Black Art, Collective Soul, Memories of Kokomo

Illustration by Susan Coyne

This Week: Black film and radical art— with Boots Riley, Doreen St Felix and Fred Moten. Listen today at 2pm or anytime on our website.

Zach Goldhammer: This show began as a celebration of a handful of black radical artists who are now breaking through in mainstream cinema and television — folks like Boots Riley, Terrance Nance, Ava Duvernay, Daveed Diggs, and many more.

The program ended, however, with a deeper meditation on whether or not great art is ever really made by an individuals. The closing conversation with the poet and radical black theorist Fred Moten was really a debate about the nature of the self and the role that individual genius plays in the history of African American art and politics. It’s a conversation I’ve been thinking about constantly ever since we first recorded it on Tuesday.

Moten insists that a distinction should be made between “black art and black artists” and that the valorization of the latter too often undermines our full understanding of the former:

Maybe the thing I love most about black art is how much pressure it puts on the very idea of the individual artists. The individual names (like Miles Davis and John Coltrane) signify an ensemble of aesthetic work and insurgency. The valorization and lionization of the individual name [however] tends to militate against the recognition of how deep the actual art is. I think that black life, and at its best black art is a radical critique of the very idea of private personal experience.

For Moten, the collective ensemble is more important than the success of any one individual. He quotes Amiri Baraka’s liner note mantra, “find the self, then kill it” as a kind of mission statement for what black art should do or does do at its best. Moreover, Moten insists that “success” for any individual artist performing on any particularly prominent American stage is not necessarily success for black art as a whole. To say that a performer is successful only if he or she makes it out of the Chitlin’ Circuit and into Carnegie Hall is to also say that the structures of everyday black life, particularly working-class black life, are somehow insufficient. The future for black art as well as black study, Moten insists, is not in Hollywood or in the Ivy League, “it’s in churches, in barbershops, clubs, and subways … it’s going to live where it’s always lived you know?” If America really believed, as Moten believes, that there’s nothing wrong with black life and black people, then they would simply black artists to respect and keep the platforms they’ve made for themselves.

The poets Stefano Harvy (left) and Fred Moten (right)

Chris, ever the Emersonian, pushed back on Moten’s dismissal of individual achievement by insisting that we can recognize the importance of collectives while still celebrating representative geniuses—from Duke Ellington to Bill Russell. The success of these individuals in the great performance halls and stadiums of America is success for America as a whole. “We’re always going have what we might call representative men, say Miles [Davis], who speak for something much bigger,” Chris says.

And, of course, Moten rightfully seized on the phrase “representative men” (the title of an Emerson’s 1850 essay collection) as a moment to reframe his critique of representation; not just as an artistic problem, but an existential one:

This is a country of representative men. It’s a country built on the idea of representative men. It’s built in order to valorize and to foster the continued production of representative men, understand, and it’s also killing the earth. OK. You know it is under the umbrella and by way of the actions of representative men that the Earth is being placed under a kind of duress that it has never been under before. So if there will always be representative men, it will be that way until there won’t be any more room for human beings to live on the earth no more.

By the time this conversation aired on Thursday night, it was not a representative man who most of us were thinking about.

Aretha at the piano, 1973

Aretha Franklin could, in one framing, be seen as a kind of singular, Emersonian genius whose individual success not only represented the collective, but transformed it. As the gospel critic Anthony Heilbut wrote, “a history of black America could well be divided into pre- and post-Aretha.” This might be a grandiose claim, but its almost certainly true that the history of American pop performance could be divided into BA and AA, before and after Aretha.

Wesley Morris argues that Aretha fundamentally changed the scale and scope of what an audience should expect from a pop singer’s voice:

Because lots of major pop stars now have great, big voices, maybe it’s easy to forget that most Americans had never heard anything quite as dependably great and shockingly big as Ms. Franklin’s. The reason we have watched “Showtime at the Apollo” or “American Idol” or “The Voice” is out of some desperate hope that somebody walks out there and sounds like Aretha. She established a standard for artistic vocal excellence, and it will outlast us all.

