Curtis’s hands were important. Not more than his heart. When he recorded his last album he had only the use of his neck and the head attached to it which housed his genius mind to do the work of breathing out hope into a world that had tasted too many losses to inhale the optimism extolled through music. His heart still functioned effectively and the evidence of soul and spirit was still audible. Lying on his back he recorded one short phrase at a time. Phrase by phrase, a word became a line of lyric. Phrase by phrase, a line of lyric became a verse. And then a chorus. And then a bridge. Curtis’s hands remained still and silent through this process. The eyes watched and waited for something that the hands knew would never happen again. Curtis could not find feeling in the physical form of hands that had mastered a style of guitar playing that was unique to himself. Hands that shaped sounds for Hendrix and Marley to study. Hands dramatically and unwillingly put to rest. And this is why those hands are a great teacher. In their absence of use he martialed the figurative hands that survived the destruction of his body, from the neck that shouldered the weight of his head, with a voice which expressed his deepest feelings in song. A lifetime’s worth of wisdom and openess to the mysteries of life. I remember listening to New World Order and being humbled by Curtis’s generosity of spirit, and in awe of what he accomplished in terms of sonic life affirmations in such desperate circumstances. The testament of the spirit when it intersects with the divine is all one can hope for when one puts in the work of exhalation. Curtis Mayfield’s musical soul holds the hands that raise up the weary hearted head of hurts. Unbowed.
Today is a wedding ceremony. A marriage of possibilities. My cousin has exchanged vows and time will study and tell what it has seen, heard and known under God. Black life like black bodies have long been a surrealistic feast for the voyeuristic eyes of fetishists and fantasists. Joseph Conrad could not open his eyes even behind the safety of his pen, to straddle his imaginative reconstructions of the monolithic burden bearers in the heart of darkness situated in the continent of his mind’s perception.
Baldwin generously invested the deformed and fragmented faces of exotica with the unusual idea that they were worthy of being depicted as fully human, even in a foreign land. The continent is not a country. And a country in this context is not a geographical destination. The poetry of Baldwin is not merely the words sentenced to a page but rather the lives affirmed by his words dancing to the tune past the margins of hate and redeemed by love. In his writings love is the great pacifier even when it sets fire to our expectations and challenges our notions of who is worthy of grace, and the horrors that transgress the invisible inhabitants who are generational custodians of a manifested multifaceted curse with wings.
Barry Jenkins painted the poetry of James Baldwin beautifully in ‘If Beale Street Cold Talk’. Next week lovers around the world will serenade each other with cards, gifts and kisses flavoured with wine and chocolates. Babies will be conceived. Lies will be ever more creative. Truths with be earnest and unsparing. Death will still be in business. Card or no card. Life will go on. Love in its bittersweetness covers the multitude and will endure the fall out. A torn page is the pity that a chapter can afford to lose.
“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”
Some years ago, I spent a considerable amount of pounds to get my hands on a first pressing of this record. It wasn’t the first nor the last time I would splash out for Aretha rarities. I spent beyond my means on many occasions for Aretha records, and I didn’t regret it because I loved her. Its a perculiar thing to say, because my relationship with her was strictly through her music. But I know why I loved her and always will. It goes without saying that she was set apart when she emerged into mainstream consciousness. She was of a tribe and community but yet she was different. Unique. Singular in her genius. She was the Mount Olympus of popular music singers in what is sometimes referred to as the Rock era. Her sound was and is both ancient and future, so the era which she is associated with, could not hold her captive.
I have been reading two books about Aretha in recent months. One is about her album, Amazing Grace, and the other is about the warts and all of her life. I put down one of them and stuck a pile of books on top. I’m slowly advancing through the other. I recognise people in Aretha. People that I love but who will forever remain something of a mystery. There is no book that can be written that will quell the intrigue or reveal her more precisely than her voice and rendering of songs. Lady Soul and her voice belong to the mystery and the wonder of faith in the divine. God gifted we often say. Death is a mystery as is life. And so is love. And so is God. When Job cried out in indignation, he was confronted by that mystery. So it is love and God, the mystery of mysteries that I hear when I listen beyond the pain and pleasure of death and life in her voice. Life affirmed. Resurrected from death. The pleasure coiled around the pain. The sensuality of life. The fragility. The indomitability of the spirit that hollers. The soul that bleeds. Loud. She resembles my mother in a lot of those late 60s to mid 70s images captured by publicity departments and press. Old photographs are things of wonder. And my mother’s face in her youth is as beautiful, vibrant and full of possibilities as Aretha’s voice. All that history is interwoven with all that future, which we can only live to know. Aretha Now. That was not just an album title. Taking heed of a moment on a journey that is still ahead. With hope in God.
Over the last weekend I went to a memorial service for two souls who are believed to have lost their mortal lives in the Grenfell Tower fire. Their premature death, or life, depending on how one perceives life and death, has been politicised as is par for the course these ominous days. They have become symbols of the wealth and class disparity in Tory Britain. If one was to reach into conspiracy territory, they are sacrifices for the status quo. I’m aware that it is a loaded perspective and sensitive to speak of such things at this time. I had met the woman at the heart of this trajedy in the weeks prior to the apocalypse that met her and her son, two floors above the ladder’s summit. Her big and beautiful brown eyes held all the mystery and vitality of the Sun that replenishes what the grey of life’s trials is so adept in sucking out of us. I’m also ashamed to admit that I stayed outside during portions of the service for no good reason other than perhaps the trauma of knowing, only to later learn more about what happened in their attempts to escape. It turned out to be far worse than I imagined. And yet to hear that there was a valiant fight in vain to survive and not merely succomb to the flames and poisonous fumes is in keeping with the character of one who had overcome so much, and fought to the end. As of my writing of these words, they have not yet found the body of the mother and child. They will not find their spirits either. Their remains, if found, can not testify of a mother’s love but her story lives in the memories of a transformed life that beat some great odds in earlier chapters. In her final moments it was her faith that stood between her and the figurative September. The new term ceased upon her life like the old enemy it has always been. Death has no friends but faith, hope and love are its foe.
On Monday evening I ventured on my way to one of London’s prettiest cinemas, The Electric on Portebello road, to watch a documentary film about the demise of one of the great vocalists of our time. Along the way I saw posters of the missing people of Grenfell in all kinds of places. I moved between Kensington and Ladbroke Grove and had to stop every so often to look at a face stuck on a highstreet shop window or wall with a name in bold. I was struck by the image of a little girl on a poster attached to a pole. The face of the little girl was open. A blank page of possibility. Then I remembered that on the bus I took to Notting Hill, there was a woman carrying a picture of a girl who looked similar to the one that had caught my attention and brought my footsteps to a halt. I stared at both faces, the one in front of me and the cloudy image in my faltering memory. It may very well have been the same girl. It dawned on me that the woman on the bus might have been out on the streets searching for any strands of information. She was not giving up hope of finding the dead or alive body of a little blank book of a life yet to be written, amidst a seemingly hopeless circumstance. Perhaps in time we who live to remember will reason that the fire stole many lives but it did not consume all of our hope. Pain is timeless but so is the hope that one day pain will be no more. This is the burden we carry from one heartbreak to another, with a wry smile alongside the tracks of our tears.