I’m being totally rad in keeping today’s post brief.  For this blogger, that means under 1,500 words.  This time, I’m pissed off about the public dissection of, and dissension over, Alicia Keys as if she were a biology project and an ethics subject.  People often forget that the quintuple-threat talent — singer, pianist, songwriter, producer and actor — is also a prominent humanitarian.  So why the repeated pregnant pause in Internet discussions over the latest developments in this complex, cappuccino-complected lady’s life?

Instead of picking apart the superstar like a hyena going frantically at a gazelle (hey, I watch “Nature” on PBS, too), I’d rather build her up in a public space.  Yes, all celebrities — but especially the women — tend to get ridiculed at some point in their career because of not-so-mainstream personal choices they’ve made.  However, when it’s a public figure of color that has gone against the grain in his or her private life, he or she really gets tarred and feathered.   And the latest celebrity of color to be metaphorically stripped to the waist is Alicia Keys.  To quote “blue-eyed soul” duo Hall & Oates, “I can’t go for that.  No, no, no, no.”

First, let’s go back down memory lane.  I’ve followed, but not stalked, Alicia Keys from the start of her career.  I recall the day I received a vivid-colored, cleverly packaged CD from a publicist when I was reviewing music for a New York City publication.  I was puzzled by the obscure record label and the absence of a photo of the unknown pianist-singer.  Then again, I was new to the business and figured the CD was some kind of advance disc.  It wasn’t until several years later, when the video for “Fallin'” was released, that I finally had a visual.  I was tempted as some to say that Alicia would go far on a pretty face, but within a short amount of time I didn’t need to be an A&R exec to discern that her talent and centeredness would always outshine any glamour points and related popular-magazine ratings.  For those who disagree with me on my “glamour point,” you can — to borrow from one of my fave TV series, “True Blood” — bite me.

Gradually, I watched and listened as her voice matured from a screechy kind of emergency siren that announced to the world she had arrived, to a smoky burn narrating stories about urgencies of the heart and mind.  I fell under her spell again and again, with her faithful — except for the title variation — rendition of Prince’s “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore” (“How Come You Don’t Call Me,” from her debut album, 2001’s Songs in A Minor); her impassioned piano sutures on “If I Ain’t Got You” and her “virtual” crooning with The Main Ingredient via sampling on “You Don’t Know My Name” (both cuts from 2003’s The Diary of Alicia Keys); and her unifying, internationally chart-topping anthem, “No One” (from 2007’s As I Am).

Alicia Augello Cook (her birth name) is as devoted to saving children on the continent of Africa as she is authentic in singing cathartically for the broken-hearted — even when or if that heart has been beating in her own chest cavity.  Alicia isn’t solely a musician; she’s a soul poet and globetrotting humanitarian.  As of this writing, she still plans on continuing her tour while pregnant, and she’s doing so with her head held high. Her art, and heart, are her armor as she walks through pelted stones like a warrior princess.  She was born in NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen, after all. It’s not a far stretch to imagine her propelling her voluptuous body many stories above the hailstorm of negative criticism like her purple-Spandex-wearing alter-ego heroine in “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart.”

To quote Marlon Brando’s “Paul” in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris:  “Oh, my hemorrhoids.”  That’s what I get for sitting through one idiotic comment after another about Alicia Keys.   Brando, portraying a demented, debauched and yet sympathetic man, utters that remark while seated beside Maria Schneider’s disillusioned, naive yet slutty “Jeanne” in a seedy tango parlor.  Now, before you ask me (not that I can hear you), What the hell does Last Tango in Paris have to do with Alicia Keys [insert expletive of choice]? … hold on a damned second and give me a chance to explain.

Just as the meaning of Bertolucci’s existential masterpiece had nothing to do with the city of Paris (although there was a subtheme or subliminal point about French nationalism and colonialism — not that you care, anyway), the entire fracas about Alicia Keys’ expecting a bambino with Swizz Beatz is as much a diversion.  All this nonsense I’ve been (wasting my time) reading in the past 24 hours about the true meaning of voluminous couture dresses, blousy black tops and — to add insult to injury — Alicia’s acne, is shallow.   Or horseshit, in keeping with my allusion to the geographical location of Bertolucci’s 1972 cult film.  Merde!

I’ll say this to all the folks with the jokes about Alicia requiring Proactiv®:  Why don’t you imagine experiencing your hormones getting tossed around like they’re on the spin cycle while your nipples get sore and while cells divide a million times (I exaggerate) in your uterus before an embryo forms.  Oh, and then try keeping your breakfast or lunch down, all the while you pray your embryo reaches development as a fetus, not to mention survives the treacherous route through the birth canal.  Now sit back and think about your vacuous comments ridiculing a expectant mother for having facial zits.

