After hearing news of the Trayvon Martin verdict, I had two intense desires. The first was to call my mother. She was not surprised by the ruling at all. In that simple way mothers say so much with so little, she delivered a line that perhaps summed it all up: “This IS America, isn’t it?”
The second need was to count my hoodies. Remember where I got them, when I’ve worn them, what they’ve meant to me. I can think of four from the not so distant past.
Two from Incarnate Word, my alma mater. One grey, one black. I wore them religiously in undergrad, and for a while in graduate school as well. I still have them both, though I stopped wearing the Black one after about a dozen DC cabbies refused to pick me up in the rain when I used it to cover my head.
There was the blue one I got from Oregon Public Broadcasting when I spent a few months working there. I wore it a few times, but it was too big.
There was the grey one from Urban Outfitters that I wore to cool hipster bars in the District and many times while walking my pitbull terrier, Zora around LeDroit Park. I specifically remember one night walking her with the UO hoodie on. It was raining. Midway through the walk, I stopped, dead in my tracks, scaring my dog. I realized — suddenly — that I was a Black man wearing a hoodie at night, while walking a pit bull. I was scared I might scare somebody. It was the week that the Trayvon case was finally starting to get major national press. I pulled down the hood. And got soaked.
Since Saturday night, I have not stopped thinking about my hoodies. They’ve floated in and out of my consciousness over and over again. Distracting me from work calls and emails. Taking me down paths full of what-ifs, imagined nightmare scenarios, and overly-sentimental promises to my future children, whoever they might be.
I wonder how many Black men across the country have been counting hoodies over the course of the Trayvon Martin saga, or hell, over the course of their entire lives. How many mothers have gone through their sons’ closets, making judgments about what items of clothing may or may not get them arrested, or harassed, or killed? How many versions of “The Talk” have been meted out, with equal parts sadness, diligence, resignation?
How much do we lose in all of this? Not just in life, but in time? It’s easier to count the number of young Black and brown men dead because of profiling gone wrong, than it is to total up the entirety of energy, and frustration and passion that goes into being colored in a world where hoodies must be counted.
Of course the lives mean more. I know that. But I wonder, if we added up all the time and energy spent preparing ourselves, and our sons, and our brothers and our cousins to be profiled — if we took all that time, and all that energy — how many lives would that time make? How many inventions, or genius discoveries, or new and exciting adventures, or lifelong friendships could have been had in the time we spend girding ourselves for the worst?
What is the cost of a counted hoodie? How much life, unrealized? And who do I ask to repay the debt?
The most insidious reality of racism in America is that the tolls are rarely cut and dry. It’s not just lives lost; more often than not, it’s living lost. It’s not going there, not wearing that, fretting away minutes of your day preparing. For the worst.
Trayvon’s case is a reminder of that, for me. A reminder of time. The time we’ve all given away, to thinking someone is something they’re not. To thinking we have the ability, the right, to tell someone what they are. To preparing ourselves, and worrying ourselves about what some people think we might be.
In closing arguments on George Zimmerman’s behalf, attorney Mark O’Mara paused for four minutes, to remind the jury of the four minutes that came between Zimmerman’s call with a police dispatcher and a witness’ call to report a fight between George and Trayvon.
“That’s how long Trayvon Martin had to run,” said O’Mara, after the four minutes had passed.
As if that’s a long time when it comes to race in America. As if four minutes is all that jury needed to know.
Trayvon Martin has lost a lifetime of four minute intervals. And in the way we keep doing, I and so many others will keep losing four minute intervals the rest of our lives, waiting for the worst, preparing for the worst, making sure our loved ones are ready for the worst.
Four minutes. Times infinity.
Life lost. And living lost. It’s a heavy burden. Dead or alive.
The strangest part about LA are the B-List celebrities. They are everywhere, at least on the West Side. They are everywhere and they want you to notice them. I’ll see them, on the beach, or waiting in line at some restaurant I really can’t afford, and I’ll gaze longer than I should. They’ll see that I noticed them. And then I’ll look away, because I don’t know who the hell they are.
They always see that. That distant Kanye-shrug of an eye-roll when I realize this person isn’t worth trying to remember from some TV movie or insurance commercial or CW sitcom. They usually look a little sad after that.
The other day I thought I almost ran into Rob Lowe’s brother with my car. Then I went to apologize and realized it wasn’t him. He knew. He was hurt.
Right now, all of Los Angeles is that semi-famous guy I mistook for Rob Lowe’s brother. And I think it’s mad at me, not because I almost hit it with my car, but because I don’t know who it really is yet.
I don’t know why I don’t know. Nothing here feels particularly foreign. Sprawl is sprawl. Traffic is traffic. In-N-Out is new and exciting for a few days, and then you realize it’ll never be Five Guys, so you just move on. But this city still seems like a book just far enough away from my eyes to make me have to squint, and even then, I can only make out every other word.
Everyone here is nice. Surprisingly nice. People invite me to things. And I go, and it’s quite fun. But they’ll tell me things like, “Oh, well, It’s really gonna take you two years, to feel at home here. To like it.” I don’t understand this. Why two years? When did everyone just decide that that was the appropriate amount of time? And why does every Angeleno feel the distinct need to welcome newcomers with just that line? It’d be like the host at a restaurant saying, as he walked you to a table and handed you an oversized menu, “Yeah, you really won’t enjoy the food till your 5th or 6th time here, but PLEASE, have a seat.”
It’s not like LA doesn’t care. It’s just that LA knows it’s not really for everyone. But it’s also totally assured that whether you like it or not, LA will still be LA — and there will always be enough people that absolutely love it. So, in that regard, LA, on top of being not-Rob Lowe’s brother, is perhaps more like like Radiohead, or certain Prince B-sides, or Volvo.
Coming from a place like Washington DC — a city trying so hard to be loved, to be taken seriously, to be respected as something other than the White House’s parking lot – it’s strange to now be in a place that’s not blatantly fighting for my affection. [It is a testament to the extremely high regard in which I hold myself that I would expect a city to fight for my affection.]
