Beyoncé’s ‘Homecoming’ Emmy snub is historic disrespect Let’s take a look into what made her Netflix concert film excellent

On Sunday, Fox will air the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards show at 8 p.m. EDT. But the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences’ credibility as an arbiter of excellence will face justified skepticism because Beyoncé went 0-for-6 at the Creative Arts Emmys last week.

She was nominated for her work on Homecoming, a documentary that captured her performance as the first black woman to headline the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. And just as it was with 2016’s Lemonade, her previous visual album, America’s greatest living pop performer was royally snubbed.

For insight on how that snub might have been received, we can look to the self-titled album released at the end of 2013, which was accompanied not just with music videos but also documentary snippets that explained her mindset. One was about losing, and why she chose footage from her first professional loss — her childhood group, Girls Tyme, losing Star Search — to precede the grimiest, most boastful song on the album, “***Flawless.”

“I was only 9 years old, so at that time, you don’t actually realize that you could work superhard, and give everything you have, and lose. It was the best message for me,” Beyoncé explained. “When I put Ed McMahon introducing us as the ‘hip-hop-rapping Girls Tyme,’ it clicked something in my mind. I feel like something about the aggression of ‘Bow Down’ and the attitude of ‘***Flawless,’ — the reality is, sometimes you lose. And you’re never too good to lose and you’re never too big to lose. You’re never too smart to lose. It happens. And it happens when it needs to happen.”

The pop star’s shutout at the 2019 Creative Arts Emmys didn’t need to happen, but it did. And it’s completely reasonable that her team is having trouble embracing the outcome.

Beyoncé’s Netflix concert film Homecoming was nominated for six Emmys: outstanding directing for a variety special; outstanding variety special (prerecorded); outstanding costumes for variety, nonfiction or reality programming; outstanding music direction; outstanding production design for a variety special; and outstanding writing for a variety special.

Here’s what won:

  • Directing — Springsteen on Broadway
  • Variety special (prerecorded) — Carpool Karaoke: When Corden Met McCartney Live From Liverpool
  • Costumes — RuPaul’s Drag Race
  • Music direction — Fosse/Verdon
  • Production design — Rent
  • Writing — Hannah Gadsby: Nanette

The television academy’s decisions for music direction and variety special strike me as, at best, misinformed and, at worst, insulting. To understand why, let’s take a deeper look into what made Homecoming excellent, first with musical direction and then the show.

In crafting the musical arrangements for Homecoming, Beyoncé and music director Derek Dixie did something incredibly ambitious, something that requires an encyclopedic knowledge of black music and a broad imagination and acuity for music theory.

Beyoncé Knowles performs onstage during the 2018 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Field on April 21, 2018, in Indio, California.

Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Coachella

What dominates Homecoming is a sustained nod to New Orleans. It extends past the tracks that originated on Lemonade, an exploration of Beyoncé’s Creole heritage. Dixie and Beyoncé didn’t just adapt her music for a marching band; they conducted a sonic archaeological dig and placed her within a continuum of black music. The orchestrations are reminiscent of the approach to pop music at Motown. Queen Bey’s hits benefit from the use of modern technology, which allows artists to take advantage of infinite possibilities. But they’re also written in a way that comes alive with a live band, an indication of top-notch songwriting and inspired orchestration.

See: the Homecoming arrangement of “Deja Vu,” which, after the first few measures of its bassline, drives into the song with horns that take a little from the funk of B.T. Express’ “Do It (T’il You’re Satisfied),” which is sampled on “Deja Vu,” and mixes it with strings more associated with Philadelphia soul.

When Beyoncé offers an assessment of the students’ abilities during an interlude, she’s not being hyperbolic. “The amount of swag is just limitless,” she says.

Ambitious ideas are one thing. Execution is another. And there is evidence that Beyoncé’s famously high standards were present in the show. The horn runs on “Say My Name,” for example, are exquisite — a blizzard of notes, played not by one person but a group. The greater the number of musicians attempting to play the same run in unison, the greater the likelihood that the sound will become muddied, which is why a classic choice for trumpet section battles at football games is “Flight of the Bumblebee.”

On “Say My Name,” those runs are clean, tight and distinguishable. But they are part of a bigger sonic and visual machine. Besides the horn runs, there are the vocal harmonies from Beyoncé and her Destiny’s Child mates, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams. Then add the percussive beats, separate from the drum line, that come from the steppers.

Everything has to happen in unison and is being performed in large part by college students. To attempt to do the whole thing not once but twice, and then stitch both performances together in postproduction, is, in a word, crazy.

When Beyoncé offers an assessment of the students’ abilities during an interlude, she’s not being hyperbolic. “The amount of swag is just limitless,” she says. “The things that these young people can do with their bodies and the music they can play and the drum rolls and haircuts and the bodies — it’s just not right. It’s just so much damn swag.”

Then there are the screaming trumpets that are integral to the sound of a historically black college or university (HBCU) band. If you’re listening to the Homecoming album, you can hear them in full force at about 1:37 into the first track, “Welcome,” and again in the last 40 or so seconds. Hitting those notes requires a skilled level of musicianship. Being able to hit them again and again over the course of a two-hour set, as Homecoming calls for, is harder because horn players have to retain their chops, or their embouchure, so that their facial muscles aren’t giving out before the performance is over.

These challenges are different from those faced by the music department of Fosse/Verdon, led by Alex Lacamoire, which won the Emmy for the first episode of the seven-part miniseries. Fosse/Verdon is about the personal and professional lives of dancer and actor Gwen Verdon and her creative and romantic partner director and choreographer Bob Fosse.

Lacamoire was charged with an assignment that was almost the reverse of what Dixie and Beyoncé were doing. He had to take highly recognizable songs across several different musicals, written by different composers, and aurally unify them, creating a soundtrack that feels like it’s a collection of songs from one musical called Fosse/Verdon.

Even though “Big Spender” is from Sweet Charity, and written by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields, and “Mein Herr” is a number from Cabaret, written by John Kander and Fred Ebb, Lacamoire’s arrangements make them sound like they belong in the same television show. In Lacamoire’s case, the artists unifying the collection are a dancer and a director, not a leading vocalist. The Music of Fosse/Verdon is from a variety of artists, from The Fandango Girls to Alysha Umphress to Bianca Marroquín. Creating and shaping that thematic continuity is not an easy feat.

Still, the recording sessions for Fosse/Verdon didn’t have to take place during a live concert in which the musicians are also performing choreography for two hours — without sheet music. The songs of Fosse/Verdon, which included “Cabaret,” “All That Jazz” and “We Both Reached for the Gun,” were originally written for musical theater. That doesn’t mean they aren’t difficult to play, but they were composed with the intention that a live orchestra would do so for eight shows a week on Broadway.

Listen to the Fosse/Verdon version of “All That Jazz,” the opening number of Chicago and one of the most iconic songs in musical theater history:

Sometimes songwriters will torture Broadway musicians with arrangements that test the limits of human endurance, but it’s usually vocalists who suffer. That’s what happened to Audra McDonald when she did Porgy and Bess on Broadway. Her teacher’s assistant at Juilliard described the role as “difficult” and a “voice-killer” because of the range it demanded and the frequency of the performances. In a 2012 Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, McDonald spoke about the arduous task of singing “What You Want With Bess” eight times a week.

When Beyoncé took the stage in April 2018 at Coachella, the festival livestreamed the performance. In real time, the singer’s contemporaries marveled at what she’d accomplished.

Ambitious ideas are one thing. Execution is another. And, there is evidence that Beyoncé’s famously high standards were present in the show.

“How. in. The. Fuh. Did. She. Pull. That. Shiii. OFF!!!!??? It’s like 170 musicians onstage,” tweeted Questlove. “I mean the stage plotting. The patch chords. How many monitor boards were used??! Bandleading that s— woulda gave me anxiety. Hats off man. Jesus H Christ.”

If Questlove, who is about as experienced and virtuosic a bandleader as a person can be, declares that the job would have given him anxiety, that’s a good indication that what’s taking place onstage is extraordinary.

So why didn’t the television academy see it that way?

