Soul Man

Soul Man

Pop music’s eternal appeal can be found in one instance out of many: “This Magic Moment,” a 1960 song by The Drifters.


Pop music’s eternal appeal can be found in one instance out of many: “This Magic Moment,” a 1960 song by The Drifters. “Everything I want I have/Whenever I hold you tight.” The emotion expressed in that line doesn’t simply overlook politics but, through the calm deliberation of personal sentiment, transcends politics. This artistic strategy is itself a political act (even if subconscious). Such transcendence was once commonly understood and implicitly endorsed by the way African-Americans embraced soaring European violins and swirling piano flourishes in the same era in which they waged the civil rights struggle. Amiri Baraka explained what was special–and forceful–in pop when he described how it began to “flow just as many Afro-American artists and intellectuals had reached a more resolute and practical understanding.” Social historians seldom deal with the part of the black experience that transmutes the daily ordeal of segregation, oppression and hardship into salvific forms, but it is a truth that any worthwhile pop-music scholar must confront.

Few have attempted this insight into the paradox of pop, a music that manages to be at once soothing and revolutionary, as well as Arthur Kempton in Boogaloo: The Quintessence of American Popular Music. Moving through the history of black pop from the earliest blues recordings to contemporary hip-hop, Kempton’s opening chapters are unusually satisfying as a selective chronology that is also a tribute to artists who struggled with social obstacles more difficult than an elusive muse. There’s romance in Kempton’s tale, but like the gospel and r&b that inspire him, this cultural appreciation is informed by an awareness that even the most intimate feelings can reflect some larger social meaning. His book is distinguished by a fan’s deep understanding, and by an unusual familiarity with the culture’s lingua franca. Even the best white scholars of black pop–Charles Shaar Murray, Peter Guralnick, Gerri Hirshey–have displayed a journalistic formality in their accounts. Kempton, by contrast, has dared inhale the culture’s thought and attitude in authentic dialect and phrases: “upsouth,” “grown children” (aged offspring still under parental authority), “country and uncool,” “stealing from the building fund,” “a rock in a weary land.”

Kempton views black pop history as a self-conscious movement rather than a happy accident with sociological aftershocks, the standard notion of stingy pop critics who present black musicians as unsophisticated folk lacking social awareness. As he points out, black popular music, from blues to gospel, from soul to hip-hop, has consistently drawn upon the experiences, longings and vision of outsiders–or, as he calls them, “outcastes.” Moving in on a restricted, hostile, supposedly democratic society with powerful tales of their innermost feelings, “outcastes” like Bessie Smith, Mahalia Jackson and Sam Cooke have not only changed popular perceptions of black folks around the world; they have also transformed our perception of what America could be. Boogaloo is best when Kempton writes about these outcastes, who changed their circumstances and improved the lives of people who bore witness to their struggle.

The story of black music in the twentieth century is, in large part, a story of the Great Migration from the South. The early twentieth-century migrants, Kempton observes, “usually came hopeful, preferring to believe that in their new place social acceptance was a promise social acceptability would guarantee, and so were attracted to the culture of optimism they found in the churches strivers had made.” Politics, music and the church were the pillars of black social progress. The line between the secular and sacred forms of expression was often hard to identify: Many of Kempton’s subjects, from Thomas Dorsey to Sam Cooke, frequently alternated between gospel and blues. Kempton’s description of this ambivalence is a crucial addition to contemporary cultural understanding. He cites the

sensibilities of Afro Christians, whose tradition encourages in its adherents a personal relationship with Jesus and a collective identification with Old Testament Jews…the state of tribal affairs is allegorized in the story of Job, and its affairs of state in the bondage of the Israelites and their deliverance out of Egypt.

The religious and political bond between Afro-Christianity and Judaism–a two-way practice of each sect’s identification and empathy with the other–anchored the century’s longest sustained movement of American social progress, as well as some of the twentieth century’s most fertile artistic movements (from the Harlem Renaissance to Broadway). Musically, that bond was expressed in what Kempton calls “gospel blues.” A music of belief and struggle, of realism and feeling, gospel blues distinguished the new century’s pop from banal entertainment.

The founder of gospel blues was Thomas Dorsey (1899-1993), whom Kempton compares favorably to Irving Berlin and Harold Arlen. The so-called Father of Gospel Music (best known for writing “Precious Lord”), Dorsey struggled with the tenets of his religious faith and the pressures of the early music market–a sacred/profane, personal/public schism with which every black American pop musician after him would have to reckon. In Kempton’s view, Dorsey’s “great accomplishment” was to make “‘precious Lord, take my hand’ feel the same as ‘baby, please don’t go.'” Dorsey, the believer and the artist, provides a worthy foil to Stagolee, the carouser, brawler and killer who has haunted far too many accounts of black pop. Dorsey’s struggle to balance the church with the street–he wrote songs for blues singers (most famously Ma Rainey) as well as for church testifiers–demonstrates a more complicated Afro-American lifestyle than most historians ever envision.

