Singing the unpronounceable: A season of sounding Black grieving

I’ve been thinking about this blog for a long while. When I was asked to write a comment or two on poetry for Jacket2, I researched several angles: from fiber artist Xenobia Bailey’s extraordinary vision translated into mosaic tile for New York’s newest subway system, to the dynamic Pan-Africanist energy of Congo-American electronic rapper Young Paris throughout Brooklyn’s environs, his majesty reflected in the stunning collection of Congolese art at the Met last year. The aesthetics of Black representation in the public sphere is described as poetic, and it is, but I landed on a decision to debut this column a few days after April 21st, 2016.

The performative utterance of Black grief in its sonic, phonemic aspect, is often spoofed, reduced or disappeared in popular culture. The spoofing is represented by the over-emotive Black church lady draping herself over a closed, or alarmingly unclosed casket — wailing as bad method acting, her white slip showing under her black dress for all to see. She’s “in it” but we’ve peeped her secret and guffaw at her lack of dignity, speaking to death in coarse tongues. This joking of the demonstration of grief is a “tell” of the deep embeddedness (embodiment) of Puritanical cultural suppression that, despite our different ethnic origins, Americans embrace to one degree or another.

The permissible presentation of this grieving in public (in addition to Puritanical withholding) is the iconic New Orleans parades both, to and from, burial grounds. This touching, cathartic and regionally-specific performance of music, marching, costume and dancing has not translated inter-regionally in a normative way. So how do we exercise through the body, fully, in grieving as a nation within a nation? How do we display without being displayed? The absence of the range of Black grieving in the public zeitgeist is a constraint to our old Black bones. There is, though, the construction of saying through swaying as musical speech acts.

The death of Prince Rogers Nelson, grandchile of Louisiana Creoles, occurred on April 21st, 2016, just about at the end of the semester for my friends, my students and I, in academia. It’s taken me the whole summer to be able to write about it. The 4th monthly anniversary has just passed (the mournful “17 Days” after this monthly dirge, fast approaching). The day after he died I was doing a show at the Whitney Museum with the great percussionist Susie Ibarra. We were performing an homage to the giant, and enduring, Cecil Taylor. I reached out to Susie, despite having lost touch almost 20 years ago. I thank goodness that she took my call, and that our gig was on April 22nd. I’m a talkative yet private person but I knew that keeping this grief to myself would choke if not “the” then “some” life out of me. Prince was a light, a star, a beacon, a lighthouse. I was adrift, but I was, luckily and because of my collaboration with Susie, not submerged.

An early sound check meant I had a moment to catch Fred Moten and Chris Funkhouser’s closing comments before I went to go “underground” before my set. I happened to catch Fred concluding some music from Cecil before surprising everyone with a “bonus track” of Prince’s Alphabet Soup. Fred had the audience get up and dance with him. (Fred’s a great dancer, btw. And as cool as you would expect.)

The air was heavy with something(s). Susie and I noticed the variation of color in the audience. (“The crowd was all purple…”) It wasn’t the majority but I think the majority of the Black folks in the house had something purple on (but that could just be my projection: a woman on the train who sat across from me that day, was wearing purple lipstick and I asked her if it was for Prince. She said “no.” But I knew the brother I could see through the transparent subway door pane, wearing an ill-fitting violent collared day shirt was wearing last night’s impulse buy, a few of the factory creases evident across the back.)

After the show I felt connected but after the show I was undone. I had prepared an intervention. The day he died (akin to O’Hara’s poem of Lady) I called a long-time friend and colleague Lumumba Bandele who, in addition to doing serious community-based activist work, is a helluva DJ. (That’s old-school Brooklyn.) It was at the tail end of the semester and we were able to make it work, despite his busy schedule. The crowd was sparse and folks trickled in and out. I decorated the room with purple balloons, feather boas, candy and things. The folks who came played with the balloons and danced. Lumumba played a set no different than if there had been 1000s of people there. His mixes were slick and sick. Not only did he play Prince tunes but he played people Prince directly influenced, including desperate knock offs from the 80s (Hello “Ready for the World.”)

Being a back-in-the-day Brooklynite, hosting a party in the BK (I’d hosted a few in the projects when I was a kid too), I knew, as Lumumba did, that it wasn’t just for the folks in the place, it was how it bounced off the walls. He, his wife Monifa (who helped set up and hung out with us) and I were all socialized to know that house party music is for those outside too who are bopping their heads in the dorm rooms, the vigilant-swagger security guards and hard working facilities and cafeteria staff, the invisible arm yanking folks from, and down to, the still-Black section of Myrtle Avenue.