“It’s got everything to do with the voting membership, which skews much older, whiter, and more male than the industry or audience,” tweeted actor Rebecca Metz, who plays Tressa on the FX show Better Things. “The awards reflect their taste and viewing habits. I’m on a mission to recruit young, diverse members for this very reason.”

Let’s turn to the broader picture: What makes Homecoming uniquely great television? What Beyoncé accomplished in two performances at Coachella and with the Homecoming documentary is like a Broadway show. There’s singing, there’s dancing and there’s a story. Remember, the Emmy is not for the live performance itself but for the documentary. We’re asking specific questions here: How do Homecoming and Carpool Karaoke, which won the Emmy, function as pieces of television? What do they offer visually? What role does the music play in the delivery of a larger narrative?

Again, Beyoncé is operating in a space that’s not dissimilar from her competition. Corden, before becoming a late-night host, was an actor. He sings and dances, as evidenced by his stints hosting the Tony Awards. Both Corden and Beyoncé are invested in a type of musical theatricality. Corden is just more self-effacing about it.

“Carpool Karaoke,” Corden’s running gag on The Late Late Show, is reliably great. Corden has a magical capacity for disarming his guests. He offers a fun, anodyne form of celebrity schmoozing that isn’t weighted with self-serious pretension. It’s viral internet gold: Corden drives around with popular musical artists, sings their songs with them, and the whole thing is recorded. Past participants include rappers Migos, singer Adele and even then-first lady Michelle Obama, who rode with artist Missy Elliott.

Look at the episode of Carpool Karaoke that won the Emmy for best variety special (prerecorded) over Homecoming, in which Corden sings with Paul McCartney while driving around the Beatles’ hometown of Liverpool, England.

There’s some editing that takes place when Corden and McCartney are singing the “beep beep beep beeps” of “Drive My Car.” Clearly the show was able to get McCartney to do the bit at least twice, once in the passenger seat and then once as the driver, with both edited together.

Beyoncé does something similar in Homecoming, but she takes it to the extremes we have come to expect but perhaps do not appreciate. Homecoming editors Alexander Hammer and Andrew Morrow are responsible for a great cut that takes place about 6 minutes and 15 seconds into Homecoming, when the band, dancers and steppers are transitioning from “Crazy in Love” to Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up.” First, the band is facing the cameras dressed in yellow. When Juvenile says, “Drop it,” the band members turn. Their backs are to the crowd, and everyone is in candy pink — which was the color of the uniforms for the second Coachella performance. The two were cut together, and the effect is almost supernatural. For that tiny bit of visual trickery to work, all 151 performers had to hit their marks at the same time, in the exact spots, for both performances, doing JaQuel Knight’s choreography.

That’s not for the Coachella audience — that’s just for television.

By the way, that choreography is informed by the history of New Orleans. While it’s identified in modern parlance as twerking, the moves go back to the days of segregated New Orleans, when black dancers performed in the city’s nightclubs that lined Rampart Street, such as the Dew Drop Inn and the Tick Tock Tavern. They performed something called “shake dancing,” one of the many descendants of the mixed-race social dance that took place at events known as quadrilles, held in 19th-century New Orleans ballrooms.

Shake dancing, as LaKisha Simmons explains in Crescent City Girls: The Lives of Young Black Women in Segregated New Orleans, was not just an illicit thrill. It was a rejection of respectability politics and of arbitrary definitions of propriety. It represented creativity and sexual freedom, two of the themes that pervade Beyoncé’s oeuvre. But it wasn’t seen in such generous terms by white writers documenting the culture of Rampart Street, or well-to-do blacks who avoided it. So putting the dance moves of these women onstage at Coachella and setting them off with sequins, discipline and precision becomes a way of honoring them and their labor.

In executing her Coachella set, Beyoncé elevated to an enormous stage an aspect of American culture that tends to be overlooked and misunderstood: the role of HBCUs in shaping pop culture. She used the marching band in Homecoming as both a bridge and a framing device to show how her own sound fits into the broader narrative of the African diaspora. She repeatedly demonstrated how the mélange of cultures in Louisiana, from the French whites to Afro-Caribbean residents to enslaved and free African Americans, influenced American culture.

“At least two centuries had passed since those unnamed slaves Thomas Nicholls observed had helped their mistresses in and out of their shoes, so that the white ladies could learn routines increasingly redolent of Africa, perhaps while their servants snuck away to try out some French steps of their own,” NPR music critic Ann Powers wrote in her 2017 book Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black & White, Body and Soul in American Music, making the connection between New Orleans quadrille balls and Beyoncé’s decision to appear in the music video for “Formation” as both a quadroon and a bounce dancer. “In that long span, countless dances had been danced, many identities blended and forced apart. The taboo baby had grown up and become a matriarch.”

She used the marching band in Homecoming as both a bridge and a framing device to show how her own sound fits into the broader narrative of the African diaspora.

Beyoncé was able to seamlessly and coherently weave together the words and cultural contributions of Nina Simone, James Weldon Johnson, Toni Morrison and others with contemporary figures such as Lil Yachty, Fast Life Yungstaz, Sister Nancy and O.T. Genasis. She pulled from the go-go sounds of Washington, D.C., the horn-heavy jazz of New Orleans, J Balvin’s “Mi Gente,” OutKast’s “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” and the music of her own husband, just to name a few, within an epic recounting of her 25-year repertoire. It was all valid, all valuable, all part of a vast quilt of what it means to be black, to be a woman, what it means to be American, to be human. And she was the vessel embodying all of it, from the militant self-love of Malcolm X to the regality of Nefertiti.

In that way, the work is euphoric, forward-looking and optimistic, even as it’s held together by the glue of the past.

The shows in which Verdon danced and Fosse directed and choreographed are in no danger of being overlooked. Chicago is the longest-running American musical in Broadway history. Certainly the legacy of the Beatles has been well-appreciated. These artists have been beatified with awards and decades of recognition.

But the musical and dance tradition that informs so much of American pop music, beyond Beyoncé’s, isn’t regarded with the same reverence for its innovation, its influence, its history. Instead, it remains marginalized as part of the African American story rather than the American story.

What a shame that American institutions such as the television academy still bypass recognition of the epic historical record and scholarship embedded within Beyoncé’s music because it is easier to see it in work that’s long been regarded as classic. This time it is they who have lost, not she.

Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown show that cultural appropriation ain’t nothin’ but a G thang In the debate over profiting from black creativity, these country singers prove that turnabout is fair play

Well, look who’s appropriating now.

Amid ongoing debates about cultural appropriation and the pain caused when corporations and white entertainers profit off the customs of black people and other minorities, along come Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown, two African American rappers whose tunes have penetrated the upper reaches of — get this — the country music charts.

Blanco Brown’s “The Git Up” made headlines recently after it topped Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, having also charmed its way into the pop Top 20. Juxtaposing weepy pedal steel guitar against automated rap beats, the tune is a boot-scootin’ dance craze tune along the line of Billy Ray Cyrus’ 1990 breakthrough hit, “Achy Breaky Heart.”

“Old Town Road” is an international phenomenon for Lil Nas X (left) and Billy Ray Cyrus (right). It completed 17 weeks atop Billboard Magazine’s Hot 100 the week of July 30, making it the longest-running No. 1 tune in the chart’s 60-year history.

Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/WireImage

Cyrus, of course, makes a cameo appearance on the mega-popular remix of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” a country-rap track that uses a Nine Inch Nails sample to celebrate rhinestone cowboy extravagance (“My life is a movie/ bull ridin’ and boobies/ cowboy hat from Gucci/ Wrangler on my booty”). As you’ve probably heard by now, “Old Town Road” is an international phenomenon, having topped charts throughout North America, Europe and Australia. The week of July 30, it completed 17 weeks atop Billboard Magazine’s Hot 100, making it the longest-running No. 1 tune in the chart’s 60-year history.

The timing of that achievement is eerily auspicious. Aug. 2 was the 40th anniversary of the recording of Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” the first hip-hop track of any consequence and the song that started a musical revolution. What better way to celebrate rap’s 40th birthday than with a country-rap single whose historic success underscores hip-hop’s border-bounding global appeal?

