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, I thought about those letters. Rome was a figment of my developing imagination. I now wonder if he wrote similar letters to his other family. The divided sandcastle palace of the mind he built didn’t have room for all to board, but Barrister A.B.C had a way with words that drew people to him. My sister once likened him to the character of Arthur Daley in Minder, played by George Cole. I can kinda see that. A bit of Del Boy too. He was charismatic and believable. A charmer. Charmed my mother with enchanted promises. Till the spell wore off and the aftermath of the devestation of a life was visible.
They say romance is a thing of the past. I don’t believe that. As long as there are still romantics. The world today is not as kind a place for romantics, if it ever was. Letter writing was once the ultimate stage of romance. I carried on writing letters through my teenage years. To friends. To those who I hoped would look twice at me. Smitten hearted letters aplenty. Some got the measure of me, and some were wildly expressive. An outpouring. I wore my heart on my tear stained sleeve. I never signed off with love and honour to anyone else in the years since he reminded me of it. To love and honour, I understood what it meant, so I couldn’t cheapen it with nonchalance or play wreckless word games with hearts and minds on the line. I guess I have my father to thank for that in an ironic way. I found some other letters he wrote to people I know of. Elaborately worded. He was a letter writer to the extreme.