When I was about 14-15 years old? I was listening to my parents original copy of the Michael Jackson album Off The Wall,which they’d gifted me a couple of years earlier-listening to the songs on the album that were not huge radio hits. This was actually something I found myself beginning to do a lot during adolescence-viewing many kinds of art on a broader level. One of these songs struck me so strongly that I began playing it over and over in succession. It was a Stevie Wonder composition entitled “I Can’t Help It”.
Musically it was played and written in a very otherworldly manner-with layers of synthesizers and keyboards creating a romantically sophisticated atmosphere. Thematically, it’s revealed itself to me as a song whose intent is very flexible depending on the interpretation. Between Rique and myself? Esperanza Spalding has come up a lot on this blog. And it was her interpretation of this classic Stevie Wonder song which, both instrumentally and lyrically, offered it that other kind of musical flight.
The song opens with what sounds to be an ascending, bubbling high pitched electric bass or low rhythm guitar (a difference I often find difficult to distinguish). It then eases smoothly into a marching Brazilian jazz/funk drum rhythm-which in itself is accompanied by a saxophone improvisation and a lightly processed electric piano playing the refrain. Esperanza’s vocals,themselves improvising by tempo and mood,perfectly accompany the instrumentation-which proceeds in and out of the same mixture of sounds that begins the song from refrain to the final and partially unaccompanied closing chorus.
Spalding’s multi faceted treatment of this song is enhanced by another element that’s narrative rather then musical. Still on it’s own, her version of this song (in the fine jazz tradition) expands it both rhythmically an harmonically. The feeling is therefore far looser than MJ’s original interpretation. It therefore has the flavor of how the song might’ve sounded had it been done by someone like Patrice Rushen around 1975 than something from later in the decade with a more structured pop craft about it.
It’s in Esperanza’s tonally diverse vocal interpretation that the difference in lyrical intent shines through. MJ’s made the lyrics sound coy and shy-more in tune with his own personality. On this version? It’s the narrative structure of the accompanying music video that sets the tone. We see Esperanza romantically disconnected from her boyfriend-all the while remembering a deeper romance she once had with a female artist. The more adolescent romantic fantasy of the original is replaced here by the confusion over ones sexual orientation as an adult whose already in a relationship. So in the case of both musical,lyrical and visual interpretation? This is by far the most powerful version of the song I’ve yet heard!
Filed under Afro-Latin jazz, bass guitar, Brazilian Jazz, classic funk, electric jazz, electric piano, Esperanza Spalding, Funk, Funk Bass, Fusion, jazz fusion, Jazz-Funk, LGBT rights, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Uncategorized
Personally I can truly relate to Harvey Fierstein’s remark about having to have to a literal translation of heterosexual romance to apply to who I was as a homosexual man. Right in the middle of when I was getting deeply into funk and soul? I’d often find myself asking “why are these love themed songs about the opposite sex only?”. Many years later,I would learn of the homosexuality of the late Wayne Cooper (from Cameo) and Billy Preston. Also,and somewhat unfortunately of the homophobic content of Gil Scott Heron’s ‘The Subject Was Faggots” and,far less overtly Graham Central Stations otherwise extremely funky song “Mirror”. But during much of the 1990’s? Any reference to homosexuality in funk/soul music was truly a dark theater. As was often the case with me growing up,my father introduced me to the song that really changed this factor in my adolescent life. And before he was (at least admittedly) are that I was gay no less. Not only that but it was the revelation of a new artist-during that personally disturbing summer of 1996. The artist was Me’SHell Ndegeocello,the CD was Peace Beyond Passion and the song was called “Leviticus: Faggot”.
The song begins with a high hat drum kick that increases in volume until Me’Shell’s sturdy,popping and ascending bass line kicks in-very prominently so as well. Surrounded by layers of wah-wah guitar and even a cinematic string section? The music is as straight up mid 70’s “united funk”,as writer Ricky Vincent refers to it,as one could possibly get. Me’Shell half sings/rhythmically speaks in her slippery baritone as she tells the tale of a young gay black man-as she describes a situation where “daddy’s sweet little boy’s just a little too sweet”. As she illustrates his desire for love “from strong hands” and “wanting the love of a man”. The chorus immediately turns into a full on hallelujah gospel chorus of “his mother would pray” before returning to the full on funk approach as Me’Shell states the actual prayer of “save him from this life”. The story continues on as the mans father tries to find him that woman “fine and beautiful” to give him more acceptability among the family’s social circle. After finally throwing his gay son out of the house,the music suddenly turns to an uncertain electric piano based jazz-funk sound as the song closes-with Me’Shell’s harmonizing vocalese leading out.
One thing that I never told my family,or anyone else for that matter until now, is that this song was the beginning of a six-seven year thought process that culminated in me coming out of the closet. I knew my family would never conceive of reacting as the father in this songs lyrics did. But in the end,Me’Shell provided a means by which funk was not only changing my perceptions of music. But funk was also now instrumental in helping me to come to terms with the truth of my own sexual orientation. The thing that really moves me about “Leviticus: Faggot”,it’s title of course referring to the often opportunistically quoted-out-of-context biblical verse,is that it came out long before any massive LGBT oriented activism was in the media. Very few homosexual male celebrities,especially in the black community,were truthfully discussing their sexuality. And even Ellen DeGeneres was still in the closet at this time. KD Lang not withstanding. Though I was aware that Boy George was bold enough in his soulful and funky new wave era music to sing to and about male characters in his songs? The fact that Me’Shell Ndegeocello,herself a relatively new up and coming artist,was making “people music” funk in a Nina Simone style about the then still uncomfortable subject matter of homophobia at this particular time? It showed me how much bravery and fearlessness she has. And that any person who are who they are should really have in terms of speaking,singing and playing the truth about themselves.