DC wanted my love.
LA demands my respect.
It challenges me every day. This city does not wait for me. The traffic doesn’t, the people don’t. LA moves.
I called a good friend one Saturday a few weekends ago. I had nothing to do, so I went to work, and I really didn’t feel like working, so I talked to her while pacing the office parking lot, forgetting to be thankful for the sun and 68 degrees the whole while. I told her I hadn’t really found my scene yet, and that I might end that Saturday with a movie by myself, or a solitary run on the beach. She said that might be good for me. Alone time is something I’ve never done well. I’d ease into whatever life is waiting for me here whenever I’d ease into it. Until then, being content in my own company would do just fine.
It’s funny. That night I ended up at a raucous 80’s cover band concert in Hermosa Beach. With a good friend who became a great one. In a bar I’d never end up in in DC. I was out of my element, and I stayed. We left only after all the lights came on and the mops came out, when all that was left on the floor were tattered napkins and empty bottles, and flyers for next weekend’s bacchanal. When any B-List celebrity would have been greeted not with an awkward stare, but with a bear-hug.
LA will not wait for me. But I’ve decided to catch up.
So, yeah, really good year for R&B, even though I’m not really on the Frank Ocean bandwagon. Also, Diplo kind of won 2012, IMO.
Disclaimer: You’re not gonna see Miguel on this list. Look for a fuller write-up on him and a few other good folks in my fav album countdown.
1. Usher – Climax
When Usher Raymond released his first hit, “You Make Me Wanna,” I was in 8th grade. At that point, in 1997, one wouldn’t have predicted Usher’s longevity, or this song he would would make, along with Diplo and classical composer Nicco Muhly, in 2012. Primarily because it is so much better than “You Make Me Wanna.” And also because it is unlike any other Usher song I’ve heard before.
It manages to be epic and soaring — and restrained — all at the same time. Always building, never resolving, full of innuendo, pleading with its listeners as it teases them. And that falsetto. It is simply… truth.
When asked to describe the song, Diplo said is was “something like a minimal techno record with Atlanta strip clubs in mind.” Yep. Sounds about right.
It is a testament to R&B music and its willingness — despite previous narratives suggesting otherwise — to break musical boundaries, consistently and often, in stunning fashion. In a year when “emo” R&B – think Frank Ocean, Miguel, and The Weeknd – is all the rage, it’s easy to forget that artists like Usher wrote at least some of the script those new faces are reading from today. Throughout his career, Usher has artfully danced between neo-soul, and pop, chill wave and EDM. Sometimes he hasn’t succeeded. But with Climax, he’s gotten so good at it that the song doesn’t seem like a revelation for him, just another page from a book much longer than we thought it could be. Kudos Usher. You’ve made the song of the year.
2. Major Lazer ft Dirty Projectors – Get Free
Lushest soundscape of 2012. Diplo continues to astound me. At some point I’ll stop being surprised.
3. Sam Sparro – The Shallow End
Sometimes I feel that the rest of the world remembered disco, held onto it and cherished it, long after America did. When I think of a lot of my favorite music this year, particularly “The Shallow End,” I feel like the soul of the late 60’s and 70’s, melded with a disco aesthetic left the U.S., only to be preserved and recreated elsewhere. Sparro has captured this zeitgeist and breathes new life into it in a song that has everything your dance floor needs: a taut bass line, percussion as big your face, and a killer sax solo. What’s not to love?
4. Capital Cities — Kangaroo Court
This is the one band you didn’t know about in 2012 that you MUST know about in 2013. I think of them as LCD Soundsystem with better singing and more melody. And kinda hopped up on ‘roids. There’s a lot of quarter-life angst, synthesizer and trumpet solos in this band’s DNA. And it works.
They’ve just signed a major label contract, so get ready to hear a lot from them in the new year.
5. Japandroids — The House That Heaven Built/The Nights of Wine and Roses
These songs are: Brash. Loud. Clangy. Shrill. Sloppy.
They are also: Life-Affirming. Majestic. Towering. Brilliant.
6. NAS – Daughters
Listening to the elder statesmen of rap grow up has often been difficult. Jay-Z tried to stay young too long, clinging to Kanye’s coattails in search of a fountain of musical youth. So many other rappers I grew up with aren’t even relevant enough now to care about. But Nas has aged gracefully, earnestly, smartly. Daughters is the best track on a mediocre album, but in its own right, it’s one of my favorite musical moments of the year. A glimpse into the soul of a rapper brought to his knees by a woman he’d never call a bitch or a ho – his own seed. Jay-Z, take notes. [Also, No ID killed it on the track.]
7. Pink – Try
Put this on halfway through your next run. You will either cry or run a little bit faster. Or maybe both. Pink continues to be one of the realest women in pop music. And she’s only getting better with age.
8. Mark Ronson and Erykah Badu – A La Modeliste
The album is dead. Long live the artist. It’s almost scary for me to admit that one of my favorite songs of 2012 would come from a Hyundai promotional, but it does. It is quite funky. I used to hate seeing my favorite artists hocking cars or clothes or electronics or clothing lines. Now I hope these industry can help keep my favorite music alive. Dare I say it, but, thank you Hyundai.
9. Robert Glasper Experiment – Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit
Sometimes I wonder how history will regard the musical artists I grew up with. Will one of my favorite bands or rappers or singers become the Beethoven of our day? Has the music I’ve loved over the last 15 years or so merited entire books and college majors about their impact? Quite possibly, yes. A song like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is so full of layers, and meaning and message. It deserves to be studied, to be revered. Glasper’s rendition of the song is perhaps a start on the process. It is a beautiful one.
10.MIA – Bad Girls [Missy Elliott NARS Remix]
Is it just me or has life post-2004 been one long internal monologue of “Damn, where the hell is Missy Elliott?” Put your minds at ease, friends. Missy lives. No, she thrives. Her verse on this exquisite remix of an already quite solid song is spectacular. Not just a return to form, but a one-uppance of it. And, yeah, MIA’s not too shabby herself. Oh, also Azealia Banks.
