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  • Groove Theory: A Vamp on the Epistemology of Funk
  • Tony Bolden (bio)

When asked to define funk, George Clinton once said, “If it makes you shake your rump, it’s the funk.”1 At the most basic level, the term “funk” signifies honesty and beauty of expression at the depths of human emotion. As such, funk comprises the secular counterpart of “the spirit”—what Albert Murray calls “paroxysms of ecstasy”—in black church worship. Writing about James Brown, the musicologist Teresa L. Reed makes an observation that is applicable to funk music generally. She states that the music “captures the soulful spontaneity of the Sanctified church and the animated exhortation of the Sanctified preacher. [The music] also emulates and incites an emotional intensity parallel to the Holy Spirit possession that is a trademark of the Sanctified worship service.”2 Teddy Pendergrass makes a similar point in his memoir Truly Blessed. Recalling his childhood experiences in what he described as a “rock-‘em, sock-‘em, sanctified, feel-the-Spirit church,” Pendergrass said, “We talk today about the innovations in rhythm made by great jazz musicians and pioneers like James Brown, but the truth is, they had nothing on a congregation going full force in praise of the Lord.”3 The musicologist Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr. echoes Pendergrass’s statement in his recollection of his experiences as a member of the Sanctified Band in Chicago. According to Ramsey, “Funky was the watchword . . . God liked funky. Funky ministered to the people.”4 Of course, black churches have always functioned as training repositories for black musicians, but the frenzy and kinetic expression associated with holiness churches played a disproportionate [End Page 9] role in funk music. These churches emphasized Africanist worship styles, and funk music showcased many of the aesthetic sensibilities and epistemological principles that were central to their worship styles. Hence, jazz/funk guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer entitled his 1980 composition “Jazz Is the Teacher (Funk the Preacher).” Similarly, on the initial recording of “Papa’s Got A Brand New Bag,” the Godfather of Soul can be heard saying that he feels “like preaching.”5 And Lyn Collins, who sang with Brown, was nicknamed Mama Feelgood and the female preacher. Her comments regarding the conceptual approach to “Think (About It),” which was a funkified womanist manifesto, typify the spirituality of funk music. Seconds before Collins’s recording, Brown told her, “[W]ait, Miss Collins. . . . [W]hen you’re talkin’ to the women, I don’t want you to just talk. I want you to do that gospel thang. You know, I want you to tell ‘em, I want you to preach to ‘em. . . .”6

Introduction: Kinesis, Cognition, and Constructions of Funk

Most discussions of funk music emphasize ideological relationships with the Black Power Movement and musical innovations that establish conceptual foundations for subsequent forms such as Afro beat and hip hop. But while such approaches are vital to understanding the larger significance of the funk genre, they often overshadow the psychosomatic construct known as the funk. In this essay, I argue that the funk/spirit—or, more simply, the funk—operates as a distinct form of black vernacular epistemology. Though often mischaracterized as a lack of rationality, the quasi-electric sensation that Clinton calls the pleasure principle should be understood as an alternative form of rationality. Poet-critic Nathaniel Mackey touches on this alterity in an interview with Paul Taylor. Responding to a question about the importance of mystical traditions in his writings, Mackey states that “by juxtaposing the mystical to reason as you do you’re giving it the status and the scope of an alternative reason, much the same way in which Pascal, in that famous formulation of his, writes of the heart having reasons that reason knows nothing about. So we’re talking about a recognition, even within the Western tradition, of the limits of reason, a recognition of other ways of knowing, multiple ways of knowing.”7 Naturally, the prevailing notions of epistemology, which are based on the mind/body split promulgated by conventional notions of Christian philosophy, forecloses the possibility that sensuality is involved in the production of knowledge, that thinking can be both “sensual and abstract.”8...


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