A track like “Old Town Road” doesn’t spend 17 weeks at No. 1 by appealing to black people alone. Indeed, we can assume that more than a few fans of “Old Town Road” are white Southerners. That raises interesting questions, because perhaps no other art form is more associated with white racism than country music, which flourished during a period when the South’s white ruling class viewed black music as a plot to “mongrelize” America. “The obscenity and the vulgarity of the rock ’n’ roll music is obviously a means by which the white man [and] his children can be driven to the level with the n—–,” said Asa “Ace” Carter, founder of the North Alabama White Citizens Council, in 1958.

Lest the irony of black performers such as Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown appropriating white country music be lost, understand that in the minds of many black folks, cultural appropriation is something only other races do. For the past century right up to the present, white artists from Al Jolson, Elvis Presley and Benny Goodman to the Rolling Stones and Eminem have made a mint assimilating African American jazz, rhythm and blues, rock ’n’ roll, funk, rap and more. We’re so used to churning out new art forms that the idea of appropriating white artists seems almost unseemly, like the crassest of sellouts.

Perhaps that perception will change with the success of Lil Nas X and Blanco. The fact that these black iconoclasts are making inroads with country music fans in an era of resurgent white nationalism challenges much of what we think we know about cultural appropriation and race in America. Are Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown pirating white culture? Or is the controversy over their blackified country sounds just musical racial profiling? Let’s explore.


The Cambridge Dictionary describes cultural appropriation as “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.”

By this definition, Lil Nas X and Brown are tough nuts to crack, though the country music industry has weighed in officially on Lil Nas X. After reviewing “Old Town Road” in April, Billboard elected to remove the tune from its country chart, stating that for all its country/cowboy imagery, the song does not “embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.”

Blanco Brown performs during Day One of the 2019 CMA Music Festival at Ascend Amphitheater on June 6 in Nashville, Tennessee. Brown’s “The Git Up” made headlines recently after it topped Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart.

Photo by Mickey Bernal/Getty Images

While Billboard may be clear about the song’s lack of country authenticity, it’s harder for us laypeople. Do Lil Nas X and Brown “understand and respect” white country culture, at least judging by their hit debut recordings? It should be noted that there was little demand for black country-rap performers before these two guys showed up. So they recorded these twangy singles with little expectation that their songs would make them chart-toppers. Successful black singers such as Charley Pride and Darius Rucker notwithstanding, African American country stars are as rare as desert rain.

Moreover, as any aspiring country performer will attest, it’s danged hard to write and perform a hit. Yet Lil Nas X and Brown nailed it on their first attempts, which suggests they understand and respect country culture, big-time.

But for the sake of argument, let’s imagine that Lil Nas X and Brown really are culture vultures just looking to make a buck in country music. Isn’t it about time we black folks did more cultural borrowing? In the never-ending appropriation debate, we are often the most egregiously offended people, and understandably so. From redlining and voter suppression to racial profiling, we’re constantly reminded of the institutional disdain this country has for its African American citizens. Given this contempt, it’s maddening to witness the white ruling class appropriate our culture, imitating and commodifying everything from our music and fashion to our colloquialisms and mannerisms.

Billy Ray Cyrus (left) and Lil Nas X (right) perform at the 2019 BET Awards on June 23 in Los Angeles.

Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images for BET

Now, with Lil Nas X and Brown tearing up the charts, a turnabout-is-fair-play dynamic has been brought to the debate. For decades, some white people have brushed off black concerns about appropriation, an indifference that was dramatically illustrated when rock legend Paul Simon visited Howard University in 1987. The singer/songwriter hoped to explain how South African Zulu music inspired the songs on his acclaimed 1986 album Graceland. But instead of a warm welcome, Simon was treated to a healthy helping of student scorn —”For too long, artists have stolen African music,” asserted one Howard undergrad. “I tried to introduce this music to people who never heard it before,” a stunned Simon responded. “Sincerity doesn’t seem to be held in high regard.”

Now the cowboy boot is on the other foot. Billboard’s removal of “Old Town Road” from its country chart suggests that some proportion of white fans are sensitive to their music being hijacked. Curiously, the purists weren’t complaining a few years back when a growing gaggle of white country artists started appropriating black music, all to the profit-making benefit of the industry. “Old Town Road” could be considered the latest product of a trend that emerged roughly six years ago. Dubbed “Bro Country,” the subgenre came to life when acts including Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton and Cole Swindell began incorporating rap-style party rhymes and R&B- and blues-inflected rhythms into their songs. With its satiny melody and hip-grinding beat, Jason Aldean’s 2014 hit “Burnin’ It Down” is virtually a R&B makeout song, yet it reached No. 12 on Billboard’s Hot Country chart. Unlike its action on “Old Town Road,” Billboard never questioned the authenticity of Aldean’s tune.

Bro Country was so all-consuming that black performers such as Jason Derulo and Nelly started showing up in remixes, and hip-hop iconography started seeping into music videos. Florida Georgia Line’s 2014 clip for “This is How We Roll” features singers Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley swaggering and fist-bumping like boyz from the ’hood. The song’s opening verse drops iconic names designed to resonate with both white and black listeners. To wit: “The mixtape’s got a little Hank, a little Drake …”

The “Hank” referenced in that verse is Hank Williams, the pioneering singer/songwriter who wrote and performed some of the most popular songs in country history, including “Hey Good Lookin’,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” An acknowledged influence on superstars such as Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, Williams is held in such high esteem that he is affectionately known as “The Hillbilly Shakespeare.”

And right here is where the whole Lil Nas X/Blanco/cultural appropriation thing gets really interesting. You see, Williams learned to play guitar from Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, a black bluesman who performed in and around Lowndes County, Alabama. Having assimilated both African American blues and Scots-Irish folk, Williams’ original compositions played a major role in forging the white-meets-black sound we know today as country music. Williams was but one of many white musicians influenced by the African American string band music that proliferated around the South at the turn of the 20th century.

The implications of all this are mind-boggling. Instead of being appropriators of white folk music, Lil Nas X and Brown are actually taking up where their banjo-plucking ancestors left off. Swish!


From its modest 1979 origins up to now, hip-hop has thrived on masterly mooching. The genre’s aforementioned inaugural hit, “Rapper’s Delight,” quoted verbatim from Chic’s sophisto-funk classic “Good Times.” Perhaps more than any musical style in history, rap is defined by the shameless borrowing of other people’s music.

Having assimilated both African American blues and Scots-Irish folk, Hank Williams’ original compositions played a major role in forging the white-meets-black sound we know today as country music.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

But rap also owes some of its survival and current mainstream popularity to outright cultural appropriation. In 1986, hip-hop pioneers Run-DMC teamed with white rockers Steven Tyler and Joe Perry to record a remake of Aerosmith’s 1975 shuffle, “Walk This Way.” At the time, Aerosmith was all but washed-up and struggling to remain relevant. The Run-DMC collaboration changed all that, rocketing to No. 4 on the pop charts. “Walk This Way” not only rescued Aerosmith, it thrust Run-DMC into the pop music major leagues and helped broaden hip-hop’s popularity among white people.

Just as Run-DMC helped salvage Aerosmith, so has Lil Nas X delivered Cyrus from cultural mothballs. And both these examples reveal how appropriation can work to the mutual benefit of artists from different backgrounds. The blues-influenced music of Elvis and other white rock musicians ultimately improved the fortunes of many African American performers. Asked in 1968 about the high esteem in which white rockers held black blues virtuosos, B.B. King said, “I’m grateful … the doors are open now … because of people like Elvis Presley [and] the Beatles.”

This cultural reciprocity is the promise of appropriation, and only time will tell if Lil Nas X and Brown can make cowboy culture more palatable to black people. But even if such a miracle never occurs, who cares? The ultimate message of “Old Town Road” is be yourself, even if that means emulating someone else’s culture. The song’s declarative chorus — “can’t nobody tell me nothin’ ” — appears to epitomize Lil Nas X’s defiant philosophy about his unhip country lifestyle, a notion underscored by the song’s surreal music video in which Lil Nas X stares down a hip-hop dancer. Lil Nas X is refusing to be lumped in with anyone simpleminded enough to only embrace the products of their own race and culture. In this sense, “Old Town Road” is as thematically beholden to Sammy Davis Jr.’s “I’ve Gotta Be Me” as to any rap or country song of yore.

