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The Curmudgeon: Black Bohemian Music from Sly to Prince to Janelle Monáe

Music Features Janelle Monáe
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The Curmudgeon: Black Bohemian Music from Sly to Prince to Janelle Monáe

Janelle Monae’s show at the Lincoln Theatre in Washington earlier this month opened with a revealing bit of theater. A tall man in the white uniform of a hospital orderly explained to the sold-out crowd that the hospital’s patients had been temporarily set free so they could have a little music therapy. Then as a band played the instrumental, “Suite IV Electric Overture,” that same orderly wheeled out Monae, who was strapped to a hand truck, as if she were Hannibal Lecter. Suddenly she burst out of her straitjacket and began to sing “Givin’ ‘Em What They Love.”

By introducing herself as a mental-hospital patient, she positioned herself as a person too crazy, too wild, too unconventional for normal society. By starting her show with the song from her new album, Electric Lady, that most prominently features Prince, she suggested that she’s not only too unconventional for American society as a whole but for African-American society as well. By singing Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” later in the show, she was deliberately linking herself to a tradition of left-wing black music that flows through Prince but existed long before he ever pulled on a purple suit.

This movement has never had an agreed-upon name. I’ve called it “progressive-soul” in The Washington Post but that seems too narrow a term for a tradition that also includes jazz artists such as Sun Ra and Cassandra Wilson, singer/songwriters such as Tracy Chapman and Oscar Brown Jr. and hip-hoppers such as Frank Ocean and the Roots. In his terrific new memoir, Mo’ Meta Blues, the Roots’ Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson calls it “left-of-center” black pop and “intellectually provocative, musically omnivorous hip-hop.” Critic/musician Greg Tate named an organization devoted to this stream the Black Rock Coalition.

Until we can find a better term—at least till the end of this essay—let’s call it Bohemian Black Music. By bohemian, I mean the tendency of any culture with a middle class to produce young people who are more interested in the unfettered exploration of intellectual, artistic, sexual and political possibilities than in the mainstream goals of wealth, power and conformity. There has long been a bohemian fringe in African-American society, but as the black middle class has grown, so has that fringe. In his book Thompson describes how the safety of private schools and a stable nuclear family allowed him to explore anything and everything—even if he had to hide his Prince records from his conservative Christian parents and his Beach Boys records from his streetwise friends.

There are two kinds of rebellion, the saying goes: rebellion to be different from your parents and rebellion to be like your parents. Some rebels want to create a new kind of music, a new kind of romance and a new kind of democracy. Some rebels just want the same kind of celebrity, sex and money that the powerful already have. That’s the difference between bohemian music and mainstream music. Let me be clear: Each camp has its fair share of geniuses and frauds, but the masterpieces and fiascos will have a distinct quality depending on what kind of rebellion they’re espousing.

One quality of bohemian music—black, white, European, American or Asian—is a willingness to cross boundaries and borrow from other cultures, classes and even historical eras. The history of American music is replete with examples of white bohemian musicians borrowing from black culture, but if you dig into the biography of almost any black bohemian musician, you’ll find something similar, whether it’s Jimi Hendrix’s open admiration for Bob Dylan, George Clinton’s for the Beatles or Prince’s for Joni Mitchell. Even if those influences surface only in subtle ways in the music, it’s such flavoring that distinguishes Bohemian Black Music from the mainstream black pop.

There’s nothing subtle about the shared influences on Wise Up Ghost and Other Songs, the recent collaboration by the Roots and Elvis Costello. Ben Greenman, who co-wrote Mo’ Meta Blues with Thompson, wrote the album’s liner notes where he claims that the record “paints a picture of an America that, while not exactly post-racial, has seen its blacks and whites turn to shades of gray—and many more than 50.” After working with the Roots several times on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Costello adds, “This is a band that does what I’ve done from the start: they draw off everything, all kinds of music.” In other words, a shared bohemia is the glue that holds this collaboration together.

This is not, however, a collaboration that adds New Wave rock to Native Tongues hip-hop; it’s a collaboration that subtracts the differences in search of a common ground. Gone is the rapping; gone are the guitar hooks. Gone is the boasting and the big pop choruses. What’s left when everything else is peeled away is a wiry, funky bass’n’drums groove and a British singer crooning/grumbling about a dystopian world where nothing can be trusted— neither the news nor the blues, neither rulers nor lovers. The mood is one of waiting for terrible to happen, even if it hasn’t yet. “Come the Meantimes,” as one song title puts it, we are advised to keep our heads down and beware of accidentally stumbling into the “Tripwire” or pulling the pin on the grenade.

