*Note: This is apart of my morning free write series in which I attempt to write about the first thing that pops into my head each morning. Sometimes I share sometimes I don’t. Here’s a share.
Music holds memories. It is the narrative of the human experience. For my people, music has often been a means of communication and remembrance. When I hear the sweat drenched piano and horns of some good ole’ southern soul I see my grandmother in a kitchen over a hot plate, I see my uncle Floyd on a porch blowing life into a harmonica, I feel the wind race over my skin as I sit in the back of a Cadillac for the first time, I remember spit hitting my skin as my grandfather talks about chasing off white boys with his shot-gun, I hear my mother recite some lost poem to herself when she thinks I have fallen asleep.
Merry Clayton’s rendition of “Southern Man” reminds me of stories passed down from elders in my family. Things like love, the Klan, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Old South were common subjects in my house and were always accompanied by music. For Black folk, much of our life is told through alternative communication. It’s the result of being uprooted from life in various parts of Africa and being thrown onto the plantation with others who come from other villages. During the horror of slavery, enslaved Africans developed ways to tell stories, enjoy one another, and dream of revolution. Songs became rallying cries and a means of keeping generations connected with one another. For African people, who were forcibly stripped of their native tongues, music and the merger of Black rhythms with English tongues gave birth to something unique and beautiful.
Merry, who was a trained gospel singer, came up in Louisiana during the 40’s and 50’s and like the majority of Black folk in the time dealt with the humiliation of segregation and racism. That pain and humiliation can be felt in her voice as she pleads with her man to keep to his religion. One of my first memories of visiting my family in South Carolina is an overwhelming fear as my grandfather explained what the rows of confederate flags meant, another is of “Here I Am” by Al Green playing in Uncle Floyd’s spot as he crooned my Great Aunt Georgia-Anne. It’s healing and fun to place the pieces of my childhood side by side and in context.
The familiar rhythms of “Southern Man” bring up another experience: my teens and discovery of Outkast. The song below, (“Watch for the Hook”) was created by the Dungeon Family using a sample of the song “Southern Man” by Clayton.
When you ask an up and coming emcee who they strive to be like there is a standard list of who’s whos. Gotta have some Pac’, some Biggie, some Wu and so on and so on. Rarely mentioned is a small unit from the southern states: “The Dungeon Family”. This collective, which includes Outkast, Goodie Mob, and light-weight Janelle Monae, was behind some of the most innovative, and important music in Hip Hop.
In a time where the East and West fought for chart supremacy and the south fought for recognition, “Watch For The Hook” (which boast the largest gathering of the Dungeon Family on any track) came through dismissing any notion that the south was lyrically inferior.
One of the most beautiful things about 90’s Hip Hop was the way in which it looked at old soul classics and reworked them into something new and dynamic. “Watch For The Hook” references the history of the place where the “Dungeon Family” comes from while paving a new lane.
Discovering the Dungeon Family was like uncovering a new piece of myself. I saw the diversity and range of expression that Black people could have. Often times there arises a correlation between some notion of “Blackness” and a fixed image of poverty. As a queer Black male growing up, issues of masculinity were always in the forefront. I found myself policing my own gender expression to avoid harm. The introduction of these eclectic and flamboyant southerners helped to cement in my consciousness that difference was ok and in fact dope.
Parts of my life are connected, almost inseparably to the kinds of music that dominated the space around the experience and these two songs mean both a heritage and coming of age.
Without further ramblings . . . here are the jams!