This rebelliousness, along with the sincerity of their left-field hits, helps explain Lil Nas X’s and Brown’s startling success. They’re part of a growing class of black creators redefining what it means to be an African American artist in the 21st century. This new determinism is evident in the endeavors of the Black Rock Coalition and AfroPunk, two organizations that celebrate diversity in black music, offering a fellowship platform for wayward African American musos. Black folkies such as the Carolina Chocolate Drops, J.S. Ondara and Dom Flemons are at once contemporizing and preserving the seldom acknowledged legacy of African American country and bluegrass musicians.

Lil Nas X and Blanco Brown rank among this band of musical gypsies, and they can’t be easily dismissed as cultural poachers. Are they borrowing elements of white country culture? Absolutely. But they’re also combining that with rap and reclaimed bits of their own black folk heritage.

And can’t nobody tell them nothin’ …

Will Smith, a pioneering black nerd, helped raise and change rap music Smith’s music career reveals an artist who believed in an Afrocentric American dream based on ambition, hustle and black pride

It was 2017, and Will Smith’s career seemed to have come full circle.

That’s when a sneak peek video surfaced featuring the world-famous entertainer performing a hip-hop version of the theme from Aladdin, a Disney musical, which opens in movie theaters Friday, featuring Smith in the role of the genie. For fans, the tune conjured memories of Smith’s career-launching hit “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble,” which sampled the theme from I Dream of Jeannie, a 1960s sitcom about a genie.

The coincidence was eerily appropriate. With four Grammys, six American Music Awards, four NAACP Image Awards and two Oscar nominations, Smith’s career has seemed like a magic carpet ride, almost as if a wizard granted his wish of becoming one of history’s most successful entertainers. But while his big-screen achievements have been exhaustively examined, Smith’s musical accomplishments have received shorter critical shrift. From PTA-approved hits such as “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “A Nightmare on My Street” to party-starting jams such as “Summertime” and “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” Smith’s songs are so cursedly simple that some might argue they’re undeserving of serious critical scrutiny. We’re here to argue otherwise.

Smith’s career has seemed like a magic carpet ride, almost as if a wizard granted his wish of becoming one of history’s most successful entertainers.

Take, for example, the aforementioned Aladdin rap. Like most songs from Smith’s canon, the tune is a bouncy urban jam with lyrics of nursery rhyme simplicity.

“One fine day the bazaar was at peace, when the guards started running through the Agrabah streets

They were lookin’ for a lad and a beast, ’cause they was nabbin’ some yeast

The thickest of thieves in the Wild, Wild East …”

Notice how Smith sets up a story, stoking your desire to learn more. From his very first 1980s hits, he has repeatedly woven fablelike narratives into his songs, a creative device that makes listeners hang onto his every word. In this regard, he has just as much in common with legendary country and western songwriters such as Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton as with his rapping peers.

Next, note how the line “a lad and” is a subliminal reference to the title Aladdin, while the phrase “Wild, Wild East” alludes to Smith’s 1999 hit “Wild Wild West.” Rap music is a narcissistic genre in which artists’ skills are largely judged by the ingenuity of their boasts. In the Aladdin song, Smith triumphantly toots his own horn while never once name-checking himself, which makes him appear both humble and confident. That’s the kind of skill that helped the Philadelphia native nab the first best rap song Grammy Award in 1989.

The Aladdin promo music video harks back to Smith’s 1990s heyday, when he triumphantly sampled old rhythm and blues and TV theme song tunes packed with sentimental value (Aladdin samples Alan Menken’s theme from the 1992 animated version of the Middle Eastern folk tale). Smith’s rap also marks a return to the days when his songs were movie promotions, and it’s tempting to view his lucrative music career as a byproduct of his movie fame: safe-as-milk family entertainment concealed beneath a fashionable urban disguise. Indeed, Smith’s gentlemanly, glad-handing public image contrasts sharply with prevailing rap iconography, which has become so hard-nosed that most rappers wouldn’t be caught dead smiling in their promotional photos.

But a closer inspection of Smith’s music career reveals an artist who gambled on a personal belief in an Afrocentric American dream, one based on ambition, hustle, black pride and monogamy. His decidedly nerdy worldview has drawn its share of hilarious ridicule and attacks from peers, but in hindsight his ’90s hits now seem almost heroic in their contrarian niceness. What follows is an examination of Smith’s music career, an exploration that reveals how he remained true to his principles at the risk of being labeled a corporate sellout … and in the process became one of the best-selling hip-hop artists of all time.

The Plain Brown Rapper

It was 1988, and Smith was bombing.

Better known by his alias “The Fresh Prince,” Smith and musical partner DJ Jazzy Jeff were onstage at the Greek Theatre in Hollywood, California, opening for the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. At the time, Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff (real name Jeff Townes) were savoring the success of “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” the breakthrough single from their multimillion-selling album He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. They were 19-year-old millionaires, the darlings of radio and MTV. So why were they being jeered on a Los Angeles stage?

Despite their critics, DJ Jazzy Jeff (left) and The Fresh Prince (right) were the darlings of radio and MTV in 1988, savoring the success of their hit song “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The reason was simple — Smith and Townes’ set was a disaster. This writer attended that night, and I recall being agog at Smith’s attempts to transform his performance into an interactive experience, appealing for audience participation as he emulated childhood games. Had smartphone cameras and YouTube existed back then, Smith and Townes might have become instant laughingstocks. Compared with the Beastie Boys’ beer-swilling rowdyism and Public Enemy’s fist-thrusting black militancy, Smith and Townes’ slapstick performance was embarrassingly naive and out of touch.

Other rappers might have taken the hostile crowd response as a cue to change course toward an edgier sound. But not Smith and Townes. They seemed creatively beholden to the early days of hip-hop, when the scene was dominated by boogie-down jams such as “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and “Big Mouth.” As hip-hop legend William “Flavor Flav” Drayton told MTV in 1999: “I remember rap music. We used to party and dance off of it.”

But the dancing came to an abrupt halt in 1988. It was the final year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, an eight-year term that saw black communities devastated by a federal escalation of the war on drugs. Nationwide, African American neighborhoods had watched in dismay as a blighting influx of crack cocaine gripped the areas where they lived. In mostly black South Central Los Angeles, police were using military-grade weaponry to confront young black suspects, while East Coast neighborhoods such as Roosevelt, New York, went from middle-class prosperity to abject desolation. “Mostly every household had somebody that was strung out,” said Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee. “Even my brother had a brief moment being addicted, so it resonated very close to me.”

As if in response to Reagan’s hard-line conservatism, hip-hop got deadly serious. Hard-core rap subgenres that had been gestating underground suddenly began garnering widespread radio and consumer attention. Whether it was the political hip-hop of Public Enemy, the desperado “gangsta rap” of N.W.A. and Ice-T or the Afrocentric “conscious rap” of Gang Starr and the Jungle Brothers, 1988 marked a paradigm shift. Just as the Beatles proved rock music could make broader sociopolitical statements, rap’s Class of ’88 seized on hip-hop’s thematic potential, sowing the seeds of a musical revolution.

Into this chaotic musical fray entered Smith. His initial recordings helped transform rap into a lucrative crossover genre, yet he was already at risk of becoming a has-been. In 1989, he and Townes issued yet another collection of teen-targeted novelty tunes entitled And in This Corner …. The album and its spinoff singles flopped. “It was a tragedy,” Smith recalled in 2018. “[The album] went, like, double-plastic.”

The LP’s failure sent Smith into a downward spiral. Like many nouveau riche overnight successes, he had blown through his fortune while neglecting to pay his taxes, and now the IRS was knocking. “Being famous and broke is a s—– combination,” he would later say, “because you’re still famous and people recognize you, but they recognize you while you’re sitting next to them on the bus.”

