Beauty is an afterthought. What we think whenever we behold someone or something we consider exceptional.
Hence, there is no beauty without humanity judging a person, thing, event, or process as being “beautiful”.
Beauty is oxymoronically both obvious and far more complex than it initially seems. Yes, like every tongue, we all have our own tastes, but at the same time, every element of taste is both universal and simultaneously subject to a wide range of individual influences, influences that sometimes deviate wildly from the norm.
Look out the window, watch tv or a computer, scan a magazine, a newspaper, an advertising billboard or peep the placards on the side of a bus. What are the human images we see? A world of women (most often servants, helpmates, care takers, workers, lovers or sex-mates, and occasionally executives)–behind, beside, arrayed in front of a modicum of powerful men.
Even when the models are people of color, they seldom look anything like who we, individually as well as collectively, actually are. They are not our size, our age, our way of walking, talking, sleeping, being. No matter how loathe we are to admit it, most of the model images of beauty we take in on a daily basis are alien to us, regardless of what color we or they may be.
The beautiful people we admire have money, attractive houses and apartments, wear fashion designed clothes, drive stylish vehicles, attend exclusive functions, etc., etc. When we are shown people like us, whether we are aware or not, we end “not wanting” to be the ones who are less than the beautiful people.
“We are the world” is a lie. We may wish we were the world, but most of us are not what the establishment world says is beautiful. We can work hard to acquire the accoutrements of beauty. Even mold our physical fitness… oh, why go on? Particularly in the world of fashion and physical beauty, we all know the overwhelming majority of us are not hot models in this cold-ass world.
The battle of beauty is to see the beauty in oneself while simultaneously seeing oneself as we really are, howsoever we are.
As I look at Renee Thompson, as I view this 2010 video (the more some things change, the more they remain the same), she describes her drive to be beautiful by industry standards; honestly, regards herself and decides, yes, that’s what I really want to do–as I look at this video, I not only see what is shown, I also, reflexively assess myself when I stare at her image.
At some point what we see is other than what is shown. Even if we don’t verbalize it to ourselves or to anyone else, too often what we take from what is presented to us is a want-to-be-beautiful wish.
That image, our psychic self-image, is most often so unlike Renee or any of those high fashion models, or so we may think. The question is not really what do we want to be but rather “why” do we want to be whatever we consider beautiful, even when the desire is in disconcerting contrast to who and what we are. Not simply what we actually look like but why do we want to look howsoever we strive, or resign ourselves, to appear?
As we seek to make ourselves become one of the beautiful ones, let us not transform into someone who goes for style over substance. The most substantial reality of being a beautiful human is caring for, helping, engaging and identifying with others–regardless of how you, or they, look while doing so.
Milton Nascimento (October 28, 1942) was born in Rio but grew up in the state of Minas Gerais in the interior of Brazil. His mother died when he was very young, he never knew his father, and he was adopted by parents who reared and cared for him. As a teenager he became a musician and as an adult one of the most revered of Brazilian artists.
He has written so many confessions, so many indices of respect, whispers and shouts of love and concern for others. His music is a map of the interior of us, of our true heartlands. Babies babble, adults conversate, Milton sings.
He wore the word “courage” like a badge declaring he was of the tribe of resistance. He titled an album that. During the dictatorship in Brazil, when so many fled, Milton elected to stay and confront the demons, sometimes in silence, sometimes in song.
Most of us have no actual idea what it was like for an artist to sing while your life was literally under fire. Great stretches of your homeland reduced to ashes and embers, and to dead people who were shot in the head because they had their eyes open.
To turn to the music when the military is in charge is a true act of courage.
In song we recall the hope of dawn, the danger of midnight, and the valor of living full out in the glare of daylight.
The music that asks questions, eats oranges and beans with rice mixed in. That in the lonely hours sings of lost loves remembered, future loves yet to be tasted. Some of Milton’s music is hard to authentically be sung if your life is one only of comfort.
Milton has a falsetto that angels envy. The sound of black earth rising.
He looks like anyone. You pass him on the street and notice nothing. Then when you hear him singing as he strolls by; you stop, turn around. Is it possible that that Black man could sound so much like the human alma of all of us, whoever we are, whenever we are real, whenever we nurture ourselves and each other.
