Past Is Prologue: Whitney Houston, Black Music, and The Importance of Historical Memory

I wrote this post over a year ago, at the behest of a then “Friend” who was supposed to write a companion piece to it. This person did not. And for some reason, I just let this get buried deep within my Word files. I read it tonight, and I realized how salient it still is. For Whitney.

Last night – February 11, 2012 – at approximately 5:15pm, my brother entered our kitchen where I was eating dinner to inform me that singer, legend, and icon Whitney Houston had died. I think I uttered two words before I grabbed my dinner plate and RAN to my room, to my computer, to log on to Facebook. I did not do so in hopes of being the first of my Friends to announce and comment upon Whitney’s death; I did so because I was instantly overcome by the feeling that I needed to confirm this news and connect with others around this tragic loss. Whitney Houston was dead. And I could not believe it.

One would think that I was Houston’s biggest fan, perhaps even President of one of her copious Fan Clubs – this could not be further from the truth. In fact, I’ve rarely thought about her as of late, and had even actively avoided reading recent commentary that I had seen posted about her. But upon hearing of her death, I was affected on a level that was both visceral and deep. Moreover, upon logging on to Facebook I found exactly what I was seeking – a community of people who were as overwhelmed and aggrieved by her passing as I was.

I was immediately beset with posts from Friends who made statements ranging from, “Oh My God! I just can’t BELIEVE it!” to “This is hitting me really hard…and I don’t know why!” Certainly, Houston’s untimely death was compounded by other recent losses in the World of Music – Soul Train innovator and host Don Cornelius had taken his own life only ten days earlier on February 1st, and the legendary Etta James had only lost her fight with cancer on January 20th. And while Houston’s life was famously fraught with difficulties brought on by her addiction to drugs, I found only a few extremely insensitive folks who chose to focus on the causal factors which may have lead to her death. The People were grieving…HARD. And many of them were not able to pinpoint exactly why this was the case.

Of course, we had all grown up with the music of Whitney Houston. She was undoubtedly a major contributor to the Soundtrack of our collective youth. But not since the passing of Michael Jackson in 2009 had I witnessed such overt mourning, such a tremendous outpouring of grief over the death of a Celebrity. Few of us actually knew Whitney Houston personally, and yet we were all blindsided by the news of her death as if a member of our own families had lost their lives. When I awakened this morning, still gob smacked by this loss, I struggled to understand why the death of Whitney Houston was resonating within me – and so many others whom I know – so deeply. At the behest of a close friend and ally, I will attempt to work through this moment in writing.

What I have come to is this: the death of Whitney Houston represents so much more than the loss of a phenomenal voice, vestiges of my youth, or even the reminder of so many others whom we have lost in the past year. In fact, her death represents something much more profound and deeply spiritual. Her voice – that crystal clear, wide-ranging, utterly beautiful instrument that she possessed – was forged in a rich vocal tradition that finds its roots in the Black church and ultimately in the African tradition of music and vocalization as expressions of celebration, mourning, and humanity. We feel her loss so deeply because this loss represents the strange historical moment in which we are situated – we have lost another performer, a key vocalist, who was able to effectively and poignantly channel the struggle and tenacity endemic to the Black experience in this country. Moreover, Houston was able to channel the depth of emotion, the very soul of those who were descendants of enslaved Africans…those who created and claimed the Black church as a kind of Sanctuary in which they could free themselves from Earthly bonds and celebrate their own struggle and survival. The very space where Martin Luther King, Jr. organized and launched a world-changing political movement, and where Aretha Franklin found her voice; the space where countless Black people found the strength to endure and overcome unfathomable oppression. And more importantly, the space which would serve as a launching pad for spiritually based creative expression that would transform the very landscape of this country and the world, for people from all racial, ethnic, and spiritual backgrounds.

Before the revelation that Whitney Houston had died, the biggest story leading into the Grammys – which airs tonight – was the return of white English singer Adele to the stage. By music industry standards, Adele was the most celebrated and successful artist of the past year. Her youth, attitude, moving lyrics, and stellar vocals took the industry by storm. It is no coincidence that Adele firmly situates herself in a vocal tradition that was forged by Black American artists who came before her, whom she openly cites as inspiration – Etta James among them. And the truth is that there would be no Adele – or the late Amy Winehouse, who lost her own struggle with substance abuse this past year – without Etta James, Whitney Houston, the Black church, enslaved Africans, or Africa itself.