Then, fate intervened. Hoping to keep his career afloat, Smith began appearing on The Arsenio Hall Show, a new late-night talk show that was an instant hit with the MTV generation. Backstage during one of his appearances, Smith was introduced to Benny Medina, who along with entertainment legend Quincy Jones was developing a sitcom about his childhood experience growing up with a wealthy Hollywood family. Smith aced his audition, and within months of its 1990 premiere, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was the top-rated sitcom of the year.

In one fell swoop, Smith was rescued from near irrelevance, and he would make the best of his second chance. Cautiously embarking on a movie career, he earned all-important Hollywood cred by starring in acclaimed, low-budget art house films such as Six Degrees of Separation and Where the Day Takes You. He was craftily starting with modest projects, methodically inching his way up the Hollywood ladder, demonstrating the shrewdness that would make him a megastar.

Triumph of the Will

It had been years since the sales disappointment of And in This Corner…, but now it was 1991 and Smith was appearing on a talk show touting the imminent release of his first single of the new decade. “May 20, we’ll be premiering our video,” he earnestly told Byron Allen. “We’ve been away for a while, and we’re coming at you spankin’ new.”

Will Smith (left) and Benny Medina (right) attend the premiere of Disney’s Aladdin at El Capitan Theatre on May 21 in Los Angeles. A chance meeting with Medina helped launch The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which changed the trajectory of Smith’s career.

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The music video Smith alluded to was “Summertime,” a mellow head-bobber that deviated from the madcap mold of previous Fresh Prince/Jazzy Jeff tunes. Featuring a “slightly transformed” sample of Kool & The Gang’s seductive ’70s jam “Summer Madness,” Smith’s retooled version perfectly captured the soulful essence of a midsummer day in the ’hood.

“The temperature’s about 88
Hop in the water plug just for old time’s sake
Break to ya’ crib, change your clothes once more
Cause you’re invited to a barbecue that’s starting at 4
Sitting with your friends cause y’all reminisce
About the days growing up and the first person you kiss
And as I think back makes me wonder how
The smell from a grill could spark up nostalgia …”

Call it a comeback. “Summertime” dramatically reversed Smith’s flagging musical fortunes, selling more than 1 million copies and nabbing the Grammy for best rap performance by a duo or group. But for Smith, the single’s importance went beyond accolades and peer honors. “Summertime” seemed to establish a template for the rapper’s subsequent singles. He would eventually part ways with Townes, embarking on a solo career in which he would apply his rhymes to samples of R&B radio favorites from the post-Motown era, including tracks by Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, Sister Sledge, Roy Ayers Ubiquity and others.

His music evinced a sense of elegance and upward social mobility. While he wasn’t above sampling the occasional gutbucket stomp, his biggest singles were assembled mostly from R&B songs produced north of the Mason-Dixon Line, lavish funk hits that lent his music the upscale appeal of a Versace collection. Perhaps the best example of this was “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” the gold-certified hit from Smith’s high-stakes 1997 solo debut album, Big Willie Style. The tune sampled “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” the disco classic that name-checks elite clothing brands such as Halston, Gucci and Fiorucci.

Smith’s musical choices couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. He was launching his solo career in the late ’90s, a period of tremendous economic growth and conspicuous consumption. To underscore the notion that he was a musical status symbol, he crammed Big Willie Style with broadly appealing, expensive-sounding samples. “Men in Black” appropriated Patrice Rushen’s luxurious ’80s shuffle “Forget Me Nots,” while subsequent singles “Miami” and “Just the Two of Us” borrowed from The Whispers’ “And The Beat Goes On” and Bill Withers’ satiny 1981 ballad “Just the Two of Us.” Yet, while his tony, aspirational music matched your Cartier ensemble, Smith’s songs were still down-home enough to be played at the neighborhood block party.

His music may have conveyed sophistication, but his lyrics were pure, old-fashioned hip-hop egomania. Big Willie Style found Smith boasting constantly about his boffo film career while flipping off his detractors (“Player haters been hatin’ all my playin’ for years / Now they seein’ they worst fears as I bathe in cheers”). Yet despite all his Tarzanlike chest-thumping, Smith was careful to promote himself as hip-hop’s resident straight arrow. Where his gangsta rap rivals were dismissing women as “b—-es” and worse, the females in Smith’s songs were “ladies” and “hot mamis.” He trumpeted the joys of fatherhood and celebrated his romance with soon-to-be wife Jada Pinkett (“Finally found a person, worthy of all / Instead of pushin’ me down, you want to cushion my fall / Your eyes could make the sun rise, all the birds sing / Seal it with a kiss, bind it with a ring”).

While his tony, aspirational music matched your Cartier ensemble, Smith’s songs were still down-home enough to be played at the neighborhood block party.

This reconciliation of bravado and gee-whiz humility is classic Smith, and he would be rewarded handsomely for his bluster. Boosted by its status as the theme song from the Smith movie of the same name, “Men in Black” topped singles charts throughout Europe and Australia, capturing the 1998 Grammy Award for best rap solo performance. By the time its initial sales run was through, Big Willie Style had moved 9 million copies, making it one of the best-selling hip-hop albums of all time. In the midst of gangsta rap’s blood-splattered heyday, Smith was topping the charts with obscenity-free songs about clubbing, chivalry … and himself.

Seizing on the momentum of his blockbuster performances in movies such as Independence Day and Bad Boys, Smith released his second solo album in 1999. Willennium spawned the debut single “Wild Wild West,” another movie tie-in featuring a sample of Stevie Wonder’s percolating single “I Wish.” The follow-up single “Will 2K” was built from The Clash’s 1983 funky post-punk classic “Rock the Casbah,” while “Freakin’ It” bummed its beat from Diana Ross’ ritzy disco classic “Love Hangover.” Though not quite the sales bulldozer its predecessor was, Willennium nonetheless penetrated Billboard‘s Top 5 and sold more than 5 million copies.

It doesn’t take an Einstein to see that Smith was trading on musical nostalgia to make his songs broadly appealing, but was that so bad? He had already proved with his movie career that he was a shameless, crowd-pleasing capitalist, so why would his music goals be any different? Black songwriters such as Rushen, Nile Rodgers and Kool & The Gang certainly weren’t complaining about Smith’s sentimental hip-hop — his samples were plumping their bank accounts. He was so good at tapping prime funk hits that an associate of mine described him as an “archivist,” a man who heedfully selects stylish baby boomer jams, then gently contemporizes them for posterity (and lucrative Gen X consumption). Asked about Smith and others sampling his songs, Kool & The Gang’s Robert Bell said, “We feel honored! People are listening to our music.”

Will Smith (left) and Tommy Lee Jones (right) in a scene from the film Men in Black in 1997. Smith’s single “Men in Black” captured the 1998 Grammy Award for best rap solo performance.

Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

But while millions were buying into Smith’s retrograde rap, others were calling him out. It was rumored that he didn’t write his own songs, although Smith’s collaborators attested to his lyric writing/composing skills. Others attributed his musical fame to his soaring movie career, while others criticized him for trafficking in “nonstop pop-rap clichés.” Worst of all, hip-hop purists viewed him as the grievous poster child for corporate rap, exhuming crossover R&B classics to stroke MTV and Top 40 radio programmers. “Just because a song was fun when I was a kid doesn’t mean the guy who made it isn’t a bit of a crossover clown and has made some of the most embarrassing singles of all time,” wrote one contributor on an online forum.

Comments like these would dog Smith throughout his heyday, making him one of rap’s most controversial artists, and you’d still be hard-pressed to find a hip-hop artist who drives purists crazier. Rap music had always prided itself on salting wounds, whether through its automated, minimalist sound, its uncompromising political stances or its embrace of outlaw stereotypes. But then along came Smith with his “nice, clean rap,” and some folks became unglued.

He was resented for not buying into the myth that black hooliganism is somehow authentic (or “real,” to use the parlance of the ’hood). Smith had chosen to become a symbol of the black middle class, a millions-strong group of gainfully employed, law-abiding African Americans who paid their taxes, maybe attended church on given Sundays, and preferred Calvin Klein and FUBU to gangbanger bandannas. His sampling of opulent funk was a subtle shout-out to a black bourgeoisie the media largely ignored. “It’s real important to have balance of the imagery,” Smith told Billboard magazine in 2005. “Yes, there are people who fire guns in the street, but there’s also doctors who go to work in those areas to feed their children.”

