On Music, Writing, and Being Moved
Saturday mornings in my early ’70s, Alabama childhood home were weekly cleaning time. My mother would turn the oldies station on the radio, break out the mop bucket, cleaning supplies and gloves, and go to town. Her soundtrack was the Shirelles, Jerry Butler, Sam & Dave, and a host of one-hit wonders long forgotten by most but whose songs she still knew by heart. It was the music of her youth, though she wasn’t yet old, and it moved her. She’d go into her own zone, singing along to old soul tunes, and my sister and I instinctively knew to let her have that time to herself. She had a beautiful voice, light and sweet. I learned very early to respect and love the power of music.
I try to write about culture, music and film, with something of the way that real people really experience it. I want the work to be smart and insightful, but I also want it to have emotion, humor, playfulness and sensuality. I consider myself more a writer than a critic. The distinction isn’t drawn out of snobbery. I’m less interested in the workings, output or power players of any specific discipline than I am in identity (racial, gender, sexuality, class… the overlap of all) and how it shapes and is shaped by pop culture – both mainstream and indie avenues. What cues do we take from movies, music, TV… YouTube, about what it is to be a man or woman, gay or straight, black, Latino, Asian or white? What of that which we are told about ourselves do we resist and what do we uncritically or even happily embrace? How reciprocal is the relationship between us and the culture we consume? And what is the common denominator between a Russian art-house film, a gangsta rapper’s ’hood reportage and the dance music that obliterates the speakers of an underground gay club?
My work flows from a critical center that doesn’t have whiteness, heterosexuality or even obvious maleness as the filter through which art is evaluated. That sounds very “early ’90s American university.” The fact remains, however, that many gatekeepers of modern media and culture, even some of those with melanin, breasts, same-sex partners and “alternative” media credentials are overwhelmingly SWM in their agendas, in the particular comfort zone they labor to maintain and place at the top of the food chain. That’s especially true in this time of media buy-outs, consolidation and downsizing. This is a political and cultural moment that is ripe and ready for new voices and perspectives (and not just the same old shit in hipster drag,) yet is fenced by the confluence of fear, market demands and reactionary politics. Recognition of my work with the Beyond Margins award is extraordinarily gratifying not just for the recognition of my own writing, but for the acknowledgment that this type of work is seen and valued, period; that it doesn’t fall through the cracks.
My book Blood Beats: Vol. 1—Demos, Remixes & Extended Versions is a collection of my criticism from 1996 to 2000. It contains interviews, reviews and essays on people like Meshell NdegeOcello, Warren Beatty, Tupac, Björk, Queen Latifah, Outkast, Mos Def, Lauryn Hill, Tricky, Erykah Badu, Aretha Franklin and Les Nubians, among others; on films such as Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog, Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, Love Jones, Mother and Son, Nenette et Boni, Urbania, La Promesse, Before Night Falls. The closing essay, “Punks Jump Up to Get Theirs,” focuses on gay rappers and gay fans of rap music; it deals with issues of homophobia in the Afro-Am community, racism in the white queer community, and the redlining of certain identities in the cultural marketplace. The link between all these listed subjects? They moved me.