Because this transformation has become so totalizing, it’s sometimes hard to give Aretha enough credit. Morris’s kicker here suggests that if we were to simply let Aretha’s voice exist and recognize it as a kind of collective emanation—as Moten might suggest—we would be slighting the Queen’s personal achievement. Even now, we haven’t praised her enough:

Despite the world’s bereavement over her death, despite her having been less a household name and more a spiritual resident of our actual home, despite giving us soundtracks for loneliness, for lovemaking, for joy, for church, cookouts and bars, despite the induction ceremonies, medals and honorary degrees, despite her having been the only Aretha most of us have ever heard of, is it possible that we’ve taken her for granted, that in failing to make her president, a saint or her own country, we still might not have paid her enough respect? Just a little bit.

She was, after all, the first true diva in American pop music and she fiercely defended her throne for more than 50 years. In a write-up on VH1’s Divas Live— a 1998 benefit concert featuring Franklin, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Gloria Estefan and Shania Twain—the pop critic Jon Pareles wrote that:

there was only one real diva onstage: Ms. Franklin, who presented the true diva’s combination of a remarkable voice, a commanding presence and a whimsical, imperious assumption of power.

The concept of imperious diva comes from outside the black soul tradition, imported from 19th century Italian opera. Somehow, Franklin had also mastered that tradition too, which she proved that same year at the Grammy’s by filling in last minute for Pavarotti and performing the Puccini aria, “Nesssun Dorma”:

Still, despite Franklin’s singular talents, isolating her as the lone virtuoso on stage also does her a disservice. Her sound, like so many soul singers, was rooted in the black church. Specifically, her sound was the sound that surrounded her father CL Franklin’s megachurch and his own “million dollar voice”. It was the sound of the gospel singers who toured with her and her father, including Sam Cooke and Mahalia Jackson. It was the sound of her sisters, Emma and Carolyn, who later became her back-up singers, helping her craft the signature “sock-it-to-mes” on “Respect” (“who had a greater imagination when it came to coloring a song with backing singers,” Morris asks). It was the Muscle Shoals session musicians in Alabama — Roger Hawkins, Jimmy Johnson, Spooner Oldham, et al.—who helped re-root the Northern singer in Southern soil. There is an endless extension of names that you could pile on to prove the basic premise of the Moten point: there is no such thing as a singular artist, it’s always a collective ensemble.

On a deeper and more personal level, you can also see how Aretha Franklin refused to really see herself as an individual performer. She hid her private life carefully, never letting her tumultuous relationships, depressions, and addictions overshadow her music. If you look at the way Whitney Houston’s legacy is portrayed in the press in contrast to Franklin’s, it’s not hard to understand why Aretha was so protective.

When she did speak out as an individual, it was often in the service of collective liberation. In a 1970 interview with Jet Magazine, she discusses her offer to bail Angela Davis out of jail “because she’s a Black woman and she wants freedom for Black people.” She frames her decision as one motivated not by a ideological commitment, but instead by a kind of collective debt to her community: “I have the money …I got it from Black people, they’ve made me financially able to have it—I want to use it in ways that will help our people.”

When we spoke with the poet Ed Pavlic about Aretha’s music — as part of our Otis Redding show — he also emphasized her connections to the black power movement and the idea of collective self-defense:

Aretha is important to think about in terms of the historical moment where the kind of classical civil rights movement is splintering apart. The black power movement has begun. The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, which begins in the Bay Area in 66 and becomes noteworthy in national terms in 67, right exactly the moment when Aretha is is coming into her greatest popularity at least to date, with her album Aretha arrives in 67, and I think in Aretha there’s that power. And “Respect” is a perfect place to hear that difference, for sure. And I think it catches the thing that’s really rarely talked about with Aretha, is the way her emergence coincides with this insistence on self-defense and this insistence on Black Power, over and against the tradition of vulnerability.

