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Cried away: the radical music of Bowie, Prince, & Solange

On Wednesday, Jan. 25 began the first event of “Blackstar Rising and the Purple Reign,” a conference celebrating the legacies of Prince and David Bowie. A mix of undergraduates, faculty, and members of the community filed into the new Schwarzman Center, which at this point looks like Commons, minus tables, plus an enormous black stage and almost-comfortable white chairs, for the start of the conference.

The conference might as well be called Daphne Rising: not only did Professor Daphne Brooks draw all the speakers herself, but she conceived of and almost wholly organised the four nights and three days of talks and events. The Yale Symphony Orchestra played eight short compositions, each based on a Bowie and Prince song. The music was not bad, just downright bizarre. Prince’s “Controversy,” among the funkiest songs of all time, was turned into a gnome dance, and the bafflingly quiet orchestra failed to capture the apocalyptic grandeur of Bowie’s “Heroes.” Presumably the low volume was due to the enormity of the space. While the already symphonic “Space Oddity” remained gorgeous despite a lackluster strings section, it quickly became obvious that the very qualities Bowie and Prince had in abundance—rock and roll instruments and, as moderator Sherae Rimpsey put it, radical personas—were lacking. A plain, black-clad orchestra playing clean but uninspired compositions: what about this paid tribute to vaudevillian, screeching, sex-oozing superstars?

After the intermission, Brooks invited first Kimbra then Questlove to the stage for a discussion. We soon realized what we’d come for: Questlove on Prince. Even though Kimbra (for those who are scratching their heads, an Australian artist who won the Grammy for Record of the Year for “Somebody that I Used to Know”) was enthusiastic and eloquent, she paled in comparison to the self-proclaimed Prince-ologist. The artists selected important Bowie and Prince songs to play from the gargantuan speakers hanging from the ceiling, and then dissected them. Questlove surgically weaved musical micro-analysis into his discussion, with stops and starts queued from the laptop resting on his outstretched thighs. The Philadelphia musician’s breadth and depth of analysis cannot be overstated, nor can its capacity to entertain. Particularly of note was a line-by-line breakdown of Prince’s 90-second classic “Sister” from his third studio album, made at the age of 22:

I was only 16, but I guess that’s no excuse,
My sister was burnin’ to love me and loose
She don’t wear no underwear […]
My sister never made love to anyone else but me
She’s the reason for my, uh, sexuality
Showed me where it’s supposed to go
A blow job doesn’t mean blow
Incest is everything it’s said to be.

Questlove showed a roomful of people the degree to which Prince was a radical. According to his elegant, but audacious, analysis, Prince “invented the remix.” Take two of Prince’s most successful singles, “Raspberry Beret” and “Little Red Corvette,” as an example. Both are in classic rock keys, A major and D-sharp respectively. At the time of their release in the 80s, a remix consisted of little more than making the song longer for extended club plays, but Prince took it further, inserting basslines in a different key for each. Beret’s new bassline moves from A major to a darker, funkier F-sharp, and Corvette’s D-sharp turns into a brooding A-flat, adding an extra kick. What this meant, argued Questlove, is that the classic rock sound was replaced by something more identifiable with soul and funk—read: a blacker sound. Prince became a lucrative asset for Warner Brothers, his label, by making music he knew would gain traction in the mainstream market, simultaneously reworking his music for his black fans. Hearing Questlove–ƒor rather, seeing him, as he played furious air bass throughout—demonstrate this elicited vocal and visual astonishment from an audience, woken up after the evening’s awkward beginnings.

Questlove moved on to discuss Bowie, first through his career-long reverence for Little Richard’s music and aesthetics (an artist who also massively influenced Prince), and then in the context of D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, which Questlove helped produce. “When we were working on it… [D’Angelo] was heavy into Bowie–he has three or four mind-blowing Bowie covers that we might or might not put on a record.” Questlove also delved into Bowie’s nuanced understanding of African rhythms in the eighth notes and percussive meanders of Bowie’s Lodger record and revealed that “Really Love” and “Back to Future” owe a lot to it. Questlove was keen to stress that both Bowie and Prince were musically radical.