And now the rest, in no particular order:
Big Krit – Boobie Miles
Watch the video. It’s like one big Nike inspirational commercial.
Macklemore and Ryan Lewis– Thrift Shop
I feel like the collective universe is telling me to love everything Macklemore and Ryan Lewis do. EVERYTHING. I don’t. Though Lewis’s production is interesting, it often feels a little shallow, unrooted. And Macklemore doesn’t wow me in the way say, a Kendrick Lamar or Joey Badass does. But Thrift Shop works. It’s quirky. It’s fun. It’s irreverent. Which is exactly what it needs to be.
Elle Varner – I Don’t Care
Elle Varner is on the edge of many things. A great album. The celebrity she deserves. Finding her voice. Finding control of her voice. For the moment, she lives on this edge masterfully. “I Don’t Care” is tortured, and smart. And here, Varner’s flaws only make her and the song more relatable. On other tracks on her debut album, her voice sounds less than sure-footed, sometimes screechy, in need of a little work. But here, it works in emoting the message of the tune. A girl in over her head. Varner, right now, is just that. But as she starts to put her head above water musically, I will keep listening. I expect to be amazed.
Grimes — Oblivion
Not quite sure what to call this. But it’s good.
Solange – Losing You
It’s got to be hard being Solange. Your big sis is literally better at EVERYTHING than you. A better singer, better at being famous. Better at marrying up. The list goes on. But Solange has something Beyonce might actually never have – a personality. And a blipster one at that. Losing You, and its accompanying video show the Knowles lesser-known in a new, refreshing light. She’s actually cool. You want to be her friend. She’s the sister you wanna have a beer with. And it will be an obscure IPA that you’ve probably never heard of.
Diplo – Express Yourself
As I said earlier, Diplo amazes me. Almost always. With “Express Yourself,” he interpolates New Orleans Bounce music, and almost impossibly, makes it better than it was before. Also, at minute 1:20, it. gets. crazy.
Electric Guest – This Head I Hold
DJ Danger Mouse. He made a great song, but couldn’t save this group’s album.
Nicki Minaj – Starships
Nicki Minaj’s “Starships” was a record-breaker in 2012, spending 21 weeks in the Top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart, an unprecedented feat. It was also perhaps the most-maligned hip-hop song in modern history. Google Peter Rosennberg and Nicki Minaj. And also watch THIS.
The song not only represented the continuing pop-ification of hip-hop in the new millenium. It also came to represent the precarious role Minaj herself fills in the industry. She is at times a feminist crusader, speaking truth about her struggles in the rap game. And at other moments, she is calling women “Stupid Hoes.” Some of her verses [like her turn on Kanye’s “Monster”] make you think she’s the future of hip-hop. And then she releases another bubble-gum pop song that makes you wonder just what the hell she’s really about.
Are we even supposed to take her seriously?
I’ve learned to stop being annoyed by this, and instead embrace it. Who am I to tell her what to do, who to be? Nicki Minaj seems only to want our attention, as evidenced through her latest American Idol beef with Mariah Carey. And perhaps that’s just fine. But I don’t see that holding up too long. An artist with such talent needs to, at some point, become fixated on just being talented.
As her song says, maybe Starships were meant to fly, but it’s important to remember why you took off in the first place, and why anyone wanted to see you soar to begin with.
Jai Paul – Jasmine
Jai Paul made my list last year with BTSTU. His debut was expected sometime in 2012. It’s still not here. He just left us drooling with this track. Release your album already, dude. Please.
Calvin Harris – Feels So Close
After everyone got to know who this guy was thanks to Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” I was prepared for Mr. Harris to quite possibly take over the world. I’ve been a fan of his for a while, and thought his music was global enough to work just about anywhere. But his latest album was spotty, at best. And that’s fine. This diddy was the happiest Top 40 radio felt all year. And that’s saying something.
Frank Ocean — Pyramids/Forest Gump
I think Ocean is a little overrated. But I still stand in awe of these two songs.
BLESSINGS FROM THE INTERNET:
Some of the best, most creative and well executed music is coming from the Internet, not major – or even Indie – labels. It is a beautiful thing.