Kempton’s other key figure is Sam Cooke, who, like Dorsey, alternated his gospel foundations with his pop-romantic ambitions. “What he came upon as the blackest of popular music,” Kempton says of the writer-crooner-entrepreneur, “Cook made into something more conforming to the specifications of his talent.” He sees Cook (his christened name before he added the showbiz “e”) not just as a performer but as a cultural figure who embodied midcentury social progress. When Cooke left gospel behind in the mid-1950s to make a career for himself as a secular artist, his decision had ramifications far beyond the black community. “What the church audience had identified in [Cooke’s] voice as hope and uplift, white adolescents heard as winsome and youthful, and they were drawn, too,” Kempton writes.

Nothing has changed in show business since then, but Kempton is one of the rare writers to indicate this truth about the pop and racial circumstance in which artists consciously share “the brunt of polite society’s scorn.” While hip-hop has made black artists’ celebrity (scorn as identity) seem normal, Kempton’s history exposes that condescending view as an aberration that belittles the most ardent black artistic and social struggle–it’s among the casual indignities that black artists frequently suffer for the sake of “acceptance.” Kempton conveys the full cost of this humiliation when he characterizes Sam Cooke as his tribe’s “surrogate voyager: his origins like theirs; his early encounters with official white culture as awkward as their own; his provisional acceptance by it grounds for their optimism.”

Strangely, midway through this radical, necessary, sympathetic history, Kempton changes his approach. After his rapturous appraisal of Sam Cooke’s 1950s-’60s ascension–opening up white Americans to the most elegant entreaties of black artists, braving the financial skulduggery of Allen Klein, establishing black pop’s “lighter touch” as opposed to gutbucket naturalism–Kempton staggers upon the next phase of black pop music’s social trajectory, at Motown. Hindsight gets in the way of Kempton’s insight. This section of Boogaloo amounts to an excoriation of Motown founder Berry Gordy as a black businessman who continued the plantation practices with which white music-industry players had plagued black artists. Whatever truth there is in Kempton’s denunciation, he loses his grasp on the emotional texture of black pop that makes his Dorsey and Cooke chapters so compelling.

It was at Motown that black producers, composers, musicians and singers extended the civil rights voice of American aspiration. Kempton refers to the unparalleled beauty and success of the Temptations’ “My Girl,” quoting the line “I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day” (one of writer William “Smokey” Robinson’s most trenchant ironies), but it’s an obvious, long-accepted point. Kempton might have quoted “I don’t need no money, fortune or fame/I got all the riches, baby/One man can claim.” That part of the song’s lyric shows how Motown explicitly recast the values of the civil rights era from economics to personal (soulful) fulfillment.

In his attack on Berry Gordy’s greed and entrepreneurial ruthlessness, Kempton ignores Motown’s remarkable development of a modern, upwardly mobile, integrationist black imperative, which Suzanne Smith describes so well in her book Dancing in the Street. As though fearful of falling into Big Chill inanity and boomer condescension (remember the sight of Kevin Kline hugging the Temptations Anthology LP to his chest?), Kempton gives short shrift to the eloquence of Motown’s output; he even seems to forget the yearnings for acceptance that he movingly ascribed to earlier black artists who no doubt influenced Gordy’s (admittedly selfish) mission.

Although Kempton rightly credits Gordy’s pop intuition–he famously instructed his minions, “Send the tune out with the hook”–he fails to understand the political brilliance of the Motown method. Proclaiming itself “The Sound of Young America,” this small black record company represented an extraordinary expression of Great Society ambition, and it made good on that boast through large sales and global recognition. Kempton also castigates Motown’s assimilationist moves into nightclubs and TV specials, overlooking the import of Motown’s sound being emulated throughout the world record industry–a phenomenon that proves social status might be attained through cultural impact. As Kempton himself acknowledges, even Gordy’s exploited workers held on to a faith that “was fed by the ever-more-frequent appearance of signs that Gordy really had found the path of their deliverance from Black Bottom into a state of prosperity appropriate to home-owning in the exclusive preserve of Sherwood Forest, Detroit’s highest cotton.” It’s the essence of faith in American success and social acceptance, but Kempton seems to lose track of that theme, forgetting the meaning of the very term “faith,” which connects Gordy to the church-based aesthetic of Dorsey and Cooke. This “faith” was grounded in the conviction that achievement, acceptance and equality could be found through perseverance–just like spiritual salvation.