But Smith’s critics were raising even broader questions about crossover and hip-hop’s plagiaristic roots. Why was it a crime for Smith to tap the sentimental value of old funk and pop tunes? After all, The Sugarhill Gang established the cannibalistic rules for hip-hop in 1979 when they executed a verbatim lift of Chic’s “Good Times” for their tune “Rapper’s Delight,” the first rap tune of any consequence. Moreover, amid current debates about cultural appropriation, were rap acts such as Smith, Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy conducting artistic larceny when they sampled white rock bands such as The Clash, Aerosmith and Slayer? Or were these and other rappers simply flipping the bird at segregationist radio programmers who persisted in compartmentalizing white and black music? Whatever the case, it seemed Smith was being held to a harder standard than many of his peers.

His detractors didn’t seem to take into account that sampling is a statement. During hip-hop’s hypercompetitive golden age, the best rap acts used samples partly as a way to align themselves with certain musicians, philosophies and movements. When Dr. Dre heavily sampled Parliament-Funkadelic on his 1991 magnum opus The Chronic, he was establishing an attitudinal connection between his own laid-back jams and George Clinton’s weed-scented stoner funk. Similarly, Smith’s appropriation of post-Motown R&B seemed like a rational choice, an honest reflection of his middle-class upbringing.

The son of a refrigeration engineer and a school administrator, Willard Carroll Smith II was a Baptist who attended a West Philly Catholic middle school. By all accounts, his was a grassroots upbringing that had little, if anything, to do with hoodlums and black militancy. He was 12 years old when his devoutly Christian grandmother discovered a book of his rhymes, many of them peppered with vulgarities. “Dear Will,” she wrote inside the notebook, “truly intelligent people don’t have to use words like this to express themselves. Please show the world that you’re as smart as we think you are.”

That scribbled rebuke changed Smith. “She made me realize that I wasn’t creating only for me,” he said in 2016. “The things I created were going to have an effect on her and were going to have an effect on everyone who came into contact with my artistry.”

Smith took his grandmom’s advice, and if one examines his music, one will discover a positivist philosophy encapsulated by the title track of his 2002 album Born to Reign:

“I believe in God, I believe in destiny

Not destiny in the sense of all of our actions being predetermined

But destiny in the sense of … our ability to choose who we are, and who we are supposed to be …”

He had molded himself into a massively popular polymath entertainer, a man so sure of his rapping dominance that he flamboyantly christened the 2000s the “Willennium.” His hip-hop future seemed bright and unstoppable.

Then he faded from the music scene.

The smartest dude

In 2005, after a three-year absence, Smith returned to the recording fold with an album entitled Lost and Found. Its cover featured Smith at the make-believe intersection of “West Philly” and “Hollywood” streets, an image that suggested he was at a musical crossroads. That notion was underscored by new songs in which he ditched his vintage funk samples for original beats. Although it spawned the Top 10 single “Switch,” the album ultimately sold 500,000 units, not even close to the performance of his multimillion-selling 1990s CDs.

Though he hasn’t released an album in nearly 15 years, Smith hasn’t vanished into obscurity. To the contrary, he’s leveraging his fame to become a digital influencer. He recently used his Instagram account (30 million followers and counting) to hawk branded merchandise, including a sold-out limited run of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air accessories. More than 5 million subscribers visit his YouTube channel to keep up with him and his family. Smith’s songs are still played across the broad spectrum of African American life: at the club, at parties, at backyard barbecues and family get-togethers. Get a real gangsta liquored up enough and he might confess that Smith jams like “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” and “Miami” are on his personal mixtape.

Smith is 50 now, and as he enters the elder statesman period of his career, his legacy seems more wide-ranging than many would imagine. He exists as a genre unto himself, a rapper whose austere lyrics and uncomplicated samples are unique in hip-hop. Although he’s never confessed to such, he was a pioneering black nerd well before the empowering phrase “blerd” was even coined. He played a role in unseating rock ’n’ roll as the favored music of youth worldwide, then helped raise rap music’s international stature by becoming a multimedia megastar.

He recently made a surprise guest appearance at Coachella, arguably the world’s most popular and lucrative music and arts festival. Popping onstage during his son Jaden’s performance, the old man reportedly stole the show, lending credence to his lifelong theory that nice guys finish first. “I’m trying to present … a more sound approach to survival,” he said in 2005. “It’s a more long-term approach based on intellect and skills that can’t be taken away from you.

“The smartest dude survives the best.”

Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize just shows how far hip-hop has taken us Jazz, rock and R&B all help us define who we are and show that ‘times are a-changin’

When Kendrick Lamar, a 30-year-old rapper, won the Pulitzer Prize for music, it was as if the millennials had followed the baby boomers in having one of their defining philosophers venerated in an unexpected way. In 2016, Bob Dylan, a bard for baby boomers — and, we like to think, for the ages — won the Nobel Prize in literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” He was the first songwriter to win the Nobel Prize in the literature category.

And earlier this month, Lamar won a Pulitzer Prize for his DAMN. recording, the first hip-hop artist to win in the music category.

Dylan’s surprising Nobel Prize win changed the conversation and the definitions of what could be considered literature, just as hip-hop and rap have challenged many notions about music and art.

Still, when I think of it, I heard a vague inkling of rap’s rise to primacy, if not Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize, in a Hartford, Connecticut, barbershop, although I didn’t know what I was hearing. Here is what happened.

Years ago, a man I think of as “Conscious Bob” led a conversation about music at a Hartford barbershop where he worked. I think of the man as “Conscious Bob” because Bob was his name and he once told anyone and everyone in the shop that he didn’t watch BET because there was nothing on the cable channel for a “conscious brother.”

As Bob talked, the 30-something government worker and barber brushed his shoulder-length locs from his shoulders. He was tall and thin, tightly coiled like one of those skinny cigars that cowboys smoked in 1960s Italian westerns.

Bob acted as the music conversation’s conductor, pointing his clippers at the participants when it was their turn to talk, even me.

I don’t usually talk in black barbershops; through the years, I’ve learned so much by listening. Black barbershops span the generations and our economic and color spectrums. Barbers, patrons and folks, just passing time, drop knowledge on everything from surviving bad bosses to surviving too much of a good time.

Consequently, when that barbershop conversation turned to music, I perked up. I like to think I know a little about music. Besides being a great fan of pop, rhythm and blues and the Great American Songbook, I’ve also written about jazz and classical music as a newspaper journalist.

But this conversation, though erudite, passionate and quick-moving, never landed on anything I knew much about. A baby boomer, I was about 10 to 15 years older than the other guys in the barbershop.

So nobody said a word about Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Nobody said anything about Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions or Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. And not a word was spoken about Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band or Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, all celebrated masterworks, especially by baby boomers.

According to the consensus in the barbershop, the greatest albums (showing my age with that term) were all produced by rap artists, especially Nas, especially illimatic. I was out of it.

Damn.

In those days, I did little more than sample rap and its scandals and feuds, just enough to be current in a very surface way. But the barbershop conversation long ago announced to me that my generation’s grip on what was hip was loosening with time; the hip-hop generation was replacing the rock and soul generation’s bards, philosophers and gods. Nas and those who followed him would be venerated the way my cohorts had celebrated, even worshipped, Bob Dylan, the Beatles and Marvin Gaye.

Indeed, since my Hartford barbershop revelation, hip-hop and R&B have replaced rock as America’s favorite genre of music. The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Hamilton has used rap to cast a multiracial and multicultural gaze upon the nation’s founding and its founders. And Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president, a baby boomer with millennial tastes in technology and music, has put rap on his playlist and the nation’s, including “Humble” from Lamar’s DAMN. recording.

Some lament the change that the rise of hip-hop and rap represent. They look backward to a time when America and the world danced to an American Motown beat or sound or a British Merseybeat or sound.