Beauty and the Beat, Todrick Hall:
Hot Cheetos and Taki by the Y.N. Rich Kids:
Ratchet Girl Anthem:
-Anything 2 Chainz, especially “I’m Different”
-Kesha’s “Die Young”
-“Pop That,” French Montana
-Inescapable songs by Carly Rae Jepsen, Gotye and Psy
As many have told me — near office cubicles, in bars, on Facebook — this February may shape up to be the worst Black History Month ever. On the 1st of the month, Soul Train creator Don Cornelius was found dead, the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. And on the 11th, Whitney Houston, the Queen of Pop, drowned in a bathtub at the Beverly Hills Hilton, bottles of pills near her corpse. That two famous people came to tragic ends is nothing new. Substance abuse and personal demons are par for the course in the life of many American celebrities. But that these two luminaries died in this month, just days apart, raises two glaring questions. What is the future of Black music? And should we be worried about it? The careers of Houston and Cornelius were ones of tectonic shifts, in music and in race. Cornelius, dismayed by the lack of Black faces and voices on television music shows, decided to make his own, upending an entire industry, and making room for artists of color like Whitney years later. He taught the world how to dance down a Soul Train line in the process. Houston was a first, too. The first Black woman on the cover of Seventeen Magazine. The first certifiable Black pop star (not just a genre-sequestered “R&B” diva). Though Michael Jackson gets the majority of credit for diversifying pop radio and MTV in the 80’s, Whitney’s contributions were also instrumental. Her inoffensively charming songs, which masterfully melded pop with soul, gospel with the power ballad, were as key in making Black music POP music as the Gloved One’s hits. And her version of stardom — at least for a decade or so — earnest, wholesome and girl-next-door, was for the music world a complete re-imagination of Black womanhood and celebrity. Think back to her “Welcome Home Heroes” concert for American troops returning from the Persian Gulf War in ‘91. Whitney closing the show in a regal blue ball gown, draped in the American flag, belting out a gospel rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Soldiers in the audience smiling, rocking as if in a Baptist church, even shedding a few tears of joy. Whitney Houston and her take on American fame — before her demons got the best of her — was perhaps as American as you could get. You could think of her, for a time, as the Michelle Obama of her day. But now Whitney is dead. And there are no more Michelle Obamas on the pop charts, though there is one in the White House. Perhaps this is progress. There was a time when the cutting edge of race relations was found on Top 40 radio and the dance floor. Artists like Michael and Whitney, entrepreneurs like Cornelius, and before them, businessmen like Barry Gordy shaped the way America saw race through their musical endeavors. Some of that change has moved to Washington, at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, with one well-adjusted, Black presidential family changing the narrative of our national conversation on race. But Black music seems stuck. Instead of Soul Train, we’re left with 106th and Park and the annual national embarrassment that is the BET Awards. And the voice that over the last few years seemed most able to follow in Whitney’s footsteps, Jennifer Hudson, has built a makeshift career on other people’s songs — in film through Dreamgirls, or in the shadow of MJ, belting out the Free Willy theme at his funeral. She kept up that pattern last night at the Grammys, offering a husky yet genuine rendition of “I Will Always Love You,” the song that made Whitney a legend. It was a strange symbol — a tribute to one of the high points of Black music’s past that only highlighted the inadequacies of its present. It’s not that the music that artists of color are making now isn’t interesting, or even good. The Big 3 of urban music right now — Beyonce, Jay-Z, and Kanye West — have been consistently releasing material that has captivated listeners and charmed critics, while becoming certifiable brands in the process. But their music, and that of their contemporaries, is often only interesting, only innovative, only catchy. Which is fine. But what Whitney did at her prime, what Cornelius created, was all of that and more; what they did was inspiring. Their art had a point larger than a great verse and chorus, or a paycheck. Their best work functioned as agents of positive social change and cultural realignment. I don’t see that now. And as if to highlight this drastic shift, Nicki Minaj took to the Grammy stage soon after Jennifer Hudson’s tribute to Whitney. The multi-voiced rapper/singer performed a song called “Roman Holiday,” in which she simulated a demonic possession, writhed in front of a priest in a confessional booth, spoke in demonic tongues, and levitated. It was hard to call the performance an actual song. Minaj is held up by many as the future of rap and Black music. This should give us pause. Her Grammy spectacle — a mash up of “Like A Prayer” gimmickry, Lady Gaga imitation, and every bad exorcism movie you’ve ever seen — seems offensive on first glance. But when you think about it more, it’s worse than that. It’s uninspired and ephemeral. The opposite of everything Don and Whitney were at their best. This can’t be the future. Their legacy doesn’t just deserve to be honored; it deserves to be recreated, re-imagined. We deserve a new crop of Black art able to stand right next to the greatness Cornelius and Houston, and so many other artists gave us at their primes.
Dare I say, the memories of Don Cornelius and Whitney Houston deserve better than Nicki Minaj in a cheap blonde wig with a fake British accent, making a mockery of herself and the Catholic Church in the Staples Center. Ultimately, the water cooler talk may end up being true. February 2012 could in fact lay claim to the title “Worst Black History Month Ever.” But it won’t just be because we are all heartbroken that Whitney Houston and Don Cornelius are dead. Some of the sadness will also come from knowing we haven’t yet managed to find their Versions 2.0.
Any real view of the World Trade Center Memorial is tarnished by its surroundings. All the quiet reflection of the site is cradled by noisy construction. The TV cameras don’t show it, but Ground Zero is still very unfinished.
Towers with gutted floors, the beginnings of other buildings with deep abscesses into the ground, cranes and dirt and tools and noise. Tarps and fences and temporary barriers.
And of course, all of that is surrounded by a miniature police state. Car checkpoints and patrolmen staring at tourists. Traffic blocked for miles, with street closings and motorcades and sirens. You will need a photo ID and a hotel room key to get down that street. And you probably shouldn’t try to bring a backpack.
Sunday morning, we leave the service early. We had news to file. On the way to coffee and a computer, my colleague shows me where the “Mosque at Ground Zero” is supposed to live. She points out that the whole debate is strange, as the World Trade Center, before it was obliterated, always had a Muslim prayer space. And Islamic services are held in another building just down the road, as they have been for years after 9/11, without any conflict. Like so many other things about 9/11 and Ground Zero, most people don’t know the whole story. Most people don’t care to.
We finish our work. I go home to sleep. That night, when I wake up, it’s overcast, and my brain is full. I’m disturbed by the whole thing. Why is this place still unfinished? What does it say about America? Why was Manhattan a police state this weekend? I couldn’t help thinking the night before, as the cop at the checkpoint in Midtown had my cab driver open the trunk, “Yeah, the terrorists won.” As we left the checkpoint, the cab driver said to me — in reference to my skin color, I suppose — with as much humor as he could muster, “They probably stopped me because of you, no offense.”
9/11 has changed us; this weekend in Manhattan showed me. It left us unfinished and scared, like the construction work at the Memorial and the general feeling all that police presence inspired throughout the weekend. And no remembrance, no matter how solemn or repetitive could change that. In fact, the more we indulge the reverence, the remembrance, the memorials, the more we point out how different we’ve all become in these past ten years.
Perhaps we all just need a break, to stop remembering, just for a bit. But I don’t say those things around a lot of people. “Never forget,” you know?
Sunday night, I head to the W with a friend, to drink and eat. The burger is good. The ambiance, like so many other things that weekend, is off. The Giants game is on, and people cheer for their team, but it’s all subdued. How loud and celebratory can you be on this day?