Das sombras quero voltar Somente aprendi muita dor E vi com tristeza o amor Morrer devagar, se apagar Quero voltar Poder da saudade não ter Não ver tanta gente a vagar Sem saber viver Vou sem parar Das tardes mais sós renascer E mesmo se a dor encontrar Sabendo o que sou Não quero mais perdão Porque jásofri demais
From the shadows I want to return I just learned a lot of pain And I saw with sadness the love Die slowly, if erased I want to go back Power of longing not having Don’t see so many people wandering Without knowing how to live I’m going nonstop Of the loneliest afternoons reborn And even if the pain finds Knowing what I am I don’t want any more forgiveness Because I’ve already done too much
What do we do? How do we react? Dad is a convicted rapist–not just a rolling stone–but in truth a dirty old man, a predator of unimaginable proportions who preyed on women who were young, who were matured–all of them, black, white, whatever Cosby forced his way…
Wait. You say forced. America’s dad didn’t force–ok, connived, seduced, took advantage of–no matter how you dress him the man was a rapist. But what about if the woman doesn’t object, doesn’t flee, doesn’t fight back, doesn’t, just doesn’t.
So, if a woman doesn’t fight back, she wasn’t raped? Bullshit. Even if she likes her aggressor. Even if she is married to him. Even if she never says a mumbling word about the encounter. No matter what, it’s not about what she does or doesn’t, it’s overwhelmingly about someone (usually a male) forcing the issue. A rapist is someone who overpowers the victim.
Sometimes the overpowering has to do with the imbalance of power endemic to gender in America. Men overwhelmingly have more power than women. So much so, we take it as natural for men to hold power and for women to submit to, to be envious of or to be enthralled by, to desire to be close to if not only in the proximity of; but just because that’s the prevailing situation, prevailing to the point of seeming natural–that doesn’t make it right. That doesn’t make it the way it should be. That doesn’t make it acceptable.
Rape might be the dominant form of sexual expression in our society, but the way it is doesn’t equate to the way it should be.
Yes, that means rape is more common…, that many, many of us have been raped. Yes. The structure of this society implicitly means that rape is a common occurrence in American society, so common that much of it is overlooked.
Yes, we need to talk–even if it is only a conversation with yourself as you watch this truly controversial but necessary documentary. The needed talk is not just about Bill Cosby, but really about gender relations and the social structure of America, indeed, of human existence here, there, everywhere but hopefully not forever.
I have discussed with others and argued with myself: was the seventies the greatest decade for us Black folk during the 20th century? Actually, although there have been two World Wars, the Korean Conflict, a Cold War, and Viet Nam, not to mention the 50’s initiated Civil Rights movement, there is only one other decade during the 1900’s as iconic for our people as the seventies: that decade was the twenties, so-called Harlem Renaissance era–which I generally refer to as the Garvey Era.
I believe the American establishment has, as is its usual M.O., refused to recognize our homegrown contributions to the worldwide Black liberation struggle. Hence, we get all kinds of flowers thrown at the feet of the Harlem Renaissance with very few petals dedicated to the honorable Marcus Garvey during those major years between World War 1 and the Great Depression of the thirties.
The perfidy and misdirection is so deep, that Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is often (mis)considered the Harlem Renaissance’s crowning literary achievement although the very important book was not published until 1937, long after the Roaring Twenties and the Renaissance were long gone.
The great Langston Hughes wrote the obituary for the Harlem Renaissance in the “WHEN THE NEGRO WAS IN VOGUE” chapter of his 1940 autobiography The Big Sea. Hughes’ reminiscence was bittersweet:
I was there. I had a swell time while it lasted. But I thought it wouldn’t last long. (I remember the vogue for things Russian, the season the Chauve-Souris first came to town.) For how could a large and enthusiastic number of people be crazy about Negroes forever? But some Harlemites thought the millennium had come. They thought the race problem had at last been solved through Art plus Gladys Bentley. They were sure the New Negro would lead a new life from then on in green pastures of tolerance created by Countee Cullen, Ethel Waters, Claude McKay, Duke Ellington, Bojangles, and Alain Locke. I don’t know what made any Negroes think that–except that they were mostly intellectuals doing the thinking. The ordinary Negroes hadn’t heard of the Negro Renaissance. And if they had, it hadn’t raised their wages any. As for all those white folks in the speakeasies and night clubs of Harlem–well, maybe a colored man could find some place to have a drink that the tourists hadn’t yet discovered. Then it was that house-rent parties began to flourish–and not always to raise the rent either. But, as often as not, to have a get-together of one’s own, where you could do the black-bottom with no stranger behind you trying to do it, too. Non-theatrical, non-intellectual Harlem was an unwilling victim of its own vogue. It didn’t like to be stared at by white folks. But perhaps the downtowners never knew this–for the cabaret owners, the entertainers, and the speakeasy proprietors treated them fine–as long as they paid.
