- Prince and the Erotics of Democracy
Black American music, as we know it, was born in rebellion and horror, fantasy and desire, slave camps and starships, ring shouts and juke joints, barrel-houses, barber shops, and buckets of blood.
We hear the background radiation. We hear the sonic refusal of Black Civilizations to submit to the Barbarian delusion: their unfulfilled wish- projection that several millennia of African cunning and cosmology had somehow wound up bereft of human features.
No Gods, no memory, no love, no history, culture, or intellects.
Ha. As if, only.
In his visionary and prophetic 1903 essay collection The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois identifies the earliest genre of those sonic refusals as “The Sorrow Songs.” Du Bois rightly declares them the only sign from America that human life might still exist there among the wages of sin, gin, genocide, and technology. The Sorrow Songs affirmed two things: deep inner life among our enslaved ancestors and a coded language for subverting bondage with tonal espionage and melodic counter-terrorism.
Duke Ellington was once asked why his music was so dissonant. The Duke replied, “Dissonance is our way of life in America. We are something apart yet an integral part” (150). Ellington also said, “Art is dangerous. That’s one of its attractions. When it ceases to be dangerous you don’t want it” (qtd. in Burns).
The blues were Ellington’s dissonant weapon of choice, and over the course of a six-decade career he deployed them in myriad ways to seduce and tease out artfully the tension between his freewheeling and rebellious bluesy people and the democratic ideal. His compatriot Louis Armstrong did likewise.
So did their immediate antecedents of the bebop generation and the rock and rollers who followed them in sly and seditious musical contentiousness. [End Page 5] Up until then, Blackfolk in the South were being terrorized by rapes and sexually motivated lynchings.
The boppers and the rockers defied laws against sex congress between men and women on opposite sides of the racial caesura. Those musicians themselves never took on sex and race as a primary thematic, but the transgressive and transracial appeal of the bop and rock rendered explicit expression superfluous.
The R&B of the 1960s—epitomized and exemplified by the Motown sound of the urban north and the southern soul sound of the Memphis Stax-Volt label—deliberately moved up the pop charts and into once prohibitive venues: Hollywood, Broadway, and Vegas. It did so with Jim Crow–busting tunes that underscored the civil rights movement’s mission of desegregating and destabilizing America.
The jazz of the era went further in heightening the dissonance at play in American racial life and strife by invoking chaos to achieve velocity and point their improvs toward the cosmos. Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, and John Coltrane were the prophets, fathers, sons, and holy spirit of this movement that we also identify under the rubric of Freedom Swang.
These prophetic voices in jazz and R&B begat our music’s next wave of creative pioneers, the forgers of Black Rock 1.0: James Brown, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix, and Arthur Lee’s band Love. These avatars, in turn, begat the electronic jazz of Miles Davis, Freddy Hubbard, Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock, Weather Report, and Return to Forever, and inspired the instrumentalist-led band movement of 1970s funk ’n’ roll: Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Santana, the Parliament Funkadelic, Gil Scott-Heron, Labelle, Betty Davis, the Isley Brothers, the Jacksons, the Last Poets, Earth, Wind & Fire, Rufus and Chaka Khan, Maxayn, Mandrill, the Ohio Players, Philly International, and legions more.
All of these groups maintained Black music’s centuries-deep tradition of producing a bevy of covert and overt liberation songs, fight songs, and radically romantic ballads.
If you were a musically inquisitive young Black pop songwriter in the American midwest in the 1960s and 1970s, you put in long hours learning as much as you could about these innovative turns in Black pop theory and mysticism. You craved to know the esoteric philosophical underpinnings, which inspired them to represent post-revolutionary Blackness in...