Monday, April 26, 2010

"This Is How We Do It" - The Misappropriation of a culture

Perusing, I came upon, "American Idol" recap: Crystal Bowersox saves by Mary T. Kelly and damn if that Montell Jordan title didn't just pop into my head!  Here's a little of it:
Alicia Keys, a woman who could make believers out of the most cynical among us, was the mentor for the week. Talk about a god in the music industry. This woman has earned 12 Grammy awards and sold over 30 million records. However, Keys' gentle and compassionate guidance wasn't miraculous enough for most of the contestants, and. quite frankly, Crystal Bowersox and Lee Dewyze would have done as well without her feedback...(emphasis mine)

...Crystal Bowersox sang "People Get Ready" -- without any kind of instrument! I was so excited. I've been waiting weeks for Crystal to go solo. Alicia, like so many, named Crystal one of her favorites.

Crystal's rendition of the song had the angels and saints singing from the rooftops of heaven. People were rolling around in the aisles, throwing up their hands and speaking in tongues. Forget about goose bumps! I had been filled with the Holy Spirit and was jumping up and down in my humble living room screaming, "Praise the Lord, Praise the Lord, Alleluia, Alleluia!"  (emphasis mine)

We-l-l, this excellent, 1994 interview with Curtis Mayfield in the UK's Independent, described Mayfield's obviously enduring, mid-60s hit, "People Get Ready," this way:
That decade was barely halfway gone when he began to expose a third facet of his work - and perhaps the most important. With 'People Get Ready' in 1964 he had revived the coded messages of the old negro spirituals to imply support for the civil- rights movement. (emphasis mine)

While young Crystal certainly S-A-N-G that song (she reminds me a little of Joss Stone), both she and Ms. Kelly seemed to only have gotten the "religion" part that definitely influenced Mayfield's penning of the song - but nothing else. It always seems that when white privilege and cultural difference collide, the result, more often than not, is a huge amount of co-option for financial gain and revisionism. Hell, ask Chinua Achebe about "It takes a Village to raise a child, " or even George Lopez about flat-bottomed tacos! But I digress.

I was around eight or nine years old when this song came out.  It was important to us - as a people - which is why, even today, I still feel and prefer The Impressions version whenever someone else sings this, and many other back-in-the-day songs.  It harkens back to a social consciousness and cultural bond that sadly, seems  particularly lost on this generation of young, Black folk:

During "Elvis Week" on Idol, Ms. Bowersox got rave reviews for her rendition of, "Saved."  Yes - Elvis did record "Saved" - but HE covered it.  It was originally written and produced by Jerry Lieber and  Mike Stoller for a Black female vocalist from Chicago - the inimitable, LaVern Baker.  But somehow, with no props to Baker at all - it's an "Elvis Presley" song. 

Well, in honor of LaVern Baker, here's how "Saved" made its way to American Idol (my sister, Cinie - musical archivist extraordinaire and former Chicagoan that she is - probably has this Baker 45 in her collection!) :

Young Crystal did pay an homage of sorts to both Gospel music and Blues saying, "That's really where my roots are."  I get wanting to claim those roots as her own - after having lived in Chicago for some time and being influenced by its great, Black music scene - but what happened to those, born-and-raised-on-an-Ohio-farm-playing-the-harmonica-and-guitar-since-she-was-seven "roots" from whence she came?  Is it just me feeling that we still can't have shit of our own??  Hell, I never signed on for that whole "melting pot" thing - I prefer the "tossed salad" analogy, where everybody brings their own distinct flavors to the bowl that we enjoy together.  But that's just me.

Don't get it twisted, my issue is NOT that there aren't any commonalities among all of us in the experiences expressed by "Saved."  But my issue IS, the mis-education about, and the slow-but-sure diminishing of, OUR musical "roots" by first attacking it (the same things they're saying about Rap, are the same things they said about R&B back in the day), and then co-opting it for financial gain while slowly whitewashing Black folk completely out of the picture.

Even though I think this "girl-child" (as my Grandmama used to say) has an amazing voice, my soul can't help but feel a different kind of Jill Scott wince at the continued cultural genocide of a people who, among all the ethnicities in this country, were forced to surrender - everything about themselves that made them themselves - just so white America could build a culture of their own (not to mention plenty of this country's stately edifices) on their backs .


Citizen Ojo said...

Amazing that you were able to pick that up from this season. You have a good eye. I'm still wondering how some of these people have made it this far. Thanks for providing background for the story as well.

Deb said...

You're welcome Citizen Ojo. Good to see you!

Not too amazing when you're old as dirt and becoming evermore curmudgeonly as life goes on! :-)

As everything old becomes new - again and, in the continuing wake of marginalization and co-option - I felt the need to "stick a pin right there" (as my aunt used to say a long time ago). We've made significant, cultural contributions to the very fabric of this society and it gets under my skin when it's made to look as if we haven't. Generations to come need to know that.

Getting older sucks sometimes. But the flip-side of that, is the cultural richness with which I grew up that I wouldn't trade for anything in the world.

I used to watch Idol religiously in the beginning. Now, I just drop in every now and then. Too many of those, "How'n the hell did he/she make it through??!!" moments. Seems "talent" is too much to ask for with each new season!

Citizen Ojo said...

I'm sure you aren't old as dirt!! ha ha But the background helps give context. And I think that's what's missing in music these days.

Deb said...

Pretty damn close! :-)

I agree with you about what's missing in music these days. I was up late last night and saw this Time/Life paid programming for 8 Soul Train DVD's! Hell, I remember when that show first started! I'm seriously thinking about buying that set for old time's sake!! :-)

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