OK, I’m not saying that you so ridiculed Alicia, but many have … publicly … cowardly … behind their asinine usernames across the Internet.  And for those folks, who also have been saying nasty things about Alicia’s and fiancé Swizz Beatz’s nether regions, here are two of many words to affix to their cowardice:  pussies and dicks.  As in acting like …

Alicia’s having a baby — and her very first — for chrissakes!  Let’s wish her well and stop worrying about when the un-immaculate conception occurred.  And while we’re at it, let’s please stop the “stuperstition” — for example, threatening that her “Karma” will come back to harm her.   To those who’ve written scathing comments about Alicia, I ask:  Is not your house made of glass?  Or, if Blondie would beg my pardon, could it be your heart is not?

No matter what happens between Alicia and her man, with her recent pregnancy announcement I find even more meaning now in the following songs from her spiritual, emotive 2009 CD, The Element of Freedom:  “That’s How Strong My Love Is” (track 06), “Un-Thinkable (I’m Ready)” (track #07), “Wait Til You See My Smile” (track 05), the aforementioned “Try Sleeping with a Broken Heart” (track 04) and — yes, yes, y’all — her inspirational survivalist song that every native “New Yawker” such as she knows to be true:  “Empire State of Mind (Part II) Broken Down” (track 14).

Alicia, I don’t know if you or your publicist will ever read this.  And, by the way, I haven’t been a journalist for a long, long time, so I’ve actually purchased your last few CDs.  But, gurrrl, know this:  Through the fire and the shifting seas of controversy, we — your unwavering fans — gotcho back.

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The commenter at the end of my blog post (in the Obits & Tributes section of this blog) about Malcolm McLaren’s passing made excellent points in his review.  Please check out what he wrote; just click on the hyperlink in his comment.  However, like many White liberals, the commenter felt the need to McClarify what didn’t need clarification at all in the way that many White liberals proceed when conversing with Blacks.  Not that this is a black-and-white issue; many liberal Whites feel the need, have the obsession, to correct many different kinds of non-White people.  It’s not always intentional; it’s an internal flaw.

First off, this is my blog, and I can say whatever the fuck I want to say about the reason I (read:  I as in my blog, my mind, my expression) that I sat down at the computer to blog at that particular moment.  Malcolm McLaren passed away; I read about it; I reacted and in a positive way:  by remembering a damned song.  I’m not saying it (“Buffalo Gals”) was the greatest song ever created or that McLaren’s exquisite treatments are the most avant-garde stylings I’ve ever heard.  I was remembering my (there’s that pronoun again) introduction to his music.

This may be a poor analogy, but the song that introduced me to Marvin Gaye was “What’s Going On,” and at the time I was a little kid.  When I got older and listened to all those wonderful songs that he sang and recorded in the 1960s, I didn’t try to embrace all of Gaye’s music.  I liked what I liked.  To this day, when I think Marvin Gaye, the songs that immediately pop in my mind are “What’s Going On,” “Let’s Get It On,” “I Want You” and “Sexual Healing.”  I know that lots of the songs he sang are underrated.   I don’t have to care about that because I highly rate the songs of his that I like.   The man was here; he made his music; he got high; his music and sensual vocals helped people procreate (profusely); he became an icon; he got high; he got murdered; and he damned-near became a prophet posthumously. 

I know that the ego is what enables us to represent ourselves to the world.  And my ego, just like yours, hates being corrected in the first place.  I accept criticism, but I just don’t want to be corrected in my blog.

Now, because I know that White liberals just looooove for Black people (no matter what geographical location) to explain themselves, I’ll indulge any to whom this sentence applies.  The reason I’m doing so is I don’t want anyone else to misinterpret the purpose of my McLaren blog.  Hence, what follows is not my apology for the McLaren blog, but my friggin mini master thesis (go ahead and be a moron, and complain to me that that’s oxymoronic) that could be titled ‘Buffalo Gals’: An Exposition on Race, Class and the Impact of Rap on the Individual and the Media.

When I learned that Malcolm McLaren died, I could’ve written a brief blog, one containing “R.I.P.” with McLaren’s name and birth-death dates.  I didn’t want to do that.  Why?  This is my fucking blog, and I’ll do whatever the fuck that I want.   (By the way, to some of you out there who’ve been watching the excellent HBO drama “Treme” — the producers omitted the acute accent; my keyboard doesn’t have it — they may appreciate my excessive use of fuck as homage to the larger-than-life character Creighton Bernette.  For the rest of you: watch the damned series, and then you just may think I’m not being profane enough.)  My brief ode to McLaren was not intended as a review at all.  Nor was it meant to encompass his oeuvre.  Rather, it was meant as a shout-out to him upon his passing.

