Monday, July 2, 2012

Return of The Soul Brother

I caught D’Angelo on the BET Awards the other night. (July 1). His set included a classic ballad of his, and a bouncing, funky groove from his new upcoming album. He played some mean piano, and cooked up the funk at the end with a jam that started to truly smoke, and just pushed aside the shallow pop dribblers in the audience. D’Angelo deliberately gave us multiple sides of this soul/funk master in effect. It was so so refreshing.

It is so important for a “Soul Singer” to re-emerge with the values of Soul, because the idea has been getting a bad wrap lately. When Barack Obama “Slow jammed the news” with Jimmy Fallon in April, it let us all know that, while Obama has his ‘race’ card fully intact, it also made a statement that the slow jam from a strong man is now an artifact, an item to be manipulated like a trinket at tourist trap gift shop.

Black popular music has been in bad shape for a number of years. It is not simply that people are not talented, well ok, a case can be made that the talent level of black popular artists of recent vintage has been lacking, but a larger issue has developed, one in which black male performers are caught in a creative vise grip, due to forces from within and without.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled to come across such young female firebrands as Ledisi, Goapele, and Jill Scott. The rise of mature black women such as Sharon Jones & her Dap Kings is heartwarming. Esperanza Spalding is a delight and a genius, and her incredible album “Radio Music Society” is a ray of hope for black popular music.

But I’ve been asking myself for years now, where are the brothers? Can a brotha sing with the raw power of Ledisi or the hypnotic allure of Esperanza Spalding or exotic passion of Goapele? For what its worth, the great female pop stars enjoy a range of styles and sounds in their works. Even Beyonce can do ballads as well as dancefloor burners.

The brothers? Well there have been some great lovermen, bedroom crooners like Eric Benet and the legendary Luther Vandross. But their range remains in the bedroom, as if they are capable of imagining nothing else. This is a problem.

To their credit, a wave of new black male vocalists is on the scene, trying to break out of the loverman image, and present themselves as thoughtful, original, entertainers. I’m not talking about the Bruno Mars clown show or the Chris Brown fiasco, but provocative and original black male singers like Bilal, Martin Luther, Van Hunt, Reggie Watts, Amp Fiddler, Dwele, and a long list of others.

Most of these self styled soul brothas do a fine job of working around a musical idea, of working around a groove, and working their emotions to make excellent songs of personal love and a greater social love.

But without attempting any disrespect, to my ear, most of their songs sound like Prince or Marvin Gaye b-sides. Not that this is a bad thing necessarily, but everyone is trying to be the next b-side balladeer. Where is the next Rick James? So much great soul music works around a soft side, but nobody wants to stand up and throw down!

As much as these fine neo-soul singers emulate the b-side material of Prince and Marvin Gaye and the ballads of Michael Jackson, it is as if they have forgotten that Prince and MJ would rip the dancefloor to pieces with their hot funky party jams. As much as Prince could create an intimate bedroom mood and writhe on the floor in intense passion, he is still just as capable of bringing that passion to the Funk, to the party music.

Dwele in the club? Bilal stomping the stage? Van Hunt doing some club moves? He tried on his second album, but just didn’t put it together. It is like they are all doing the ‘safe’ black male singing thing. The hard stuff, well, let’s face it, that’s the domain of the rappers.

As I see it, we all have abdicated a critical perspective on our young male artists, and simply allowed them to diverge into one of two characters: the hypermasculine hip hop male pimp-daddy clown, or the hyper-sexualized R&B man-servant. Where is the middle ground? In this formula, folks like R. Kelly show their ‘hardness’ by their ability to abuse and humiliate women, not in their abilities to rouse their passions in a dance.

My issue is this: to be a black male soul singer today, these artists are compelled to leave their masculinity at the door. One can be a lover, but not a fighter too.