Back in June 1926, Hughes, the leading Black writer of the 20th century, penned in The Nation magazine the most famous essay of the era, the oft quoted “The Negro Artist And The Racial Mountain“. Moreover, at a much later time, Hughes wrote an insightful analysis of the literary contradiction he elucidated in the “racial mountain” essay–essentially, as Mari Evans would subsequently clearly state in one of her essays, — tackling the social mountain was a choice a writer could, but was not required to make.
In his 1947 essay, “My Adventures As A Social Poet” Hughes presciently wrote:
Some of my earliest poems were social poems in that they were about people’s problems — whole groups of people’s problems — rather than my own personal difficulties. Sometimes, though, certain aspects of my personal problems happened to be also common to many other people. And certainly, racially speaking, my own problems of adjustment to American life were the same as those of millions of other segregated Negroes. The moon belongs to everybody, but not this American earth of ours. That is perhaps why poems about the moon perturb no one, but poems about color and poetry do perturb many citizens. Social forces pull backwards or forwards, right or left, and social poems get caught in the pulling and hauling. Sometimes the poet himself gets pulled and hauled — even hauled off to jail.
What then are acceptable subject matters for poetry or for songs?
Entrapped on the horns of the social dilemma, Black artists in America are constantly confronted with the question Hamlet never had to answer: To be social or not to be social? But that’s the way it is with Black achievement in America. In general a social orientation is frowned upon, if not outright discouraged, if one wants to be considered a great artist.
Whether we realize it or not, the establishment teaches us that socially-oriented artwork is not as “artistic” as truly great artwork that focuses on conditions common to all of humanity. That is why Black folk can be celebrated mythically while at the same time being erased, elided, smothered, covered and appropriated to the point at which, for example, Black music ceases to need Black musicians.
But there was a time and there remains a question of authenticity (does it grow out of one’s collective as well as individual experience?) and the question of innovation (does it add to or distract from the history of a particular genre?).
In the field of African-American music, answering the questions of authenticity and innovation, ultimately requires Black musicians, or at the very least musicians who identify as an individual with the collective condition of Black people, a-la Johnny “Hand Jive” Otis, who was of immigrant Greek ancestry (born Ioannis Alexandres Veliotes) and is often erroneously considered a light-skinned Black musician.
A most significant statement is from Johnny Otis himself “As a kid I decided that if our society dictated that one had to be black or white, I would be black.” As a talent scout and musician, Otis was the first to feature Little Esther Phillips, Etta James, “Big Mama” Thornton, Jackie Wilson, Little Willie John, as well as a host of lesser famous, early Rhythm & Blues artists. In 1950, Billboard magazine crowned Otis as the R&B Artist of the Year.
There is no question that Johnny Otis was a major impresario, TV and radio personality, and, most importantly, a contributing creator of the Rhythm & Blues genre.
Dealing with the question of authenticity mated with social relevance, brings me to Doug and Jean Carn whose major recordings authentically reflected political and artistic developments among socially conscious African Americans of the seventies Black Power era.
Together, the couple released three albums on the Black Jazz label featuring Jean’s golden vocal work surrounded by Doug’s sterling arrangements and keyboard work.
Doug Carn was outstanding as a lyricist, penning words for some of the most moving contemporary jazz instrumentals. The albums were Infant Eyes (1971), Spirit of the New Land (1972), and Revelation (1973). A fourth album, Adam’s Apple, was released without Jean Carn. Carn’s lyrics, especially when articulated by Jean Carn, are both socially conscious and artistically impactful.