Earlier on the day that I penned the first draft of my “R.I.P. Malcolm McLaren (From a B-Gal)” blog  post, I had been catching up on news around the world and learned of his transition.  I was saddened for only one reason:  Of all the music that maestro McLaren created, produced, trailblazed, etc., there was one song of his that shocked my system in a positive way when I was a teenager.  That song was “Buffalo Gals.” Thus, McLaren’s death stirred up the memories of events in my young life that translated to the death of my innocence (on so many different levels).  And, no, I will not explain that at all.  Why?  Because this is my fucking blog, and I’ll do whatever the fuck I want in order to find catharsis within the confines of this blog.

So, yeah, I could have  posted a poem, a review or other paean to McLaren to ease my pain over humanity’s loss.  Sure, I could’ve rehashed some yada-yada-yada over McLaren’s many controversies concerning the Sex Pistols.  However, I’m not trying to pursue my friggin M.F.A. in comparative musical analysis; nor am I trying to court publishers for a biography about the punk impresario and entrepreneur.   Instead, to quote the Dramatics:  “what you see is what you get.”

Thus, what I posted on my blog page — and, apparently, what the wannabe ethnomusicologist commenter from the U.K. myopically read — was exactly the expression that popped into my brain at the moment that I found out McLaren died.  I didn’t bog down my mind with the cause of death, either, because his visionary status far outweighs that.  Though, I admit that, when there’s an air of mystery surrounding an iconic artist’s death (think Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix and Michael J. Jackson), he or she is first vilified, then canonized by folks seated on their piles in the hypocritical court of public opinion.

[As an aside: When the anniversary of Michael Jackson’s death is globally commemorated around this time next month, depending on how I’m thinking of MJ —  if I am thinking about MJ at all or, if I am, if I decide to blog about his music or about anything at all — I might just do a shout-out that mentions a song or two or three.  And God forgive me if one of those songs isn’t “Got to Be There,” “Thriller” or “Man in the Mirror”!  Give me a fucking break.  In no way would such a brief tribute try to encompass all of MJ’s musical output.]

But, lest I be accused of Flogging a Dead Horse

There’s a reason that “Buffalo Gals” is the song that introduced me to McLaren.  (I’ll go out on a cellulitic limb and say McLaren’s contribution to hip hop introduced a lot of Black Americans to his music.)  Sometimes it only takes one song to have that kind of impact on a person’s life. “Buffalo Gals” made me curious about McLaren; then I searched for more.  Around the time that “Buffalo Gals” was released, I was just getting into New Wave music, being bored by a lot of the plain vanilla pop and neodisco that was being churned out. 

The eccentricity of “Buffalo Gals” was so fresh that it added to the innovative (and improvisational) nature of rap music.  Simply, it thrilled me like no other record had done that year.  Now you may be thinking:  So was (and is) rap music fresh and innovative.  Despite all the musical samples, yes, I believed then as I do now about today’s rap music that it is fresh and innovative, but for me there was one catch: Admitting to liking rap music, not just one song but the entire genre, would’ve meant — in my teenage mind-set — accepting the lifestyle that accompanied it.

I’ve been greatly enlightened since adolescence (I hope so), but when I was still in high school, there were lots of negative issues associated with people who regularly listened to rap music.  My old, old-school dad’s attitudes about the then-emerging urban music didn’t help me latch on tightly to all or most of the rap output during the early to mid-’80s.  In my neighborhood back in the day, for example, listening to rap made you part of the in-crowd, which I wasn’t.   Again, that was a good thing because lots of people my age were getting gunned down.  Now, this doesn’t mean that I believe, today, that rap music or any other kind of music causes people to commit violence (though I’m not so sure about certain video games today “rated ‘T’ for teen”).  It’s just that there was nothing euphemistic about this in-crowd.

I wasn’t elitist and certainly had no concept at 16, 17 years old of that word.  I knew that I didn’t want to identify with the criminal element in my neighborhood — and I lived in the suburbs, not too far from where Run-D.M.C. hailed.  I favored different, and admittedly assimilationist, kinds of urban music styles (i.e., not just rap music). 