But no generation, no race, no single worldview can be the sole arbiter of what is hip, what music is serious and whose artists are important, at least not forever. The world makes no apology for that.

Damn.

A young Bob Dylan once told all who knew how to listen in the ’60s, the times are changing. It’s time to celebrate change.

DAMN. winning the Pulitzer prize signals a change that has been happening all around us for decades.

Today, hip-hop and rap, rippling crosscurrents, are broadening and deepening the mainstream in the arts and beyond, just as rock and jazz did before it.

Kendrick Lamar wins the Pulitzer Prize, and it is just the latest and most salient evidence of the change Dylan, now 76, once heralded: the change that always comes before most people know they need it.

Smokey Robinson’s music still stirs the soul His iconic songs such as ‘Quiet Storm,’ ‘Just to See Her’ and ‘Cruisin’ define love songs for generations

The man dressed in black stood on the New York stage, strong yet vulnerable. His green eyes sparkled like stained glass windows illuminated by a summer sun. He was singing a song he had to sing. And he’d been singing it as if he were standing in front of a closed door imploring the love of his life to unbolt the lock.

He was building to the song’s climax but not its end. Members of the audience perched on the edge of their seats and leaned in, as if they sought to hold the hand of the man in black: Could he still hit the notes he had in 1965, two decades before? Could he still make the audience feel what it had come to feel, young and in love?

And then he hit the notes ” … ’cause I-i feel-uh eel … one day, I’ll hold you near …” and the audience leapt to its feet with grateful and relieved applause. Smokey Robinson had hit the notes. On that night, as in so many nights before and since, he’d built bridges with his song, bridges that took his audience back to loves gained and lost, loves lost and regained.

Oooo, Baby, Baby.

Now on tour, Smokey continues to sing some of his greatest hits, the soundtrack of so many lives, especially American baby boomers. The great bard of romance, a Motown singer, producer, songwriter and vice president while in his early 20s, turns 78 today.

And from where I sit, if Smokey had only written “Ooo Baby Baby,” he’d merit his place in the Rock and Roll and the Songwriters Halls of Fame.

But the Detroit native has done so much more. The winner of multiple Grammys has written more than 4,000 songs, including hits for his Miracles (“Tracks of My Tears”), Marvin Gaye (“Ain’t that Peculiar”) and Mary Wells (“My Guy”).

During the 1960s, with compositions such as “Shop Around” for his group The Miracles, and “My Girl” for The Temptations, Smokey helped bridge the nation’s racial divide; he gave America a common vocabulary to talk about romantic longing and love. But for all his songs extolling romance and love, you could party with Smokey, too, especially in the ’60s. He encouraged people to do the jerk or the monkey. He sang that dancing was all right and medicinal, too: “I Gotta Dance to Keep from Crying.”

After leaving his Miracles to go solo in the early ’70s, in 1975 he released the album A Quiet Storm. It would later lend part of its name to a mellow radio format, born at Howard University’s WHUR before spreading across the nation. And in the late ’70s, and early ’80s, he introduced a new generation to his music with songs including “Cruisin’ ” and “Being with You,” music that was made for love.

More recently, Smokey released Timeless Love, a collection of songs from Cole Porter, the Gershwins and other authors of the Great American Songbook. Smokey has made his own soulful entries in that book, expanding its scope. Artists from the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to Aretha Franklin, Mobb Deep and the Zapp Band have recorded his songs. Rappers such as J Dilla, Kanye West and Wiz Khalifa have sampled Smokey’s “Much Better Off,” one of the all-time great blue lights in the basement, slow-drag songs.

And on recordings or in live performances, Smokey has sung with everyone from Sheryl Crow to former president Barack Obama, the latter a White House rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Aided by his faith, Smokey has overcome a wrenching divorce from his first wife Claudette, a longtime member of the Miracles, and an addiction to drugs. The remarried father of three has reached back to help pull others from the clutches of drugs.

Smokey is a rich man who has helped make America so much richer. During the 1960s, he helped unite the nation through his songs. Today, he helps unite the generations.

Late last year, he released a Christmas recording: Christmas Everyday. His life and career have been gifts to us all. Monday is Smokey’s birthday. Let our rejoicing rise.

Ooo, Smokey, Smokey.

The players’ anthem: when Marvin Gaye sang ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at the 1983 All-Star game Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Pat Riley, Magic, Dr. J and more on the pride and heartbreak of witnessing Gaye’s rendition of the national anthem

Being the head coach of the Lakers, and coaching the All-Star Game at the Great Western Forum that day … it just made it a special, almost spiritual-type moment for me.

— Pat Riley


Marvin Gaye could not have looked more quintessentially Marvin Gaye if he’d tried. It was Feb. 13, 1983: the afternoon of the 33rd annual NBA All-Star Game at The Forum in Inglewood, California. Everyone was packed in, a stone’s throw from Hollywood. Julius “Dr. J” Erving, Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Maurice Cheeks, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, Reggie Theus, Moses Malone, Pat Riley, Bill Laimbeer, Andrew Toney, Alex English, Robert Parish, Jamaal Wilkes and more. Even then the synergy of basketball icons and a musical icon made all the sense in the world. And now as the NBA All-Star Game returns to Los Angeles this weekend — the fourth time since the game’s 1951 inception that it’s been held in the L.A. area — the synergy is a given.

Thirty-five years ago, things were of course different. Nowadays, fans have a huge say with regard to who starts in the game. The top two vote-getters draft their own teams. And music is a quintessential part of the NBA All-Star Weekend experience. The NBA named Migos’ “Stir Fry” the weekend’s official anthem, and a slew of the hottest musical artists in the game are expected to host countless parties. The omnipresence of celebrities courtside has made the NBA America’s most culturally significant sport — and it will be turnt up even higher for the All-Star Game.

The Eastern Conference All-Stars of the 1983 All Star Game: the front row (L to R): Maurice Lucas, Isiah Thomas, Middle Row: Bill Laimbeer, Buck Williams, Robert Parish, Moses Malone & Larry Bird. Back Row: Assistant Coach Bill Bertke, Trainer Ray Melchiorre, Sidney Moncrief, Reggie Theus, Marques Johnson, Head Coach Billy Cunningham, Julius Erving, Andrew Toney, Assistant Coach Jack McMahon, Assistant Coach Matt Guokes

NBAE via Getty Images

The 1983 Western Conference All-Stars of the 1983 the front row: Gus Williams, Jim Paxson, Middle Row – Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Jack Sikma, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Artis Gilmore & Maurice Lukas. Back Row – Assistant Coach Bill Bertke, Assistant Coach Dave Wohl, Jamaal Wilkes, Alex English, Head Coach Pat Riley, George Gervin, Kiki Vandeweghe, David Thompson & Trainer Jack Curran

NBAE via Getty Images

But back then, Gaye was a feel-good comeback story. Following a stint in Europe where the singer temporarily escaped demons that had nearly devoured him, he was riding high off the success of the smash album Midnight Love, which was, in turn, fueled by the Goliathan influence of its landmark single “Sexual Healing.” Gaye would use the NBA’s center stage to propel him to the Grammys just 10 days later.

Gaye, a linchpin of swagger, walked to center court at The Forum in a deep blue suit — jacket buttoned — wearing dark shades courtesy of an NBA gift package that had been distributed to all media and VIP guests. But there was something wrong with the shades. “[The sunglasses] had ‘L.A. All-Star’ imprinted on the lenses,” said Brian McIntyre, the NBA’s public relations director in 1983. “Trouble was, whoever printed them, printed it backwards.” Gaye either didn’t know, didn’t show, or didn’t care. He also didn’t know he was the second choice — Lionel Richie, sitting on the huge success of his solo debut, had turned the NBA down for the anthem honors.

Players and coaches lined up on opposite free-throw lines. The honor guard of nearby Edwards Air Force Base was behind Gaye with the American and California flags raised. Seventeen thousand people in the arena were on their feet for the national anthem — there was little reason to expect a diversion from the way “The Star-Spangled Banner” had been performed their entire lives.