Thinking in the Moten mode about the contradictions of community and success, the most interesting Aretha performance might be a relatively recent one; her surprise cameo at Kennedy Center tribute to Carole King in 2016. Her rendition “(You Make Feel Like a) Natural Woman” at the Kennedy quickly went viral and became the subject of a long New Yorker article by David Remnick.

The power of the video comes not so much from Franklin’s typically virtuosic performance, but from the reactions of the audience. Barack Obama, still in office then, is watching in the balcony with Michelle and Carole King. He’s reduced to crying, along with Carole, when Aretha first appears (“The cool cat wept!” King told Remnick later, “I loved that”). The camera catches him wiping away a single tear, and later, pumping his fist through the final chorus. The most powerful man in the world is suddenly humanized by a black woman’s performance. The bottom-line for Remnick was that this video was supposed to make you feel good: about Aretha, about America. “Watch it if you haven’t,” Remnick writes, “in under five minutes, your life will improve by a minimum of forty-seven per cent.”

It’s the ultimate artifact of Obama-era America, and today it feels in some ways bizarre to watch. It’s not quite the pick-me-up Remnick promises when you’re reminded how little this individual representative—this representative man—was able to do and how unaware he was what was coming; how disconnected he was from the broader American community, black as well as white. It’s surreal to think about Aretha Franklin— the woman who offered to bail out Angela Davis and represented the soul of black self defense—performing at the Kennedy Center, squeezed between the Watergate Hotel complex and the Potomac River, deep in the heart of American empire.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with Aretha’s performance nor Obama’s reaction — there is still something deeply beautiful about the union between them in that moment. But when you ask the deeper Moten questions, you feel the discomfort: did Aretha’s individual success, on that national stage, help her advance the cause of black art as a collective form? Did Obama’s individual success in that national office help better the lives of black Americans as a whole? Does any of it matter if, as Moten believes, the objective of black art and black politics should be to the save the whole earth, all of humanity, from it’s own self-destructive course?

Maybe that’s too much to ask of any one artist or politician. Maybe we care too much about individuals in the first place and we should just listen to the music instead.

From our engineer George Hicks, who expertly mixed Aretha’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” into the end of our program this week:

“First Snow in Kokomo” is one of Aretha Franklin’s three original compositions on what might be her finest album, 1971’s Young, Gifted and Black, and like the others, “Day Dreaming” and “Rock Steady,” it’s amazingly transportive in its own unique way.

“First Snow’s” unusually stripped-down arrangement, perfect for the casual yet wistful tone of the lyrics, leans heavily on her typically fine piano accompaniment. I was a tween when I first heard it, and already a fan of Aretha thanks to my older brothers. But I was particularly moved by the intimacy of the story and its setting. How could I not be? It really is about my home town, Kokomo, a factory town of 45,000 sitting on the flat expanse of corn and soybeans that is central Indiana.

I grew up on the south side — the north side was the black side; it was pretty strictly segregated until the ’70s, after our schools were desegregated. But how would Aretha have come to have friends in Kokomo? She might have visited with Rev. C.L. Franklin (her dad) as he barnstormed across the country, and there was a pipeline of GM and Chrysler auto workers constantly flowing between Detroit (her home) and Kokomo.

A few years later, when I was 16, I left Kokomo, at first returning often to visit family and friends, then less and less often as they scattered. “First Snow in Kokomo” evokes our relationships with loved ones in distant places and how they — and we — change over time. It just felt so true to me, then and now, that I simply cannot imagine that it was just a place she chose because she liked the sound of the name.

Mary McGrath: Some faithful listeners were disappointed we didn’t devote this week’s entire show to the Queen. No excuses, but timing is everything in the news biz, and we were hard at work on a show that we think had Aretha’s spirit all through it (and for sticklers, listen all the way to the end ;). We shouldn’t have buried the lede, though (number one news biz no no), and we did a bit.

There’s more to say about the black arts movement, about afrosurrealism and where and when all this started and where it’s going. We also talked to Arthur Jafa, whose show at the ICA “Love is the Message” was part of our framing, but we just ran out of room, so stay tuned for part 2.

Til next week,

The OS Divas

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon. chris@radioopensource.org