On Thursday, Brooks gave us a different aspect of Bowie’s radicality: his remarkable race-conscious politics during the early 80s, beginning with his four-minute interview on MTV in 1983 that went viral after his death.“There are so few black artists featured on MTV… Why is that?” he asks in the clip. “The few black artists that one does see are on at 2:30 in the morning. There are a lot of black artists making very good videos that I’m surprised not to see on television.” When his interviewer clumsily brings up what white rock bands mean to 17 year olds, Bowie replies in the same breath, “and what the Isley Brothers or Marvin Gaye mean to a black 17 year old.” As Brooks does now, Bowie recognized then the stakes of representation in popular music, arguing “to make the media far more integrated. Especially, if anything, in musical terms.” Moreover, Daphne Brooks lauded Bowie for “fighting racism and white supremacy, and speaking up for black subjectivity”; as she succinctly put it, “hashtag Bowie so black.”

Thursday was also Solange. When she entered, the room screamed. In seconds, everyone was standing and clapping. Solange takes a seat across from Brooks, who asks her not about Bowie or Prince, but about “the lyrical discourse of [her] album,” which Brooks cites as a “rebellion against being so relentlessly surveilled and subjugated.” Then Solange proceeded to articulate what so many have called the best, most important album of 2016: A Seat at the Table.

As Brooks brought up the track “Mad,” Solange spoke directly to the struggle of her record, and her experience as an artist: “I was working through a lot of microaggressions that I felt daily as a young artist of colour… I went to therapy because I was dealing with this rage at such a piercing level.” Solange spoke of the unapologetic hurt and vulnerability in A Seat at the Table, but also elaborated on its idiosyncrasies for an audience that loved and knew the record intimately. For example, Solange wryly disclosed that “so much of the visuals for the album were inspired by the Wiz—I played the Good Witch in my local production.” It also took her three months to figure out tracklisting alone, a process that consisted of listening to countless track combinations three times each, and intently watching the body language of friends as they listened to transitions.

Her discussion is interwoven with video and audio from the album. After two minutes of the video from “Cranes in the Sky,” a security guard sitting on a stool to Solange’s left wipes the tears from her eyes. She wipes one eye after the other, slowly and deliberately, with the back of her hand. I could offer you any one of Professor Brooks’ eloquent remarks from the first two evenings, or those made by Questlove, or Sherae Rimpsey or Solange herself, but the sight of the security guard—detached from the room yet present, not studying at Yale but working for it, not whooping, screaming, photographing and clapping, but sitting in silence on her stool, and crying after Solange’s chorus of “away, away, away” cuts to silence—is the best hope of sharing with you what Thursday night meant. I turn to look at the security guard intermittently throughout the evening: she hangs on Solange’s words with studious attention, she knits her fingers together and lets her hands hang down in her lap. She escorts Solange away at the end of the talk. Afterwards I try to find her, but her colleague tells me that she is unavailable, as she must help arrange Solange’s transport home.

Solange and Professor Brooks conclude just before midnight, as the kick drum of “Don’t Touch My Hair” seeps into the room. The music stops, and she receives two standing ovations. Two students come up to give Solange a blue sweatshirt, embroidered with a “Y” cut from Kente cloth. They say to her it is “on behalf of the black women at Yale.” Professor Brooks introduced Solange with the question: ‘‘Is it possible to create, cultivate, and protect black female spaces in a public sphere that is centered on violence against blackness and womanhood?” When Solange has left, the crowd flows out of Levinson Hall. The vast majority of those who have come to see her are black and female. Some people are speechless, some people pour with words. Someone says “I’m shaking.” Most people are smiling.

This is the first part of the Herald’s coverage of Blackstar Rising & the Purple Reign. Jordan Coley will be writing the second for next week’s issue.

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