Fresh-cut watermelon smelling like rain and ribs sizzling on a grill bring the music back. The songs complement the food and the weather and Technicolor the memories of when we were all just kids with nothing in our pockets but waxy penny candy. We thought we knew everything. We knew nothing. All that mattered was that my cousins and I in Arkansas—with our Jheri curls and short sets, scarred knees and Tabasco tongues—were all together and that Cousin Rodney’s boom box had fresh batteries.
We knew nothing of Black Music Month, which was first recognized on June 7, 1979—the same summer black boys and girls in Atlanta went missing and were later discovered dead in the woods or in a lake somewhere. That went on for two years. The fear of what happened to kids who looked like us more than 500 miles away still scared the grown folks, who called us inside as the sun slid down the sky and fireflies flickered dots of green light. But for hours throughout those sweltering summer days, we were lost in songs, shocked into life by voices as familiar as mustard greens splashed with hot vinegar or the cherry incense and Mary Jane smoke that thickened the air at the home of Aunt Kay, my favorite relative to visit.
Back then, we danced and swooned to Rick James and Teena Marie, Midnight Star and Atlantic Starr, Cameo, Evelyn “Champagne” King, Maze and Frankie Beverly, the early hip-hop of UTFO, Chaka Khan, Prince and Michael Jackson, whom I thought was God. We were jammin’ to their music all year, of course, but it was something about hearing those voices and rhythms in the summer—at family barbecues or just shootin’ the shit with cousins under a shade tree with a radio nearby—that made those songs sound brighter and more immediate.
Perhaps it’s apropos that we celebrate Black Music Month at the beginning of summer. Black folks throughout the Diaspora have long brought heat and flavor to all kinds of musical expressions. What we know as modern pop in America glimmers with elements of Black music, no matter who’s on the microphone. Be it mutations of rhythmic patterns from Africa and Latin America or histrionics bastardized from the black church, blackness will forever permeate American music.
Much like the country itself, black music has never been a melting pot but very much a mosaic. There has been, however, a lot of fragmentation since those cassette days. My generation, those of us born in the late ’70s, grew up between tradition and technological progress. We were bused across town to schools with better resources and fewer black faces, where our musical palettes expanded to include Pat Benatar, Whitesnake, Bananarama, and later, Nirvana and Nine Inch Nails. Our parents, aunts, and uncles went to the Budweiser Superfest, the ultimate summer concert featuring a bill filled with hot black acts only heard on black radio.
Then corporations swallowed black stations, and the same six songs played all day and night. Gangsta rap from the West Coast and noisier, grimier rap from the East Coast publicly warred with each other and bounded up the Billboard pop charts. White boys in the suburbs affected black boy posturing as sanctioned by MTV. Soul soon became “neo,” braiding the romanticism of the ’70s with hip-hop touches. D’Angelo was heralded as the second coming of Marvin Gaye, then became erratic and missing in action like Sly Stone. Erykah Badu crooned esoteric lyrics in a voice reminiscent of Diana Ross as Billie Holiday before challenging her audience with even more adventurous sounds and lyrics. Lauryn Hill showed great promise then receded from view.
Modern black music these days, at least what’s getting pumped through the mainstream, feels distinctly different from what moved us during those blistering Arkansas summers. Generally speaking, there’s an inward feel to the approach that doesn’t always come across as ingratiating as the music we pop-locked to. Those thick grooves of Zapp and Roger, the kind of funk that moved even the most rhythmically challenged among us (and that would include yours truly), aren’t found in the morphing music of Kendrick Lamar or the charming cheesiness of Pharrell Williams.
Black music, whatever that means today, feels as though it’s trying to belong to everybody. And that was surely the intention of many black artists from yesteryear, the economically sound dream of crossing over. But something always gets muted or lost when you rearrange yourself for an outside gaze. It was nice when the music seemed exclusive to my experience—when codes in the vocal ticks and lyrics made the music feel as though it were a complicated handshake between homeboys or a hug from a loving aunt. Perhaps little black boys and girls are having that same experience these days to the music of Drake and Beyoncé. I don’t know.
But I cherish my memories tethered to the sweet taste and rain scent of watermelons grown in my grandparents’ garden and ribs slow-cooking on the grill, all complemented by music that made blackness feel like a gift.
About the Author
Rashod Ollison was an award-winning pop music critic and culture journalist. He was a staff critic and feature writer for the Dallas Morning News, Philadelphia Inquirer, Journal News (Westchester, New York), Baltimore Sun, and Virginian-Pilot. He also wrote a music column for Jet magazine. A native of Little Rock, Arkansas, Ollison lived in Virginia Beach.