We ask for Jameson on the rocks. The bartender says they ran out of every Irish drink they had hours ago. Makes sense. The crowd is strange — people who would never be there if not for a terrorist attack. How do you drink to that?
After an hour, my friend says, “This place is freaking me out.” We leave. “I want to find the lights,” I say once we’re outside, amongst the watchers and the overcast sky. We walk. And the then we see them.
The most beautiful part of the whole thing is the lights. Those two striking beams shining, some nights, into the darkness above, making a memorial of the entire New York City skyline. You’d think they’d be at Ground Zero, maybe even jutting out from the two fountains. They’re not. They are actually a few blocks south, on top of what looks like a parking garage. Only the dedicated onlookers find them. And to see it up close perhaps finally puts it all in perspective, this noble fracas, this melee of memorial, this cacophony of remembrance.
Everyone’s taking pictures. If you’re close enough, it looks like the two beams come together in the sky, forming a unity yet to be recreated at the official site, with its lingering disarray.
There are birds, flying into the lights, perhaps blinded by them. At that moment, I have the intense desire to be one of those creatures, for just a few minutes.
Someone told me earlier that day that one of the reasons those lights can’t shine every night into the New York sky is that they confuse the birds’ migratory patterns. The lights are so bright, so distracting, that the little winged things sometimes fly right into them, perhaps thinking it’s the sun, forgetting where they’re going. Some nights, even, when the lights are on, they’re turned off for 5 or 10 minutes at a time, to let the birds find their way again.
That sums it up for me, I realize, standing underneath the weight of the light, and the fountains, and the memorials, and the remembering. Even with the birds, there is only so much light, so much tribute, one can take.
This week, the British monarchy took part in royal fanfare, fully asserting their role as the world’s ultimate Brits. On the other side of the pond, an American president went on national TV, just to prove he is American.
It was quite the juxtaposition. The Mother Country, steeped in tradition, reaffirming its commitment to pomp, circumstance, and national unity. America, toying with tribalism, conspiracy theories, and race-baiting. A high paired with a low, both must-see TV.
What makes one nation cling dutifully to its figureheads, and the other have theirs jump through pointless hoops?
For one, the monarchs have no responsibilities as heads of government. They exist to stand around and look regal, wear fancy hats and remind Britain of past empire. They are meant to be nothing more than symbols. But our American president serves both as head of state and head of government. He’s an elected king, and while he gets to preside over state dinners and such, he also has to deal with the dirty game of running a country full of political parties and splintered interest groups, deficits and wars, cable news and sound bytes.
This makes things difficult. He will never make everyone happy. There will be nothing like “Long live the Queen” for Barack Obama. And it’s almost fair, that to a certain extent, discord and anger should perpetually surround an American president, at least from the side of his opposition.
But this week was different. The climax of Birthergate wasn’t just political. It touched at the very core of the American struggle: what exactly “American” means and who gets to fit that definition.
Our nation’s founding was an exercise in the rejection of strict rules of royalty, class and religion. It was a middle finger to British rigidity and what our founders thought were pointless rules and traditions. And of course, that whole taxation without representation thing.
Over time, the American experiment became the British monarchy’s antithesis, the idea that you weren’t born into your place in life. The belief that anyone could be anything.
Of course we know that that has not always been true. Our history has been an ongoing struggle to give that “right to be anything you want to be” to more and more marginalized groups: immigrants, women, the disabled, minorities, gays and lesbians.
But that anti-monarchical belief has been what’s made America, at least as an ideal, so inspiring.
Which is why this week is so upsetting. We are reminded not of our great American ideal in this latest saga, but confronted with our lingering obsession with the “other,” and our need for them to prove themselves and their very fitness to be fully American. Centuries ago, immigrants had to change their last names and quickly lose their accents to become White and American. A Civil War was fought, and decades of political and legal struggles endured to determine that Black people could actually be full citizens who worked for pay and got to vote. Women struggled for suffrage and still fight for the right to equal pay. And even today, Brown people in the American Southwest, citizen or not, might soon be forced to have their papers on them at all times, just to avoid detention and deportation.
We are a nation full of hoops.
The other has always had more to prove. More to fight for. A longer path to full American-ness.
For some, Barack Obama, even though he is our president, represents that other. His name is “funny.” His father is foreign. He may or may not be Muslim, or the Antichrist, or a chain-smoking unicorn who “pals around with terrorists.”
For those, there should be hoops. He needs to prove he’s one of… whatever it is they think they are.
The Brits, through their monarchs, have always known exactly what they are, at least romantically, symbolically, in an archetypal sense. Prince William is a royal. Kate Middleton is a commoner. Their marriage made them the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. And that’s that.
Not so for Barack. He is our nation’s leader, it’s ultimate representative, and at the same time, millions in this country don’t know exactly what he represents. A poor kid who made it from food stamps to Harvard, or a wealthy liberal elitist. A Black man who went to a crazy Black Christian church that hated White people, or a Muslim who studied in a madrassa. A man whose election and presidency is a sign of national progress, or someone whose ongoing otherness reveals the worst about America.
And in the best and worst sense, that is the American way. Not having a monarch means that roles our figureheads occupy are more fluid. Heads of state can be questioned, everything can be challenged. But just because scrutiny of an American president is justified, the level of that scrutiny, and the often sinister motives behind it, are not.
That undue scrutiny is a symptom of America’s relationship with the other. It makes us ask female politicians if they can handle running for office and raising children at the same time. It makes us force our leaders to go to church and talk about their religion. It made us ask Sotomayor if she could be both a “wise Latina” and a fair Supreme Court justice.
It makes some of us want to see Barack Obama’s birth certificate.
It is a reality, even if it is wrong.
But in weeks like this, I don’t want reality, when London is full of centuries-old fantasy, and carriages and boys choruses and big, gravity defying hats. I’d rather do without America’s complex treatment of its current leader. For at least a day, I’d like there to be a parade. With a band and police on horseback. And a kiss on a balcony. And throngs waving at people who knew exactly where they fit, and who they are, and who are loved for that very reason.
