I love the word ‘requiem’. It is solemn and connotes serious things. It has a couple of meanings, including a Catholic mass for the souls of the dead or an act or token of remembrance for something or someone.
I watched two documentaries (well, more than two but these are the ones that matter to this post) recently — one on Whitney Houston and another on George Michael. The stories were poignant and not just a little sad: they made me cry inside after they’d ended. If you haven’t seen them, please do. If you have seen them, I hope you’ll watch again.
I had no idea about a similar experience that both Ms. Houston and Mr. Michael had.
Ms. Houston’s record label realized they could expose her sound to a broader audience and had her sing pop songs. Because of the popularity she gained in that arena, she got boo’ed at the Soul Train Music Awards; the documentary narrator indicated the reason behind it was that she was seen as having sold out to a ‘White’ audience.
Similarly, in Mr. Michael’s film, singer-songwriter Gladys Knight expressed what seemed like irritation that he had been recognized with two awards (male R&B singer of the year, I believe it was and best R&B album) that ‘traditional’ (‘Black’) artists would not so easily receive.
As I listened to George Michael react to the idea of how his music was received — and Stevie Wonder’s reaction (‘What? He’s White?’ — he was kidding) — my mind went right to the phrase ‘race music‘.
Prior to the emergence of rhythm & blues as a musical genre in the 1940s, “race music” and “race records” were terms used to categorize practically all types of African-American music. Race records were the first examples of popular music recorded by and marketed to black Americans. Reflecting the segregated status of American society and culture, race records were separate catalogs of African-American music.
(excerpt from Encyclopedia.com, ‘Race Music’)
Yeah, that. ‘White’ music for ‘White’ people, ‘Black’ music for ‘Black’ people. ‘Latino/a’ music for ‘Latino/a’ people.
I grew up listening to all kinds of music, especially since my dad was a jazz fan. I became a dj as an undergraduate student and played everything: classical, jazz, rock, R&B, reggae, second wave, old world, rap. Usually in the same set. I didn’t look at who was behind the keyboard or holding the guitar — I listened.
However … (and you probably figured there was a ‘however’)
Something in the George Michael documentary about this whole White vs. Black music thing made me think about the ways I came to think about artists and music. It made me remember that I was surprised to find out when I first heard Eminem’s Slim Shady that he was not Black. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t but I was sad that who he was surprised me.
I’d fallen into a race music trap.
Which taught me that we all do at some point.
It might not be about the same thing, but if we are honest with ourselves, there has been a point that we were surprised that someone — a musician, actor, artist, someone — wasn’t who we thought they were. Maybe we thought the person looked a certain way (shorter, taller, bigger hair?) and were surprised to find our suppositions were wrong.
The question to ask is why the surprise and does that surprise make a difference in how we react to that music, film, or piece of art?
I initially had a moment of remembrance for my feelings, which the open-minded dj in me required I recognize.
In each case, the surprise was an acknowledgement that I am not the Creator of the universe, that I don’t make people in the image I have of them.
And that’s okay. In fact, I really don’t think I needed a requiem.
It’s when the being of the person in question is problematic (why not be a crossover artist, which in my mind means people of all sorts enjoy your sound — isn’t that the point to getting the cash monies after all?) that a reflection and requiem is required.
For a minute, Eminem was mine.