At that time also, pledging my alliance to hip hop culture would’ve meant mindless conformity to commercialism targeted at Black youths.  This is no exaggeration.  I recall with disgust that scores of Black teens were wearing one type of denim jeans and one type of sneakers after a certain rap duo made a certain record, yet it’s highly unlikely that most of their parents owned stock in those companies.  Meanwhile, those companies grew richer — and off the blood of those teens who were killed for refusing to give up their cherished articles of clothing.

I may have been young, but I was no idiot.  I used to wonder:  Wow, I bet [insert name of manufacturers here] are reaping millions by these not-so-innocent product placements in rap songs.  The famous-name dropping was about as subtle as a sponsored wedding.  I would’ve preferred the inflated egoes that come with MC’ing over rappers further inflating the egoes and wallets of these profitable companies’ CEOs.

Sure, rap was considered a form of underground music — as were house and punk, to name a few — but it created a façade of class distinctions, which was followed by actual divisiveness in Black families across the USA.  I couldn’t wrap my mind around a bunch of damned-near-affluent Blacks gaining prominence quickly while the poverty-stricken Blacks — whose raps were far better because they dealt more with survival without glossing it over — didn’t get their due.

Today, we don’t think about this because people across color lines and of many different ethnicities embrace rap and hip hop culture itself.  With some exceptions, hip hop is now pop (and has been for some time).  But in my neighborhood back in the day, if you were a youth “into” hip hop culture, you were viewed as a thug.  I couldn’t date any young men who were into hip hop, else feel my parent’s disdain and its ramifications.

Even today, I have mixed feelings about rap music.  I see the MC’ing, the boasting, and the roasting as an art form — as I do the scratching and complex sonar sounds and sampling.  While I’m happy that rap music in particular and hip hop culture in general have worldwide appeal and acceptance (just because I’m not “into” rap doesn’t mean I don’t like a bunch of songs in the genre), I get uneasy — no, pissed off — when Whites get so comfortable quoting it back in the presence of Blacks while also enjoying the privileges of being White in America.

There are still places (here in the Northern part of the United States, that is) that will try to seat me at the rear of the restaurant at peak time.  Once I have my table by the window, there seems to be some kind of time limit not placed on adjacently seated White parties and “visibly” mixed-race parties.  I’m rushed through appetizers, entrees and desserts in such a flurry that it’s as if they’re one course.  Then the moment comes when I remind myself that rap music is the great equalizer on the dance floor, not in the restaurant.  The dance floor is where the endorphins are rushing all around amid flashing lights and darkness — a fantasy environment where we might as well all be the same color.  I don’t care what Michael Jackson sang; in the U.S.A., it does matter if you’re Black or White (shum-on, shum-on!).

Oh, wait.  There’s more.  I can’t digress into the topic of racism within only one or two paragraphs; it’s only the beginning of the 21st century.  Even in the centuries depicted in the original Star Trek TV series, characters had their problems … on other planets!  OK, OK, those were allegories.   But it’s no science fiction that, here in the highly industrialized United States, there are still Ku Klux Klan meetings going on in a fine suburban neighborhood near me, if not near you (for those of you dear readers located in the U.S.A.).  After all, the affluent can afford higher thread-count sheets and frequent dry cleaning to keep them white.  Just kidding:  Here in the North, sheets are an option, and that enables the practicing of racism to be subtler.

I’m a bit off-topic, here (as always), but I recommend viewing the very underrated G, from 2006, which is a slick cinematic updating of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby.  In G, directed by Christopher Scott Cherot,  hip hop culture figures quite prominently and is poignantly superimposed on the conservative ambience of the Hamptons.  The title character, a/k/a “Summer G,” is portrayed with arrogant charm by Richard T. Jones.  (I’d like to see Jones portray Shakespeare’s “Othello,” for he’s hellasexy even when he barely contains a jealous rage in Cherot’s G.   In Othello he’d finally get a chance to consummate a romance with a White female character, something deprived of him in the long-ago canceled TV series “Judging Amy,” which teased the progressive faction of its fans, who desired the fulfillment of a judge-docket clerk sex fantasy.  I doubt that I was the only one thinking this.)  The GQ-fly casting in G continues with Blair Underwood, who is brooding and convincing as “Summer G”‘s archrival:  “Chip.”   Actors Chenoa Maxwell, Andre Royo, Laz Alonso and Sonja Sohn all lend supporting roles and deliver memorable performances.  After experiencing the atmospheric beauty and palpable passion of G, I couldn’t bear to watch The Great Gatsby (1974), starring Robert Redford, again.  And Redford wasn’t hard on the eye either.