Some days, I don’t want to fight over who gets to be what. Or confront existential crises of American identity. Some days I want it easy.
I used to tell myself I could blog every day, if I put my mind to it.
I’m ok with this. I decided when I started this space to save funny hyperlinks and quick, quirky updates for my Facebook feed. This blog is supposed to be editorial, longer-form, more thoughtful. I realize now that I’m not nearly long-form, thoughtful or editorial enough to justify a daily post on “The Not So Angry Black Man.” Guess I’m just not that angry…
Oh well. Blogs wax and wane as they will. The internet doesn’t skip a beat just because I do, and at some point, inspiration will strike again. I won’t apologize for not writing enough. But I do feel compelled today to share why I write at all.
My Aunt Alta taught my brother and me to read before we started kindergarten. Dr. Seuss for days and weeks on end. She was an English teacher, and the best reading coach two awkward, almost-twins like Ruben and I could have.
After that coaching, I was always one of the best readers at St. James Catholic School in Seguin, TX. Until the fourth grade. I still remember the moment vividly. Sis. Mary Ellen asked for volunteers to read from whatever book we were using that day, and I, always a show-off, wanted to display my lingual acuity. I started as I always did, in my crisp blue uniform, in those desks with the seat attached and the little undercarriage book storage slat. Per usual, I was a little too loud, a little overdone, with a little too much flair. This was not just fourth grade — in my mind, I was on stage.
But at some point in those paragraphs I was reading, I got tripped up. The words stopped coming out, and this time just wasn’t the same as my previous grandiose performances. It was the beginning of a speech impediment — throughout my time in elementary, middle and high school, and even into college and grad school, I have been a chronic stutterer.
Movies like “The King’s Speech” make one believe that strong people deal with their deficiencies by forcing themselves to overcome them. In actuality, a lot of us just avoid them. So as the stuttering got worse during my youth, I threw myself into writing. It was a way to say exactly what I wanted, at once, without ridicule, or constant demands from family and friends to “just spit it out,” or strange faces from teachers who asked if I could really even read at all. In high school, I actually was a competitive expository writer. Seriously. In college and grad school, I wrote for the school papers. Once I got on Facebook, I started writing notes. And now I do this.
But even as I found solace from my disorder through the pen, I tried, bit by bit, to make myself get over it. In high school and college, I joined student government so I would be forced to speak in public. In grad school, I took an Arts of Communication class to do the same thing. And landing my first job at NPR was the perfect way to tell my disorder to piss off, once and for all.
Although I’ve gotten better, I really still prefer writing to speaking, in the same way someone who’s ambidextrous might still prefer to use the first hand they started writing cursive with. When I finish a blog post, I experience a high. And when you “Like” my blog links, or comment on what I’ve written, I love it more than you’ll ever know.
Like just about everyone else, I write to let it all out. To say what needs to be said, and then some. But it’s something more for me, because for a large portion of my life, there was just no other way to say it at all.
I tell myself that when I play music, I speak directly to God. And when I write, I just speak — directly. Your reading this blog helps free me, from any impediment, any disorder, any deficiency. And ultimately, the act of sharing my writing makes me whole. That’s why I write. That’s why I’m thankful to all who take the time to read. And it’s why I forgive myself for not doing is as frequently and as thoroughly as I should.
How often I write is secondary. That I do it at all is important, and why I do it is something I finally feel comfortable sharing. So, I might not blog again for a while, but I got this one out, and it feels good. Because for me, every word penned is an act of liberation, even if those words are few and far between.
For young professionals in a city like Washington, DC, bars can become a second home. No, we’re not alcoholics. But in the absence of band camps, and athletic rehearsals and community service in your high school’s student council, where else do you hang out with your friends after work? For us, the bar becomes an institution unto itself. Gatherer of wayward 20-something souls. Town hall. Secular sanctuary. And sometimes, teacher of life lessons.
A few coworkers and I organized a night of karaoke at a deliciously tacky basement bar a few Fridays ago. The event was a success. Britney Spears, Montell Jordan, and several pleas for “Teach Me How To Dougie” later, we’d decided to keep the party going. Friday #2 was to be even more spectaculous.
That next Friday, eager to be close to the action, we settled on a table right up front, just a few arms lengths away from the mics. Close enough to read the karaoke screens from our seats. The table was perfect, save for all the jackets piled onto it. So, being the go-getters we are, we moved them to a random corner table just a few feet away. Because what else are stray jackets in a dive bar if not nuisances to rid oneself of?
Settling down for our first few drinks, trouble came. A balding, paunchy, ruddy drunk approached us. He was mad that we’d moved his jackets. He became even more upset when we wouldn’t move them back. He started to yell. Lots of expletives. A strongly pointed index finger. Demands that we move away and return the jackets post-haste.
And then he zeroed in on me. Mind you, I’ve never been in a bar fight; I don’t think I’d do so well with that kind of thing. And I didn’t need to be escorted out of any bar that night, especially without even getting to sing.
So as his finger got closer to my ear, his face closer to my cheek, his voice closer to breaking, I buckled down. Locked my jaw. Trained my gaze on something in the distance on the other side of the room. I felt stray spittle hitting my ear lobe, and smelt cheap bear on his breath. But I knew I couldn’t respond.
Because I don’t know how to fight.
Luckily, before I lost my composure, one of my [female] cubicle buddies stepped in. Sometimes, nothing defuses a drunk man better than a stern, sober woman.
“If you wanna yell at someone, yell at me!
“You wanna fight me?!”
“What are you gonna make ME do?”
He wilted. Other coworkers seized the moment, and began speaking sense to his less inebriated and much more reasonable friends. I was still mad. So I just stood there. One by one, Drunkard and his posse gathered their things and went to the other side of the establishment. At some point an hour or so later, they were gone.