Instead, Kempton becomes contemptuous, switching from religious terms to the terms and credos of pimps to describe the black artist’s struggle. He cites the 1960s vogue for the pulp novelist Iceberg Slim (a guttersnipe alternative to Motown uplift) as the model for Gordy’s boss-man mentality. “Gordy slapped [Marvin] Gaye’s face one night at the Twenty Grand when the singer, wracked with anxiety about going onstage, dithered too long in his dressing room. (‘The show can’t stop when a whore bleeds’).” That Slim quote (and Kempton includes many others in place of accurate reporting) is a bad strategy, as well as a morally questionable analogy. Kempton also falls for the typical disparagement of Motown as an inauthentic black expression, slamming Diana Ross particularly hard even though her piquant sound was one of the distinctive, undeniable voices of aspiration and willed social transcendence. Most predictable, Kempton prefers Motown’s chief competitor, the Memphis-based Stax Records, which specialized in the less refined vocal and musical styles of black Southerners. This simplistic dichotomy between “gutbucket” and urbane pop, common among racist pop critics, contradicts Kempton’s earlier sensitivity.

Rather than explain why the “I don’t need no money” lyric from “My Girl” became a more resonant cry than Barrett Strong’s 1960 “Money (That’s What I Want)” (the 45 disc that initiated Motown’s fortunes), Kempton concentrates, instead, on the “nigrabusiness.” Kempton’s about-face in focus (from artists to businessmen) suggests a collapse of his own pop faith. The well-known story of music-industry failure is less instructive than the ability of artists to maintain their social vision within the context of entertainment and as part of the tradition of gospel and blues that expressed black folks’ awareness of their social conditions and political objectives. Businessmen routinely cheat artists, but Hemingway’s art is more significant than the deal he cut with Scribner’s. Motown artists deserve credit for the social vision they cut into vinyl. Unfortunately, Kempton seems less interested in what’s said/sung on Motown records than in what happened in its executive offices.

The latter chapters, compressing James Brown, George Clinton, Suge Knight, Dr. Dre and Tupac Shakur, are a shambles. It’s as if some editor told Kempton to make it au courant–lambasting gun-toting “nigrabusiness” rather than staying true to his meticulous account of conscientious black creativity. It’s fine to tell the story of Stax’s mismanagement, in which “the company was surrendering master tapes to artists and producers in lieu of unpaid royalties,” but Kempton seems mindless of the resonance of that mythic term “master tapes” (and he doesn’t specify to whom which tapes were released). The struggle for control over black pop music is an issue about which contemporary black musicians have been highly vocal. But Kempton leaves out their plight–the perseverance of the businessman-artist who has fully and unapologetically taken on the issues of ownership, self-sufficiency, racism and artistry.

The progression of his narrative is all wrong; it should go from Dorsey and Cooke to Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Prince, Michael Jackson, Public Enemy and Jay-Z. These artists consistently show how black popular music is the quintessence of the endeavor by African-American artists (Kempton prefers the term “Aframerican”) to convey their experience to the world–and assert their economic independence. Kempton’s concentration on the derelictions of Dr. Dre, Tupac Shakur and Suge Knight–they compose what he calls “the twilight of Boogaloo’s last age”–is misleading and unnecessarily defeatist. When Kempton finally gets around to identifying what he means by the suspicious term “Boogaloo” (the name of a 1960s-era dance), simply defining it as “black popular music,” it turns out to be a tautology in boldface.

The best parts of Boogaloo are forward-thinking, even inspired, but its failures are proof that the prejudices surrounding black creativity–which extend from the profit-robbing executive deals to the decades of fraudulent chart-making–are not easily fought even by an enthusiast as shrewd as Kempton. It’s a huge undertaking, and Kempton’s personal biases (his preference for Southern, older forms) are perhaps to be expected. But that’s probably what prevents him from explaining hip-hop as well as he does the fondly recalled achievements of early blues and midcentury r&b. His simplistic dismissal of gangsta rap opponent C. DeLores Tucker is unfortunate, since Kempton himself seems clueless about the current era of black pop, which is undeniably, complicatedly political. (In a typically fluid passage comparing Tucker to the maternal/historical figure of Mary McLeod Bethune, he seems unaware of the totemic use Public Enemy made of Bethune in the track “Revolutionary Generation”–a song with direct links to the church-and-showbiz tradition that Kempton found in Thomas Dorsey.)

In his nostalgia for black pop’s advancement through the first half of the twentieth century, Kempton neglects the aspiration and innovation that underscore the continuity between black pop styles of every decade. His closing chapters show an unexpected capitulation to the conventional dismissal of black pop’s seriousness. Kempton winds up taking the recent state of black pop as evidence of the culture’s social decline when, in fact, the proliferation of hits by black artists shows the culture’s ability to revive itself artistically, spiritually and politically. Performers from Missy Elliott and Nelly to Jay-Z and Pharrell (including a multiculti “brother” like Justin Timberlake, who has collaborated with several of them, sharing the lingua franca of black pop) carry on the tradition of rich articulation that drew Kempton to black folks’ music in the first place. Kempton’s search for a new black-pop archetype and for a new model of artistic and political appreciation wins a faithful reader’s gratitude while falling short of gaining admiration. You have to give credit to a white critic who knows the sentimental value of a forgotten hit like “Michael the Lover,” but Kempton’s own sentimental love of bygone black pop prevents him from fully appreciating the political essence of what’s on the airwaves today.

Ad Policy