But getting back to the topic of rap music … Sometimes I have to check my watch to see if it’s 2010 and not 1950.  Several years ago, on a nice spring day, I got called “nigger” by one of a group of White men riding in a car with opened windows from which rap music — yes, rap music — flowed as freely as the blood of James Byrd Jr. on dirty Texas roads.

Prior to the above incident, I’d been no stranger to the “n” word, having been labeled with it at the age of 4.  My same-aged neighbor stood in her facing yard and hurled the “nigger” insult my way, even throwing a brick for full effect.  I had committed the childhood sin of  inviting her to my tea party.  That wasn’t exactly a whimsical adventure in Wonderland, but I learned an early lesson in mad haters.

Ahhh, but rap music is bringing all of us together, riiiiiight?  Wroooooong.  Then again, rap music isn’t responsible for separating people either.  It’s just that, increasingly, Whites are co-opting rap music (and Black American-created vernacular) in everyday life, including in the media, to the point that it can be perceived as condescending.  When I hear that, I don’t feel endeared to rap music.  But I do admit to having an inner conflict about the issue.  What can I say when I simply don’t have the liquidity to attend a majority of concerts by new-school rap acts that I do admire (including Mos Def, Ludacris, Eve, Common, Sean Paul, T.I., and Trina)?  I won’t bother to mention my old-school favorites — what’s the point?  At this rate, I’d better settle for having been able to see a few of them in concert back in the day.

In big cities, many rap-loving White people can afford those tickets.  Could it be that White workers more than workers of any other phenotype hold more managerial jobs at U.S. corporations (physically located in the U.S.)? I used to witness the large White crowds at blues venues too.  I’d be nearly broke after the cover charge and table minimum.  You see, it’s not that the majority of Black Americans don’t ever want to hear the blues (and jazz and rap) live — a myth that needs to stop immediately. They simply can’t afford attending the shows with any frequency.  Some can’t afford them at all.

As for White people’s creative influence on a musical art form conceived by Black people:  It’s great when someone, from any culture, adds  his or her  personal touches to rap music.  Music is organic, and it doesn’t belong to this group or that group. It’s just so ironic that the same music that my peers didn’t think I was hip enough to appreciate is loved by many Whites.  And my peers definitely wouldn’t have thought them hip enough because in my neighborhood, to be White was to be the Other — an Other who fled (i.e., “white flight”) when Black and Latino people began buying homes.  After the tea party episode, it wasn’t long before my young neighbor’s family up and fled, too.

Prior to listening to “Buffalo Gals,” I used to think of rap as belonging to a certain demographic.  Notice that I’m referring to rap and not hip hop because, at the time, I didn’t think of hip hop as a culture unto itself.  Today, of course, I know that hip hop is inclusive of the music — rap music — as well as the business of making and marketing the music, the worldwide impact of the music on media and individuals; the lexicon; the style and manner; and the fashions.  At the time, I also thought of rap as a subcategory of contemporary R&B but, again, a kind of music that I wasn’t hip enough to be accepted as appreciating.

In other words, back in the day when rap as we know it first became popular, I wasn’t part of the in-crowd (that is, in my neighborhood).  In fact, I was just getting into New Wave at the time, having been a late bloomer to the punk rock scene.  At first, the band Blondie was as wild as I thought it could get — that is, with punk-influenced club music — but her rap style was weak, always sounding martini-tinny.   The Clash was a different story; “Rock the Casbah” was amazing!  Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern” (a sample of which was performed on “White Lines [Don’t Don’t Do It],” by a band working with Grandmaster Melle Mel and the Furious Five) was gravity-defying.  I’ll never forget the sheer electricity of leaping off the dance floor when the lyric “Base!” thumped, pausing a rumbling bassline.   That was a natural high.

However, when “Buffalo Gals” first boomed from my box, I was forever changed.  For me, that song was an ingenious synthesis of rap and New Wave dance music, and there was nothing exclusive about it.  It didn’t matter what the color of your skin was.  If you embraced the song, it embraced you.

For the record, I loved McLaren’s “Hey DJ,” too, but it didn’t shake my foundation (and my shapely azz) as much as “Buffalo Gals” had because it was basically contemporary R&B with an infectious hook.  I wasn’t surprised many years later to find the piano hook of “Hey DJ” sampled as the melody of Mariah Carey’s “Honey.”  In fact, the sample was so effective that today I still associate that piano melody with Carey’s song before I do McLaren’s original.

That “Honey” comes to mind before “Hey DJ” doesn’t bug me because sampling is a testament to the work of a genius. Like delicate stem cell surgery, sampling enables a living form — the original music — to be perpetuated for future generations to appreciate and experience.