But I was still irate. Not for having a woman step in to diffuse the situation. Or for being able to keep my cool in a predicament like that. The reason I was confused, then absolutely indignant, was because I couldn’t figure out why he chose to single me out for the yell-fest.
I wasn’t the only man in the group, and I wasn’t the only one to move the jackets. After a few more minutes of deduction, I decided that Drunkard picked me because I’m Black.
I then made his shouting part of a meta-narrative of racial resentment, fear, and objectification of Black masculinity. So on and so forth. He thought I was trying to steal his things, didn’t he? He didn’t want me in that bar at all, did he? He probably wanted to call me the N-word. Because I’m a Black man.
How dare I have to butcher Motown classics next to this racist prick.
I went to unload my new theory on my cubicle buddy who saved the day. But she stopped me fast. Before I could even get the word “race” or “Black” out, a pleading hand went up:
“Sam, I know what you’re thinking, and it’s not that. It’s not that at all. He picked you because you’re the biggest guy in the group. Look at us, who else was he gonna try to fight?”
I stopped. And thought. She was right. I was wrong. It was about alcohol. And height. And things having nothing to do with my brown skin.
Life as a Black man can be a continual fight against paranoia. Will I be a statistic? Do they think I’m stealing this? Is that cop following me? Why am I the only one of me in the room?
Why does Drunkard want to fight me?
But the older I get, the more I realize, with the help of my friends, that not everything is a conspiracy, or a racial allegory, or a struggle centuries old.
Sometimes I’m just a guy. On a Friday night. With friends. Wanting to do a little karaoke.
Sometimes, it’s not about race. At all. And in those situations, the lesson of the bar is a simple one:
Waiting for a healthy debate on this list in the comments section. I’m realizing my palette’s becoming more and more hip-hop and Top 40. I don’t think this is a bad thing. The top ten are numbered. Everything else is just thrown in the mix, in no particular order.
1. Robyn – Dancing on My Own (Original Version) I wanted the entire Body Talk trilogy to be this brilliant. This danceable, yet melancholy. I wanted Robyn to be this vulnerable on every track. I wanted all of her new music released this year to be this accessible, this poetic. But expecting an album full of songs this complete, this anthemic, might just be expecting too much. Songs like these don’t really need accompanying albums, anyway. They just need headphones. Or a dancefloor. And a repeat button.
2. Kanye West and friends – “Power (Remix)” This song makes me proud to be a fan of hip-hop
3. Cee-Lo – No One’s Gonna Love You” – Paul Epworth Remix Forget about “F&@K You!” It’s a good enough ear-worm, but ultimately, trite. Cee-Lo’s Band of Horses cover, which appears on his newest, and commendable, solo disc is even better. But it’s this remix, and its accompanying video, that best display the soulster’s knack for transcending genre and making someone else’s music sound better than they ever thought it could (Remember “Crazy”?) The video is also a gem, poignantly telling a typical love-that-couldn’t-last story with surprising grace. One only wishes that Cee-Lo would have made an entire album like this. In trying to sound so retro on “The Lady Killer”, he ended up becoming a sleepy, watered-down version of himself.
4. Bettye LaVette – “Isn’t It A Pity” I first heard this song in Portland, OR. I had just started a three-month stint with Oregon Public Broadcasting. And I didn’t know anybody. And I missed DC. And I was driving in my economy-class rental car, getting lost. Bettye LaVette’s voice came through the speakers, performing this song live on A Prairie Home Companion, and as a testament to the ability of radio to not just tug at your heartstrings, but rip them out every so often, LaVette, and that stark, lonely piano, that weepy guitar, that gravely voice, captured all of my loneliness that day, all of my ambivalence, and made it a song. I stopped my car and just listened. Portland got much, much better - I grew to love the place. But the strongest emotion of my time there was that day, alone with Bettye in that car, her, and I, and this song.
5. Childish Gambino – Do Ya Like I think I’ve found a new hero. Kanye, step aside. Anyone who could make Adele thump is a winner. And yes, Childish Gambino is that Black guy from NBC’s Community, Donald Glover. Which makes this all even awesomer.
6. Mark Ronson – “Bang Bang Bang” An amazing song from a truly disappointing album. Mark Ronson has yet to find post-Amy Winehouse success/credibility/artistry. But songs like this keep me hoping he’ll get there at some point.
7. Willow Smith – “Whip My Hair” I’ve played this song more than any other this year. And I don’t care what anyone says, Willow Smith deserves to be a star, and rich nine-year olds are perfectly qualified to sing about brushing haters off. But I can’t help but feel weird about making the uber-rich Smith clan even richer. Somewhere, in a room lined with money, Will and Jada are playing “Whip My Hair” and making a toast. And all I got out of it was a sore neck…
8. Flying Lotus – MmmHmm (Ft. Thundercat) As an album, Cosmogramma was a little too much. A lot to soak in, but not really a lot to hold it all together. Adventurous, but often frenetic and unfocused. This track, though, captures everything great on the disc. The ambiance, the acid jazz meets trip hop, meets the coolest coffee shop in your city. Listening to this song, with it’s winding bass line, and morphing time signature, makes you feel cooler than everyone else with a latte and hipster glasses in the café.
9. Usher and Will.I.Am – “OMG” I hated this song at first. I just couldn’t understand why Will.I.Am would AutoTune Usher, one of a handful of modern pop singers who can actually sing. And the lyrics are absolutely ridiculous – what grown man says “boobies” and means it? But then that stadium crowd starts chanting in the background, and that snare-drum rat-a-tat gets into your bones, and Usher sings the now timeless R&B lyric, “Baby, lemme love you down” and you’re taken back to a middle school dance. And then your fist is pumping. And then you realize that Will.I.Am isn’t just a music producer. He’s a drug dealer, making crack cocaine for the eardrums.