Over thirty years later in the first decade of the 2000s, Doug Carn recorded as a side-man with a number of jazz artists including Calvin Keys, Cindy Blackman, Curtis Fuller and Wallace Roney. None of those albums achieved the popularity and critical accolades as did Carn’s first three on the Black Jazz label (1969 – 1975) that featured Jean Carn on vocals.
Jean Carn would go on to change her last name to Carne and to record R&B with the Philly Soul team of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff. However none of her R&B recordings were as profound or as popular as her early 70’s releases with Doug Carn.
Although many have tried, few have been able to produce instrumental and vocal jazz albums that garnered popular attention and also expressed the life affirming, socially relevant jazz-joy of Doug and Jean Carn’s first three albums.
In this new millennium the seventies albums of Doug and Jean Carn remain essential to any collection of modern jazz.
I was in Minnesota. Northfield to be specific. A small town (in)famous for being the site of the ambush and dissipation of the Jesse James gang. Back then–August of 1964 to March of 1965–I was oblivious to how pivotal, how significant, how long lasting would be this point in my life journey. Moreover, I didn’t see how the far north could possibly be a major point in the history of the Deep South. But, indeed, my short stay at Carleton College shaped me then and continues to have impact on me as I approach my 75th encounter with planet earth as it circles the sun.
Carleton is one of the major small colleges in America. The campus includes Cowling Arboretum (approximately 800 acres ), Goodsell Observatory (with three telescopes, one of which contributed to timekeeping in the midwest), and, back when I attended, three gymnasiums, plus a major reputation for outstanding faculty and alumni. There is where I first saw Kanal by Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda. I became a life-long admirer of Wajda’s artistic, politically charged cinema. Carleton’s progressive lyceum series initiated my awareness of people and cultures outside of the USA–in addition to “foreign movies”, I also heard Norman Thomas, Ravi Shankar, and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers during my brief sojourn.
Northfield is a small, college town–it’s also the home of St. Olaf college. The town is about fifty miles south of Minneapolis/St. Paul. Counter-intuitively, my appreciation and critical understanding of New Orleans, grew out of my short stint up where the headwaters of the Mississippi River are located. If you look at a map of the United States, you can appreciate how Old Man River bisects the geography of this country.
Between the Appalachian ranges and the Rocky Mountains, most major rivers flow into the Mississippi River, which means that if you throw a stick in the flowing waters of a large city in most places, stereotypically that stick will end up floating down to New Orleans. Moreover, in this age of planes and trains, most of us don’t think too much about maritime travel, yet for most of the short (in historic terms) life of this country, export goods moved via river traffic.
Indeed, river boat transportation was the life blood of American industrial development. Don’t believe me, ask Mark Twain. And, of course, New Orleans is not only one of the oldest metropolitan areas in North America, the crescent city is also the gateway to the Gulf of Mexico, which offers access to Central and South America, as well as the Atlantic Ocean.
Which all leads me to my understanding of the second great migration of our people. While New Orleans is at the bottom of the southern portion of the country, our city is unlike most of the south. Fortunately for me, after returning home from Minnesota, immediately followed by a three-year stint in the U.S. Army, I joined the Free Southern Theatre and caravanned all across the south, from Texas to the Carolinas.
We went to places where there were no maps and the directions sometimes were to turn by the big tree (“You can’t miss it. You’ll recognize it when you get there.”) That’s how I learned the south. So, for me, the great migration referred to people and places I visited and often intimately knew.
Today, most Black folk have a distant knowledge of the historic great migration: that mythical, 20th century movement of Black people to the northern states. Indeed, even for those who live in the south, it is not uncommon to have relatives in the north, and vice versa. Moreover, the formerly rural areas of America have become urbanized as a result of technological developments, e.g. cell phones, cable/internet connections, and airplane transportation.
One might call this latest Black population shift a reverse migration. Seems as though Black folk are returning back south.
In a July 13, 1865 newspaper editorial Horace Greeley is quoted as advising: “Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country.” Well, it seems as though a significant number of Black folk have responded, “Naw, I believe we are Southward bound. Tally ho, here we go!”
