“Strawberry Letter 23” (Shuggie Otis)

One would probably want to worry about the numbering and disregard the LSD theories about the song for the moment. What makes #23 special? Nothing in particular, it seems. Letters are co-authored (anticipating another), and their meaning(s) resonate in unintended ways. All of this makes imagination (the sense of traveling toward an other) both impelling and dispersed. But: this experience comes from #22. So, #23, like the repeated descending arpeggio (with initial pull-off), is a missive about trax as ground(s) for flight. Only “sit[ting] in[side]” for a few moments, at ease: freedom as disposition (and to be spent).

 

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“C.R.E.A.M.” (Wu-Tang Clan)

C.R.E.A.M.: “cash rules everything around me.” Laid back, groovy sample goes round and round, demonstrating no exit from the money nexus. All sides of town the “New York Times-side” or, better, the Wall Street Journal-side. Inspector Deck: “Living in the world no different from a cell.” Late in the track, the sample pauses, opening a hole. Escape route implied but can only be conceptualized from the within (no outside position for too easy moralizations….cf. The O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money”).

 

 

 

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“What’s Going On” (Marvin Gaye)

Solidarity with the “mother” and the “brother,” and a conversation with the (Black?/White?) figure of the “father,” to whom it is recommended: “only love can conquer hate.” But whose hate? White supremacists or those with “picket signs”? Deeply ambiguous referents either signal a deceleration of youth protest or call for White understanding or both. A track, then, that everyone likes, featuring a double dispersal of the political.

 

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“Funkentelechy” (Parliament)

Funk’s not about freedom of speech since that enterprise is grounded on the possibility of future dividends (or “possible funkability” funded by “high finance”). Rather, funk is always fully realized and can “be scored everyday”; and it’s surely not “domestically produced” or given, but a given, free of charge. More succinctly, funk is a predisposition without a constitution and an affirmation of a possible being decoupled from sovereignty. This would be the freedom which can never be granted or purchased, and the dissolution of any (self)governance is premised on everyone “hav[ing] change for funk” or, more directly, untethering pleasure from self-care.

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“Black with N.V. (No Vision)” (Black Sheep)

From the second wave of the Native Tongues posse, Black Sheep’s critique of structural racism exceeds “conscious rap’s” occasional investment in a christian notion of “talent.” (The contrast between this standard of value and the brutal irony of “native” should be maximized here for refreshing reading.) First verse’s address to white people key: it’s not about retribution but redistribution of “opportunity.” Otherwise: it’s N.W.A.-time, what with all this labor on being “without pay.” As the less threatening option, being in “touch” with the superordinate group is the ground for reason. An early articulation of a “get yours” approach, but there’s an avoidance of petit-bourgeois aspirations; opportunity is: “a life for me/and generations to come within tranquility.” For a disposition in repose.

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“Black and White” (Three Dog Night)

Written in in response to Brown v. Board of Education (1954), and later recorded by Three Dog Night in the aftermath of the school busing case, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education (1971), this trax seems to be straightforwardly liberal in orientation, emphasizing literacy and integration in equal measure. Most important, perhaps, is the trax’s triumphal relation to Supreme Court decisions and their enforcement in every town, burb, and city in America (“this I the law of ALL the land”). But let’s take a closer look at the scene of inscription: “The ink is black, the page is white, together we learn to read and write.” Songwriter Earl Robinson’s original recording had a later, counterbalancing verse (“The slate is black, the chalk is white, the words stand out so clear and bright”), but Three Dog Night removed it. So the message, on balance, is not quite color-blind: instead, it charts a power reversal grounded in a historical overcoming. Our future, here, involves blackness writing its own story onto the parchment remnants of white supremacy.

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“Summertime” (Lena Horne)

Porgy and Bess opens with this lullaby, in which Clara’s child is lulled to sleep with promises of ease and security. In the context of the opera, we know that none of this is true: the craps game is about to begin, Clara will die, and the baby will be passed on to Serena. It will become just another child leading a life of danger and contingency on Catfish Row, staged within Gershwin’s sociological imaginary. But cut off from the larger work, and sung as a stand-alone standard, we can hear something else in “Summertime,” and it’s slightly more comical: eutopian plenitude (cotton and catfish, and generalized wealth) cannot prevent the intrusive, raw desire of a bawling infant (and praise be that, someday, it will be off on its own). Life itself interdicts its own perfection.

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“Volunteered Slavery” (Rahsaan Roland Kirk)

Nothing is solved by acts of congress/Congress. Gendered (and racial) performativity experimented with, demonstrating how, for example, singer’s claim that women “be free” “by spending all day in bed with me” eventually leads to his plea of “don’t take it away”: supposed volitional freedom creates distraction, indicating failure of the performative without clear direction. “We all know” this, and double-instrument solo, at its end, produces screeching white noise underpinned by spaced-out, staccato jabs. Single-ness and identity will always know its place.

 

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“Choice of Colors” (The Impressions)

It’s 1969, and Curtis Mayfield queries the implied African American male listener regarding the status quo. How did you come to value African Americans over “black folks not of kin,” and family over your “brother’s woman friend”? Who taught or told you to strongly value a “black preacher” over a “white teacher”? And, in general, how did you get so race conscious? Mayfield is preaching a kind of colorblindness to his listeners (“if there was no day or night, which would you prefer to be right?”), and two things stand out: first, the singer knows full well that what social science called “insularism” is actually a portfolio of public sphere projects designed as a survival strategy in a world dominated by race. So, in order to change course, the winds must seem to be blowing a bit differently. One must feel the optimism that a “better society” is on the way. (If that’s not true, and if LBJ’s “New Society” is really cooptation of revolutionary energies, then perhaps the Black Panthers have got it right.) Second, and more complicating, is the line, “People must prove to the people a better day is coming for you and me.” Why do the “people” appear twice, and who’s proving what to whom? Mayfield, in essence, is calling for a self-work upon one’s own internal divisions. Since everyone can see both sides of the argument, everyone is necessarily two-faced on this question. You need to stand in a mirror, at twilight, and convince the other of color that the time is nigh.

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“Let’s Organize” (Organized Konfusion)

The only organization going on here is to break through the “battery” of “flattery” which promotes rap for affect-ive community building. This is “straight coffee” that can make everyone act like an “army brigade” because it only takes an “ounce” for “you to bounce.” Much too powerful for anyone, track revels in its ability to both “lynch” the listener and “jack off wack MC’s”; the less pity, the better. Theory of organizing: the bigger the game, the less we have to “toke” for our minds.

 

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