You want to emulate some great black soul singing? Try the Isley Brothers’ “The Pride” or “Who’s That Lady” or “Fight the Power.” We all love Ronnie Isley, but he did far more than great love ballads. Everyone remembers the O’Jays ballads like “Cry Together” and “”Let Me Make Love to You” – because they get played on ‘quiet storm’ radio formats regularly - but they also scorched the dancefloor with the number one pop tune “I Love Music” and the legendary “For the Love of Money” was a funk classic. And while we regularly hear legendary Lionel Richie ballads like “Just to Be Close to You” and “Three Times A Lady,” people forget that he was singing in the Commodores at the time, and those same albums had bigger hits with dancefloor punishers “Fancy Dancer,” “Slippery When Wet” and “Brick House.”

But here’s my deal: almost all of these newbies are masters of the whispering/singing/whining bedroom tones that are the “standard” of black music nowadays. Van Hunt blew up in 2004 with an amazing debut album and the single “Seconds of Pleasure” and he’s been trying to figure out how to get past that image ever since.

The emasculation of the black male soul singer is a direct reflection of the fossilization of the black male image in the public imagination – as a rapper, as a thug, as a hip hop gangster – in a hoodie. Nothing confirms this pathetic state of the black male image more starkly thatn the wanton attack on black teenager Trayvon Martin, who was walking from a convenience store “in a hoodie” and therefore “looking suspicious.” The resultant harrasment, confrontation and murder of the Trayvon Martin is a direct result of the public image of the young black male as one of impossibly narrow characteristics: violent, criminal thug. Despite the fact that the Commander in Chief is an African Amerian who claims his son would ‘look like Trayvon” the fact remains that someone or some thing or some entity in our nation has fixated upon the black male and fixed in the national imagination a black man with narrow ideas, narrow values, and a presence to be feared.

This onslaught, while centuries in the making, can be disrupted, because it was disrupted in the past. For this to take place, black male entertainers can and must expand beyond their accepted ‘loverman’ stereotypes, and try to become spokespersons for a greater kind of love. John Legend made an admirable attempt in 2008 when he performed at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in support of Barack Obama’s nomination. He was joined by fellow stereotype distruptor Will.I.Am.

Unfortunately, black music after Obama’s election, like the movement that supported it, faded back to the standard status quo of pop nonsense, masculine blather and loverman overload.

Black artists and entertainers have a bound social contract with their community that they fail to adhere to when they narrow their voice to a simple stereotypical sound. This was and is the triumph of D’Angelo, to break through and destroy these stereotypes and present to the world a soulful black man.

This is why it is so important for artists like Martin Luther to expand beyond their love songs and become the psychedelic badass “Martian” Luther, with hard driving – indisputably masculine music – that showcases a range of black male musicality and masculinity, of vision and attraction, in complex ways.

This is why the return of D’Angelo is so important to the popular music scene, and to Black America overall. A creative tour de force, and a vibrant, masculine vigorous black man with ideas, vision and visceral magnetism has not been seen in the public domain in years. With the death of Barry White, of the Godfather of Soul James Brown, the passing of Teddy Pendergrass, the murder of Marvin Gaye, the suicide of Donny Hathaway, the deaths of Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Phillipe Wynne of the Spinners, Joe Tex, Eddie LaVert and so many others, the broad minded black male has become a forgotten commodity in the American commercial culture.

D’Angelo represents so much more. He is a card carrying funkateer, with a repertoire of ballads and hard driving funk and thoughtful, spiritual soul that makes all the connections. The connections that the Original Soul Prophets – Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway, Al Green, Sly, Aretha et al, were capable of doing on a regular basis.

D’angelo frames his work on his own, referencing Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, the Isley Brothers and George Clinton, as well as Prince and Marvin Gaye. His presence is as masculine as any of the rappers, yet his emotionality is a deep as any of the crooners. These were the traits of the original soul masters, capable of exuding masculinity and embracing their feminine side in a fearless expression of love of the human condition. This is where the black male soul singers need to go, so we can return to a sense of unity within our music and ourselves.