Sociologists and public intellectuals have a plethora of explanations for this second migration, ranging from politics, to climate, to the economy. Regardless of why, what is apparent is that Jah people once again be on the move.
Imani Perry has written a challenging and insightful book exploring the ramifications of this modern exodus. Statisticians and scholars differ about the how-come, where-to, and the sizes of the relocations, but they all agree that something is happening. Even though it is not totally clear what is mainly motivating this movement. Although the genesis and specifics are yet to be definitively determined, the numbers don’t lie, even though there is a great debate about what the numbers actually mean.
Lizz Wright is a big woman. Makes a big sound. Like her broad, moon-shaped face, her voice is luminous.
You might wonder what this description has to do with her artistry. In some ways nothing–how one looks does not dictate how one sounds. But in another way, everything. She is not an ingenue: a thin, light-skinned, innocent-looking woman; someone shaped to appear as though she has stepped out of Vogue magazine, or is made-up to appear on Good Morning America.
She is Georgia born. Ms. Wright emerges from the loam of sweet southern soil. And sings in the lower frequencies. Eschews a false falsetto and is driven by a sonic prowess that gloriously unfurls from deep within her soul. Her artistry is an amalgamation of our collective heritages mated with personal observations.
No histrionics. No ostentatious onstage gyrations. Just stand still and sang. Smile after a good chorus. Laugh out loud when the music gets good.
You know when she’s feeling it. Lizz hides nothing.
She wears her heart on her sleeve even when she is draped in nothing much to look at. This music needs no costume to cover the basic beauty of a down-to-earth Black woman. Lizz is deep South fundamental.
She sings with her entire being. Not just from the diaphragm. Indeed, Lizz gifts to us exquisite tones, elegantly emanating from the region of her healthy being even though it seems only her lips be moving. Sometimes she spontaneously highlights a lyric with a sagaciously chosen hand gesture.
Her song selections flow from the heart of whatever matter she is exploring. Never trendy, with a minimum of affectations or artifice, Lizz is simultaneously both timely and timeless.
If it is possible to fall in love with an aural vibration, I am smitten by the sonic vocabulary of Lizz Wright’s vocals. Her unhurried articulations caress one’s inner ear. She exhales a sound you can taste, sweet like thick, golden, tupelo honey.
In the parlance of flamenco folk, what Lizz Wright does is duende–deep song.
In the 21st century, and especially so in the USA, most of the discourse is dominated by a male point of view. Even when women are speaking, too often the ideas coming out of their mouths are words, or theories, that came from the minds of men. Which all is why I dig so much of what Lakecia Benjamin is doing as a thoughtful musician.
When she was younger, after graduating high school, she bopped hip hop. Fortunately, musically she quickly matured and grew far, far beyond the areas of which she had been an active proponent, and also far beyond the genre restrictions of which she was initially enamored–note that rap does not significantly reward instrumentalists.
Ms. Benjamin is aware of herself as a Black woman and additionally willingly embraces both her ethnic and musical heritages. Although the alto saxophone is her chosen instrument, she obviously is deeply impressed by, as well as inspired by, tenor and soprano saxophonist John Coltrane.
However, do not sleep on her dedication to the alto saxophone, especially since John Coltrane initially started on alto before switching to tenor and eventually doubling on soprano. Nor, do not dare overlook Lakecia’s enthusiasm for Alice Coltrane who was a spiritual being of transcendent light. Between John’s resuscitation of the soprano sax and Alice’s expert employment of the harp, the couple expanded the palette of instruments routinely used in jazz during the eras of their respective activities.
Significantly, in 2020 Lakecia put out an album of music by the Coltranes. That’s right, Pursuance: The Coltranes features the compositions of both Alice (1937–2007) and John (1926–1967), thereby elevating the Coltranes as composers and not solely as instrumentalists.
Pursuance: The Coltranes is a daring exercise, especially since Lakecia’s first album was R&B and rap oriented. However, Pursuance is strictly, hard-core jazz. In a big way. Lakecia’s Coltrane project is not only based on the compositions of Coltrane husband and wife, Lakecia also employs approximately 45 musicians on the project. A partial list of participants is massive: Reggie Workman, Ron Carter, Gary Bartz, Dee Dee Bridegwater, Meshell Ndegecello, Regina Carter, Bertha Hope, Last Poets, Greg Osby, Steve Wilson, John Benitez, Marc Cary, Marcus Gilmore, Keyon Harrold, Marcus Strickland, Brandee Younger, Georgia Anne Muldrow and Jazzmeia Horn.
