The Songs of Your Life

I read these remarks from an interview with Eddie Levert in the Huffington Post and I was stunned:

I really wanted to work with a lot of the hip-hop artists. I really would love to work with R. Kelly, I really would love to work with Kanye West, I would love to work with Jay-Z, I would love doing things with these people. But until I can prove to them that I am worthy of being in their presence and that I can be an asset to what they’re doing also, and I think that I was really looking at this album to be the one to prove [to] them that I am still [a] valuable artist.

The headline for the interview drew attention to Levert’s claim that “every girl is not a freak,” and while I think that it’s a shame that such a view has become remarkable, this was not his most stunning assertion. I like Jay-Z well enough–I especially like his public persona. I appreciate that he and his wife help to maintain the importance of privacy as a value in a culture that strives to erase all boundaries between public and private life. I appreciate Jay as an artist when he’s performing live more than I like his records. As a lyricist, I actually prefer Kanye. Though he and Jay both show a knowing appreciation for words in their bending of lyrics to fit a rhyme, I actually think Kanye does this to superior effect; perhaps because his personality seems to allow for a greater range of personas; Jay prefers the cool alone. However, having said all of that, I think it newsworthy that Eddie Levert feels the need to pander to them (“But until I can prove to them that I am worthy of being in their presence…”)! I mean, come on, we’re talking about EDDIE LEVERT, who as a member of the O’Jays sang, “Darlin’ Darlin’ Baby,” “Back Stabbers,” “Use Ta Be My Girl,” “I Love Music,” “Brandy,” and “For the Love of Money.” I mean, will you please take a moment to look at this video (if it doesn’t play, follow the link):

They are gettin’ it! This is the way it is supposed to be done.

Like most things that are good, you can get old to Eddie Levert’s music. In the video above, the O’Jays are still moving the crowd and looking as smooth as ever (!) doing it. They help to define the cool that Jay-Z enacts. All music owes its existence to an archive and none more than Hip Hop makes this more obvious. Sampling is like an old loft that makes its former life as a warehouse apparent. Of course R. Kelly, Jay-Z and Kanye West know of Eddie Levert’s relevance–don’t they? Wouldn’t they have to?

Though I came of age with the birth of Hip Hop, you couldn’t have told me that Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding, Al Green, The Spinners, The Dazz Band, and The Gap Band were irrelevant or not a part of my generation. They were all so much a part of my acoustic life that I was sure they belonged to my time. It wasn’t until I got a job working in an Archive that I realized that I had received an education right at home.

I worked in Special Collections for a few years processing the William Levi Dawson papers. The people that I worked for were amazed by the artists that I recognized in the photographs in his archive. Dawson had been a composer and musical director for the Tuskegee Choir. Some of the photographs were taken by C.M. Battey and others by P.H. Polk, who had both been important photographers for their beautiful work documenting the life and culture of Tuskegee Institute as well as of the city and its residents. I’ve always been interested in photographs because of the presence they assumed in my life growing up, but I hadn’t realized how much I learned from them until I started being asked to identify black people in photographs in other collections at the library. As I did it, I recognized that the skill came from home, not school. I saw many of those faces on album jackets and on magazine covers. At the time I wouldn’t have recognized a Miles Davis tune by ear, but I certainly knew what he looked like. As I matured, I wanted to recognize him by how he played as well. I considered it a part of my education to know the music of my grandparents’ generation–my parents insisted that I know theirs. Parents used to impose their culture on children. When an adult was around I didn’t have a choice about what I was watching on television or about what I was listening to on the stereo or radio. As a result, I knew The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Supremes, The Jackson 5, Donny Hathaway, Hall and Oats, The Bee Gees, Michael McDonald, Steely Dan–and “the beat goes on” (The Whispers).

If you aren’t making your children listen to the music that you grew up with, then make a promise to yourself that you will start doing that today. You are denying your children a valuable education when you neglect to provide them with a musical heritage; otherwise, television takes over. If a child learns music from television, they are likely to mistake the voice and sound of the Great American and Soul songbook for a jingle. You cannot allow your children to believe that Marvin Gaye and Tammy Terrell’s music was about ice cream and chocolate bars, or that The Temptations and The Four Tops were singing about dust mops and sweepers. Young people need to know that Eddie Levert and the O’Jays are still relevant.

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