The foreground sounds like Costello in an especially dark, wary frame of mind. His lyrics tumble out like a dump truck unloading a museum’s worth of cultural debris, given a good shove by Thompson’s push-pull-back-and-push-again drumming. Listen more closely, though, and you’ll discover that those verbal and musical bits have been assembled from pieces recorded at various sessions both recent and long past. There are samples, yet all but one are from Costello’s earlier records. Some of his older songs have been recycled with new lyrics and music laid over the original. Lyric lines and musical bits from one song reappear in another.

This collage assemblage is one of hip hop’s great inventions and to hear it applied to a literary rocker such as Costello is revelatory. The songwriting credits for all the tracks but one go to all three co-producers: Thompson, Costello and Steve Mandel. The jittery paranoia, heavy echo, wah-wah guitar, minimalist funk, sighing elegies and whispery warnings remind one of nothing so much as Sly & the Family Stone’s 1971 masterpiece, There’s a Riot Goin’ On.

Six of that album’s 11 tracks are included on Sly & the Family Stone’s new, four-CD, 77-track box set Higher! The 104-page booklet that comes with the CDs tells a tale of Bohemian Black Music not all that different from Mo’ Meta Blues. Sylvester “Sly” Stewart, born in 1943, grew up as part of a religious, middle-class family in Vallejo, north of San Francisco. Like Thompson, he developed a bohemian attitude that had him exploring across racial, class and religious lines. Even his high-school band, the Viscaynes, mixed races and genders as did his playlist as a disc jockey for KSOL. He became a songwriter/producer for Autumn Records, where he worked with Bobby Freeman, Grace Slick and the Beau Brummels.

When Sly formed the Family Stone (guitarist Freddie and singer Rose were actual siblings; saxophonist Jerry Martini, trumpeter Cynthia Robinson, drummer Greg Errico and bassist Larry Graham were Bay Area musicians), it too mixed races and genders. That mix was reflected not only in the faces and fashions on stage but also in the sound that blended Graham’s pioneering slap bass, jazzy horn and keyboard parts, gospel-soul harmonies, rock guitar and Sly’s social-commentary lyrics.

The box set’s first disc is devoted to the experiments that Sly, alone and then with the newly assembled band, made in search of a sound. The two middle discs are devoted to the glory years, from 1968’s “Dance to the Music” to 1969’s “Stand!” and “I Want To Take You Higher.” The singles are just about perfect, and the album tracks are mind-tickling forays to the edge. The fourth disc is the sound of a great band falling apart in the early ’70s as Sly sank into a cocaine habit, missed gigs and increasingly excluded his bandmates from the recording process. And yet the crumbling of bohemian idealism has never been more thrillingly documented than on There’s a Riot Goin’ On.

It was a short run, but it had a profound impact, most obviously on Parliament-Funkadelic, Miles Davis, Earth Wind & Fire and Prince but also on a host of others. When the tribute album, Different Strokes by Different Folks, was released in 2005, it contained contributions from the Roots, Big Boi, Van Hunt, Cee Lo, Chuck D, D’Angelo and Robert Randolph, all key names in the Bohemian Black Music movement. The same was true in 2007 when Steven Bernstein’s Millennial Territory Orchestra released MTO Plays Sly with contributions from Dean Bowman, Sandra St. Victor, Bernie Worrell and Vernon Reid. Or this year when Global Noize released Sly Reimagined with contributions from Nona Hendryx, Mudbone Cooper, DJ Logic, Will Bernard and Greg Errico.

Echoes of Sly & the Family Stone, Prince, the Roots, P-Funk and many more could be heard in Janelle Monae’s show at the Lincoln Theatre. But she twisted every one of those echoes into own personal music, as if she were digesting a large meal and transforming it into her own sleek muscles. By turning the year’s best album into the year’s best live show, she proved that Bohemian Black Music is thriving as never before.

During her encore version of “Come Alive (War of the Roses),” she seemed to go into an epileptic fit, as if the excitement of the music therapy had been too much for her. Several hospital orderlies rushed onto the stage in their white lab coats to subdue and sedate her. But she threw them off, because no one was going to stop her now, for this is her time.

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