Moreover, Lakecia loves to dance as she often exhibits with her onstage moves. Unsurprising, as an alto saxophonist, initially she was into Maceo Parker (of James Brown fame), however John Coltrane soon became her obvious model. She rips off solos that take the Trane on out there a minute. Her orientation is classic jazz, not the commercially oriented “smooth jazz”, although she is adept at performing in both funky and avant-garde genres.
Black music needs more musicians like Lakecia Benjamin–fearless, seriously committed to stretching out and being their whole selves.
This young sister is leading the forward way. She reaches back, yes, to bringing up the old heads–musicians who were recording in the sixties and seventies–but also Lakecia includes her own generation as well as musicians in the gap between when the music went electric and the music of where Lakecia is at now in the new millennium.
The breadth of her influences is astounding because she has studied both history and technique, and demonstrates all that she has learned whenever, or wherever, she plays–or should I say when or where she be serious, ’cause Lakecia don’t play.
NPR interview with Lakecia Benjamin
There is an important book, The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Imageby Leonard Shlain. The title advertises what the book is about. Essential reading for those who are ready to go deep on history and the English language. Indeed, if you enjoy Ms. Benjamin, you probably could get into Shlain’s ideas with no problem.
Without exaggeration, Lakecia is a veritable musical diety. She manifests wisdom well beyond her youth and plays with an ardor and passion that enables her to commune with the old heads while exhibiting a youthful enthusiasm for the diverse directions of emerging approaches.
As lagniappe, we close with a major three-hour, album release concert that featured numerous guest musicians whom Lakecia selected. This outing is both surprising and significant–a young Black woman is both the organizer and the main soloist in a truly democratic experience. Lakecia is clearly the leader but she is no narcissist only interested in herself, thus she is accompanied by and presents an entourage of accomplished musicians.
Rarely, if ever, has a young 21st-century saxophonist undertaken and successfully accomplished a concert of this magnitude and magnificence. Lakecia has obviously embraced and employed her inner god-spirit in order to raise herself, her fellow artists, and her audience. This is aural elevation.
Cue Abbey Lincoln (August 6, 1930–August 14, 2010) to be the lead vocalist. Few others have created music that so completely mirrors the freedom struggle and the iconic truism that Black is, indeed, beautiful.
Her performances approach seances. She captures your spirit and catapults you to a higher plane of existence. Abbey uplifts you and inspires you to believe that you can not only uplift yourself, but you can also uplift others–those whom you love, all the members, known and unknown, of your community.
There is something in her that is in all of us–yet most of us don’t know our own greatness. She does. She sings and helps us all to recognize that there is magic in any being that can triumph over oppression.
I’ve been blessed to experience her live. She is more than a performer. She is a magician. Abbey credits what she does to the power of the music, even when she is singing in a language we may not understand.
Over her long career she has enthralled, enlightened, and elevated us–all of us who were witness to the extraordinary power of her vocal work.
For a minute (1962 to 1970) Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln were the major couple of jazz in the sixties. Max was a monster drummer who was also a composer, band leader and major social figure.
Prior to the ascendency of Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln was considered the most socially conscious of jazz vocalists. Abbey’s elevation was most surprising in that she was initially marketed as a sexy torch singer and even had promotion in some quarters as the woman who admirably fit into Marilyn Monroe’s dress. However, in union with Max Roach, she recorded an all-time classic album, We Insist!, which some critics categorized as “protest music”, especially since the cover image replicated and comemorated the first sit-in of the sixties.
I contend that Europe offered more opportunities to work and far more respect for Black jazz artists than was ever found at home in the United States. A classic example of honor abroad and neglect at home is that the only televised presentation of Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach working as a duo was a Belgian television special.
A major questioned was definitely answered by this presentation: Could Ms. Lincoln duplicate live the intensity of her sometimes wordless vocal work captured for the album? The definitive answer was yes. Check out the generous excerpts of the concert to appreciate the emotional force of the music the duo produced.