10. Janelle Monae – “Cold War” Remember when you first saw/heard Lauryn Hill’s artistry on full display? Maybe it was in the chorus of “Killing Me Softly” or the breakdown of “Doo Wop (That Thing)” or towards the end of the extended vamp of “Ex Factor.” Whatever it was, you, like me, probably thought soon after, “I hope we never lose her; because we need her. Music needs her.” That’s how I felt after watching the video for “Cold War.” It marks the emergence of a new standard bearer, more than “Tightrope” which was too fun to make the point. Janelle Monae is no Lauryn Hill – she’s not at all a lyricist and is twice the vocalist L-Boogie ever hoped to be. But she is just as remarkable a talent, has just as captivating a solo debut, and is worthy of just as much of our attention.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
And now all the others, in no particular order:
Kesha – “Your Love is My Drug” I don’t like Kesha. She can’t sing, her perpetually-drunk schtick is tiring, and her music is overplayed. But there’s something about the last half-minute of this song. When the drum track stops and it’s just Ke$ha, bouncing synths, and autotune. She starts sing-talking, ad-libbing. The layers are stripped away, and you finally realize how beautiful this song’s chord progressions are. And then she let’s out a little laugh, mid-90’s Janet Jackson style. It’s flirty, it’s immediate, and it’s, as much as mindless pop like this can be, perfect.
Ok Go – “White Knuckles” I like this group more than I should. Partly because of their amazing videos, but most likely because I see them as the band you’d want to play at your wedding. They are the just right combination of funk, fun, pop and rock. This song channels Prince in the drum track, and makes you ready to sing along after just one listen.
Rihanna – “Cheers (Drink to That)” Every year needs a drinking song. It was either this or Pink’s “Raise Your Glass.” Rihanna wins, not only because I’m obsessed with her, but because I think she’d be a much better drunk. Pink would probably get in a fight. This meandering ode to Jameson, with an awesome Avril Lavigne sample (I know, how are we sampling Avril Lavigne so soon?), makes me think that Rihanna would just keep dancing.
Kanye West and Pusha T – “Runaway” Kanye West has become the town drunk who doesn’t know when to shut up. The guy you don’t want to invite to your party, because you’re not sure who he might yell at. The guy you think is always angry, no matter what he says. And that’s what caused the media to lose the real message of Runaway. What everybody forgets is that this song isn’t about Taylor Swift. At all. It’s an ode to a girl (or girls) he’s wronged. Sending out pictures of his junk to random females, having an addiction “to ‘dem hoodrats,” being a general douchebag to his love interest. It’s also haunting, and an instant classic. A song only Kanye could make.
Kanye and Friends – “Monster” Dare I say it, but Nicki Minaj’s verse MURDERED EVERYBODY ELSE ON THIS TRACK.
Taio Cruz – “Dynamite” There is no enduring quality to this song. No higher or deeper meaning. Nothing to separate it from the recent outpouring of genre-less, pan-ethnic, auto-tuned to death pop coming from the likes of Iyaz, Jason Derulo and Jay Sean. There is no reason to commend this song’s singer or writers for doing what they’ve done with Dynamite. It’s just an awesome song to dance to. And so it makes the list.
Alicia Keys – “Unthinkable (I’m Ready)” She didn’t yell on this song. For that, I am happy.
Chris Brown – “Deuces/Yeah 3X” He might not ever be redeemed as an artist for what he’s done to Rihanna. But these two songs show why he ever mattered in the first place. He’s very good at what he does, whether we like him or not.
Lil’ Wayne – “6 Foot, 7 Foot” Jail’s been good to Lil’ Wayne. He went in in a drug induced haze, his final pre-prison verses often incomprehensible, disjointed, clouded by the drugs. You can tell he’s off that stuff now. His delivery is so sharp, his metaphors so witty, his control of the beat so complete. I almost wish he’d go back to jail…
Wiz Kalifa – “Black and Yellow” Every time I get excited about Wiz Kalifa’s “Black and Yellow” I realize it’s a song about the Pittsburgh Steelers, and then I throw up a little bit in my mouth. But I keep on dancing.
Chiddy Bang – “Opposite of Adults” This duo deserved much more love this year. The sampling is top-notch, and the lyrical delivery might not be groundbreaking, but it makes a fitting accompaniment to the lush tracks on Chiddy Bang’s LP debut. This song is that collection’s standout. Those handclaps, the driving bass, the echoing snare. It’s feel-good rap music. And we all need more of that.
Lady Gaga and Beyonce – “Telephone” Lady Gaga’s managed to make my singles list two years in a row. But this one’s not even really about her. This song belongs to Rodney Jerkins, the most underrated R&B producer of our day.
Katy Perry – “Teenage Dream” Katy Perry doesn’t know if she wants you to take her seriously or not. She has music videos with cream shooting out of confectioned breastplates one minute, and has an outstanding Unplugged album with an oddly satisfying cover of “Hackensack” the next. She gives us the curse of “California Gurlz” and then makes a song as blissful as Teenage Dream. And it is blissful. The driving, three-chord track, with those tick-tocking guitars that build to a techno-ish crescendo that beats its way into your brain. And that one line in the song, that one line every songwriter wishes for. When Katy sings “Let’s go all the way tonight. No regrets, just love.” That moment you know that everyone is going to be singing the words you wrote. The melody you crafted. Living in the moment you made.
Wacka Flocka Flame – “Hard in Da Paint” – Instrumental Wacka Flaka is awful. Really. He’s awful. But this track is brutal and bombastic. And so crunk it hurts.
Erykah Badu – “Window Seat” #1 R&B earworm of the year. With a strange video to boot. Ms. Badu is getting better with age.
Diddy Dirty Money- “A$# On The Floor/Hello, Good Morning” “Train Music” didn’t seem like a good idea. But when’s the last time Diddy had a good idea? Mase? Whatevs. Diddy Dirty Money is more about Dirty Money than Diddy. His two twins of backup singers, Dawn, and that other one, are proving themselves to be quite the singer/songwriters. I couldn’t pick between either of these tracks, as they’re both so danceable. Although I do think I’d like the chorus of “Hello, Good Morning” as my iPhone alarm clock tone.