I did my first and only live tweeting of something something. In addition to on campus Pratt folks, we coaxed the lovely and legendary Black artsy couple, Marilyn Nance and Al Santana to the joint. Al brought a pocket camera and did a “Who Do You Love?” spin around the room that at that particular moment reflected our emptiness and our need, with about 45 minutes to go until the end of the set.

The narrative arc of that moment, got me closer, if not closure. This L boogie brother did know how to throw down and constructed a lyrical and literal development through song titles, inside jokes for long-time Prince heads and private joy. But the depths and barrage of this collective grief, was threating to undo us after the reprieve. (“The deadness was threateningus…”, Etheridge Knight’s Ilu, The Talking Drum) The sadness punctuated by the deluge of accounts that stated, despite his tremendous creative output, that Prince, quietly, was a philanthropist who’d given a substantial amount of money to “the struggle” and to people in pain, in general. The loss, the loss, echoing after the end of music. We were not done. We still aren’t past it.

The spontaneous combustion of uttered Black sound in grief was signaled by Spike Lee who put out his Brooklyn-ass speakers and had an impromptu Prince party outside of the 40 Acres and a Mule compound in the same neighborhood as my miniscule and heartfelt soiree with DJ Lumumba (the Congo still coming through our (s)kin). But Spike wasn’t done either, so on the weekend before Prince’s day of birth, he held another Prince party deep in the Bed-Stuy heart at Restoration Plaza. The DJs ran the Prince tunes down (running that voodoo down) for hours and hours – and then hours more after the official ending time.

Being a Spike Lee joint, folks rolled through: there were many basketball players, there was the ever-pixie Rosie Perez and, a prayer by the Reverend Al Sharpton. It was a particularly poignant day because it was also the day that the masses realized that the great martial artist, wordsmith and activist Muhammed Ali had died. It was almost too much. So many bones to pick through.

How many public homage parties have a Reverend that asked all the skin tight outfit wearing music fiends to bow their heads in prayer (and that everyone did). This is the Borough of Churches. We use that term as encompassingly as possible. We mean this the borough of faith.

Sway, formerly of VH1, was the main DJ and because the spirit had been invoked, it rained in the great ancient African traditions of calling spirits while outdoors. The minute, the minute, the DJ played Purple Rain and we all sang, and it started raining… (What is Prince’s power over weather? Remember his Superbowl performance? Remember the rainbow over Paisley Park in Minneapolis on the morning of his death?) The rain stopped when the song stopped. We were in all ways, drenched.

Later that month, BET brought it on home with a multi-hour tribute to the artist as the celebration dominated the annual awards ceremony. With a range of musical genres represented by the performers and heartfelt, belting of emotions through song, the cartharsis of the tribute grounded in spiritual utterance through pop music was respectful. A musical version of “they did a wonderful job” that Black femme funereal cognoscenti utter when the makeup by the undertaker of the dearly departed was on fleek.

The colder the ground under Paisley Park, the blacker Prince gets and he was pretty (damn Black) to begin with. He was an adored global citizen but the pre-BET tribute Madonna moment on the Billboard Music Awards, trying to make him so, was an undercut to his genius, despite the heartfelt, mourning paean to her peer. We were not past it, enough. We weren't in a forgiving mood. 

During the International African Arts Festival (that Lumumba also hosts) the Black Rock Coalition (an organization I was a founding member of back when), there was a mixed tribute to Prince and Maurice White of Earth, Wind and Fire (it has been a cruel year full of macabre death masque calculations: David Bowie + Maurice White = Prince).

It was good to see old friends I haven’t heard play in decades and to connect to my early years of discovering Black boho where Prince emerged as a tricked-out icon. We felt better but it wasn’t there yet – that elusive peace: unlike Michael who we hoped had finally found some, and Mr. Ali who’d earned his rest, Prince was an enigma in his passing as he was in life. It felt like another senseless loss of Black life gone in a whirlpool of corpses, draining.

The last days of the summer are “galloping apace” and this week is the mirror to the last in the semester where we were in our purple feelings yet had to be in the drag of ministerial Ivy-covered robes and their variants for a few weeks more. In this mirror, season of beginnings, students are coming, full of energy and hope. New undergraduate and graduate students mean new preparations and another gaze toward the horizon not yet known, the future.

Last weekend, in an embarrassment of riches, Spike Lee was hosting his Michael Jackson annual and Afropunk was representing its yearly splendiferous soiree. I had work to do. So much work for the new semester, the new program, new students. That’s why I told myself I didn’t go, finishing my notes in performance studies, ironically. But that was a lie. In a perverse way those end of summer events meant that the season of grieving would be over, the floats down Eastern Parkway on Labor Day, the period at the end of a (life) sentence. And so I wrote and read in swelter to prepare for my new students, playing “Black Sweat.” 

— Tracie Morris, August 2016