Sunday, February 19, 2012

Chapter 72: In Which I Talk About Doing an Intro

Tributes don't come any classier than that. I never really knew what the big deal was about Jennifer Hudson until I watched that. I also like her restraint. "I Will Always Love You" is a song that is very tempting to oversing, so seeing somebody do the subtle route so well is nice. And I love that she honored Whitney by covering a song that is a cover. That's the power of music in that it carries on through generations.

I always considered Whitney to be one of the greatest singers of all time. No matter how great she sounded on the albums, Whitney was an artist who truly came alive onstage. Watching her live performances as a child in the Nineties was always electrifying. That said, it's been impossible for me to mourn her. As a friend of mine recently said, she, along with Michael Jackson, were already spiritually dead to me by the time they physically died. Her best years were behind her. I didn't feel the overwhelming relief that I felt when Michael passed, just a kind of apathy. Needless to say, I had to check out her videos. Yes, one of the greatest singers of all time. A song like "I Want To Dance With Somebody" would have been worthless without her vocals. Talented, and beautiful. Women don't come much prettier than Whitney in her prime.

I've been thinking a lot about the overall insidiousness of white privilege and white supremacy. It's been coming up more and more in my personal life, and came up relating to Whitney. I was checking out her videos online, and the lady's corpse wasn't even cold before trolls were going in the comments screaming about how she was a drug addict.

Two things:

1. I always understood Dave Chappelle's decision to turn down the millions from Comedy Central and leave his TV show. He feared that his humor was being used to justify racism, an experience so disenchanting he retired from show business altogether. That I understand. The worst part for me is that his decision ultimately didn't change things. Ten years later you've got frat boys going on Whitney Houston videos to say "cocaine is a hell of a drug." What does cocaine have to do in any way with "The Shoop Song"?  Extra sad when you consider the funny sketch that line originated from was done with the participation of the artist being spoofed (Rick James) and was done basically as self-mockery, nothing mean-spirited about a group of people. But Dave's comedy has permanently become part of the racist lexicon.

2. Grammy Award-winning singer, actress, producer. All they see is a drug addict. That's white privilege. The average black person knows the difference between Whitney Houston and a typical crackhead, between somebody who fell and somebody who never stood up in the first place. In spite of her demons she made truly incredible work for fifteen years. Somebody who would piss on Whitney's corpse always considered himself superior to her, and would no matter who she was or what she had done.

The whole thing is kind of a sore spot for me, as I've spent a lot of my time in the Bay inhabiting white privilege spaces and putting up with people's feelings of superiority. Sometimes I confront it, sometimes it's not worth the bother, but the shit is just so absolutely retarded that it's becoming impossible to deal with. Talking ill about the dead? Did she hurt you personally? Oh, I forget, black people are the scum of the earth and must be put in their place.

Some people's lives are defined by their demons. James Brown was not one of them. John Lennon was not one of them. Elvis was not one of them. Whitney was not one of them. At the end of the day, her art is 99% of her legacy.


Speaking of talent, speaking of dynamism, speaking of brilliance, I was recently asked to do the intro for Nuruddin Farah when he did Mills' Contemporary Writers Series. Needless to say, it was an honor. Farah is a Somali writer who has chronicled the evolution of his homeland since its independence, and a multiple nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature.  He has been consistently publishing work for four decades. In addition to being prolific, he is also a very brave writer, often critical of the Somali government and certain cultural practices (one of his earliest books dealt with female genital mutilation). Just a brilliant writer, so lyrical. My recruitment for this task went something like this:

THEM: Elwin, we're having people from the Mills community introduce the writers at CWS this year. Would you like to do the intro?

ME: Sure.

THEM: One of the professors knows him and will probably introduce him. You're the alternate.

ME: Okay. (reads Farah's work)

A few days later:

THEM: Said professor has a few people lined up as possible intros. You're still the alternate.

ME: Cool.

Day of:

THEM: Shitshitshit you're the intro. Like, the official intro. Do you have something written? Oh my god it's in two hours!

ME: Um, I could read this 4-minute speech I typed up.

I like to think I did a good job. And it felt appropriate that a younger writer of folklore do the intro for a veteran folklorist. One of the gifts of being in grad school is getting to interact with brilliant authors and engage in writing community with them. It was a lovely event and Farah's a fiercely intelligent person, in addition to being very funny. He read from a newer piece about religious warfare in Africa. If you'd like to learn more about him, this site is a good place to start:

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