Recent commentary on the success of Adele and her white British contemporaries who have chosen to appropriate a vocal tradition innovated by Black artists – forged in their struggle for dignity and humanity and birthed by enslaved Africans and their prodigious progeny – has been focused more on the assessment that they (white British artists) have now succeeded in reclaiming Black American music, while contemporary Black artists have all but abandoned the form. Of course, there are Black artists – Kelly Price, Jennifer Hudson, Marsha Ambrosius, and others – who have continued this musical tradition…but they do not receive anything resembling the level of distribution and airplay of white R&B/Soul Music vocalists who exist in today’s musical landscape. Because what we don’t want to admit to ourselves is that we are infinitely more impressed with white artists who have been able to channel the soul endemic to Black art forms than we are with Black folks who have chosen to continue this musical tradition. The belief is that while soulful vocalizing comes naturally to Black singers, it is an exceptional feat for white artists to achieve this level of vocal ability. This is why Mariah Carey’s racial and ethnic lineage was willfully obscured from the public when she made her initial debut – it is simply more exciting and innovative for white singers to perform Blackness than it is for Black singers to do so. Such is the twisted irony of U.S. culture, and indeed the western world.

But we cannot – indeed, we MUST NOT – heap accolades upon white R&B/Soul vocalists without giving deference to the ROOTS of their vocal stylings and personas. And we cannot acknowledge these roots without also acknowledging the fact that African Peoples not only served as the economic backbone of the United States (and elsewhere in the western world) for more than three centuries, but have also served as the very SOUL and MORAL COMPASS of the west – and our musical genius and performative innovations have created yet another arena wherein we have transformed the world. Consider English poet, clergyman, and (often overlooked) slave trader John Newton, who wrote the Christian hymn “Amazing Grace”; the story that we have been sold involves him being “forced” by the British Royal Navy to participate in the transatlantic slave trade, and then writing this hymn as a prayer for redemption due to this sordid involvement. We think of the Black church as having appropriated this hymn from Newton; but what if this was actually a reclamation of this song and sentiment? Newton served as both participant and witness to the forced bondage of Africans, overseeing those who were shackled in the bowels of the slave ships upon which he traveled, being constantly exposed to the melodies, vocalizations, lamentations…the very ENERGY of these human beings. Perhaps his “inspiration” came as much from what he HEARD and FELT whilst engaging in this utterly dehumanizing and vile act as it did from his own desire to be forgiven and redeemed because of it.

Perhaps the most translucent example of the force that is Black music in the United States can be found in the three most iconic and revelatory renditions of our National Anthem ever to be recorded – those of Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, and of course Whitney Houston. How absolutely ironic and appalling is it that these descendants of enslaved Africans could so expertly articulate and interpret a song which contains the bogus and disingenuous lyrics: “Oh, Say Does That Star-Spangled Banner Yet Wave/O’er The Land Of The Free And The Home Of The Brave?”

We miss Whitney Houston – we mourn her passing in the very depth of our souls – because she represented more than just a tremendous voice and an important part of our youth. We mourn her because her loss represents what feels like the last vestiges of our connection to a People and an Experience that the United States – and the western world – is beckoning us to forget. This is particularly salient as we are living through an historical moment in which U.S. politicians are actively seeking to undermine and discredit the first Black President of the United States and seeking to return us to a time when Black people were conceived of and treated as mere chattel…and engaging in the warped politics of nostalgia to convince USAmericans of all races that this was a better time for all of us. When we lost Whitney Houston, we lost a huge part of our connection to the transgressive souls and enduring spirits of the Africans who created something beautiful out of the cruelty and perversity of enslavement, dehumanization, villainization, and total disenfranchisement from the American experience. Whether Whitney Houston was aware of this or not, WE are aware of it…in a place that is deeper than most of us are capable of reaching.

Rest In Peace, Whitney Houston! Anedge Hirack, and May Your Barge Reach The West Unencumbered.



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