“We’d only heard the national anthem done one way,” said then-Chicago Bulls guard Theus. Having coached the Sacramento Kings and at New Mexico State, the two-time All-Star is now head coach at Cal State University, Northridge. “We weren’t anticipating anything. We knew he was Marvin Gaye.”

Gaye had intertwined his way into the sports world before. He’d sung the anthem on many occasions — each time in the traditional format. Four years earlier, in 1979, Gaye sang at the second Larry Holmes/Earnie Shavers fight at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. In 1974, he sang the anthem at Alameda County Coliseum in Oakland, California, before the Raiders’ regular season finale vs. the Dallas Cowboys. And Motown’s crown prince belted out “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Game 4 of the 1968 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals — the Tigers ended up winning in seven games. Ironically, for Game 5 of that series, young singer José Feliciano performed the anthem with a slower, brooding twist that caused some Tiger Stadium attendees to pepper the blind Puerto Rican musician with boos. The backlash derailed his Grammy-laden career for decades.

“In my mind, ‘What’s Going On’ … had the most impact on me than any record, ever.” — Pat Riley

Gaye was an avid sports fan— he even once tried out for the Detroit Lions. And he floored Motown founder (and his former brother-in-law) Berry Gordy when he told him, at the apex of his prolific singing, songwriting and producing career, that he wanted to pursue boxing. Whether he knew it or not though, as much as Gaye found inspiration in the athletes who stood behind him on The Forum’s court, they found as much if not more in him.


“I’ve gone on the record many times saying that Marvin Gaye was my favorite artist. His music touched me in a deep, special and personal way. Reading Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, it’s kind of gut-wrenching. It’s heartfelt in terms of the struggle he had … Just to do what he wanted to do. He really just wanted to be a crooner. He just wanted to sing and share his gift with the world. But pressure came from a lot of different places to be more, do more, and that eventually cost him his life.”

Julius “Dr. J” Erving


Gaye was a tortured spirit whose life oftentimes played out publicly — despite the singer’s natural shyness. “Marvin’s problems can easily be understood by listening to his music,” Gordy said in the 1987 documentary series, Motown on Showtime. I come up hard, come on, get down / There’s only three things that’s for sure / Taxes, death and trouble. ‘Trouble Man’ was a song he did for a soundtrack that was, of course, probably reminiscent of his life.”

Gaye attempted suicide by cocaine overdose in Hawaii in 1980. The years leading up to the All-Star performance were taxing — physically, mentally, emotionally and financially. “About 1975 through about 1983 hasn’t been very good,” he said in a 1983 interview. “The last seven years of my life haven’t been exactly ecstatic … I’ve been happy, and most of the time pretty depressed.”

By the time of the 1983 All-Star Game, Gaye had long since returned from his self-imposed European exile. He spent two years in Ostend, Belgium, ostensibly away from failed relationships, financial woes and drugs. While there, Gaye co-wrote (with Odell Brown and David Ritz) 1982’s sultry “Sexual Healing.” But long before the Europe and “Healing,” Marvin wrote the score to the lives of many NBA All-Stars who surrounded him that February afternoon.

Marvin Gaye performs in the Netherlands.

Rob Verhorst/Redferns

“[Marvin’s music] resonated with me just growing up as a kid in the ’60s and ’70s in Chicago,” said Hall of Famer and 12-time All-Star Isiah Thomas. The two-time NBA champion and Finals MVP point guard laughs at the memory of first meeting Gaye in Hollywood — alongside Johnson — at the famous and infamous The Palladium. Thomas was surprised Gaye knew his name. “His music was our music. He really hit how we were feeling … in poverty, and our desperate cry for just recognition, and understanding.”

Abdul-Jabbar, on a break from the book tour for his Becoming Kareem: On and Off the Court, recalls running into Gaye at studio sessions for his friend Stevie Wonder’s 1976 Songs In The Key of Life. These, said the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, were among the best times ever. “Marvin Gaye was absolutely on the forefront of [artists tackling societal issues]. He was an important guy, artistically, at that time. He talked about issues that resonated in the black community in a very meaningful way.”

“You knew it was history,” Erving said, “but it was also ‘hood.”

Quite possibly the most excited for Gaye’s performance wasn’t a player, but a coach. During The Beatles phenomenon of the ’60s, Riley — much like Quincy Jones, apparently — never truly caught the wave. “I was raised on doo-wop, Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, Jimmy Smith. Then when Motown really had it course in the early ’60s, that was it for me,” he said, the enthusiasm in his voice rising with each memory. “I was all about The Four Tops and The Temptations. The Supremes.” But as for Gaye himself, “What happened in the late ’60s was a lot of what’s going on in our society today. People just not agreeing what’s happening with our government,” Riley said. “In my mind, ‘What’s Going On’ — for my lifetime — had the most impact on me than any record ever.”


“[After the game,] it was just common knowledge that whenever you talked about the anthem, everybody just pointed to it like, ‘Yeah, that was the best one that was ever done.’ Not because his techniques were good — they were — but because spiritually, in that moment, he really captured the feelings of everyone in The Forum. I’ve never been part of an anthem where everybody’s just in unison and lost control and just started moving. It was a beautiful moment.” — Isiah Thomas


Before Marvin took the floor at the Forum, there was mild panic. Then-NBA commissioner Larry O’Brien was an old school, by-the-book type of guy. O’Brien had told McIntyre during the previous day’s rehearsals, “Make sure we don’t have anything that’s going to cause a scene.”

All during the day, and right before the early afternoon tipoff, Gaye was nowhere to be found. “[Lon Rosen, Lakers’ director of promotions] hadn’t heard from Marvin or his people. They weren’t sure where he was,” McIntyre said. There’s a chuckle in his voice now. But 35 years ago it was anything but a laughing matter. “So they started looking for a backup, I think.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RZ9WdCunvy8

Arriving only moments before showtime, Gaye made his way to the floor. A longstanding myth says the notoriously recluse singer was intentionally late to avoid tension with Lakers personnel who believed his rendition was too long the day before at rehearsal. While he adjusted the microphone stand, a simple, yet infectious instrumental began playing. Lawrence Tanter, the Lakers’ public address announcer panicked. “Ah s—,” he reflected. “They’ve got the wrong tape. This is ‘Sexual Healing.’ ”

But it wasn’t. It was a simple beat dubbing a drum track done by Gaye’s guitarist and musical director Gordon Banks and a keyboard track Gaye laid down himself. And what happened next would be the only time in history the national anthem closely resembled a rhythm and blues song. There isn’t a blueprint for Gaye’s charisma. Or his showmanship. It was innate. “You could feel the vibe as soon as he walked out there,” Theus said. “He was the epitome of cool, and smooth at the same time.” Gaye’s anthem was patriotic in its own soulful way, but it was simultaneously debonair, too. Each note left his vocal chord with the pizzazz of a street crooner.

Something special was happening. Riley was standing next to Abdul-Jabbar. On the surface, Riley was calm. But his mind raced a mile a minute. “I was thinking to myself, ‘We’re about to see something very unique here,’ ” the three-time Coach of the Year said. “Then the first words came out of his mouth, and he went on. Then he went in a different pitch. It was mesmerizing to me.”

Gaye, the archbishop of swagger. “You knew it was history,” Erving said, “but it was also ‘hood.” For a two-minute stretch, the basketball world revolved around Marvin Gaye and within his gravitational pull were MVPs, world champions, former rookies of the year, future Hall of Famers and 17,505 in the stands. “We were two-stepping, listening to the national anthem,” said Johnson with a laugh. “We were just bouncing left to right. It blew us away. We just got caught into the moment of this man. People just forgot it was the national anthem.”

“We were two-stepping, listening to the national anthem,” said Johnson with a laugh.

Off the rip, the crowd swooned. They shouted and clapped as if the NBA All-Star Game had momentarily swapped places with a gospel choir. “Before you knew it, you were swaying, clapping and were like doing something to the anthem that you’d never done before in your life. Or since,” said Thomas. “It just wasn’t the players. It was the whole arena. Everyone in unison almost caught the Holy Ghost.”

“You kinda paused for a second, listening,” said Oklahoma City Thunder assistant coach Maurice Cheeks, who was making his first, as a Philadelphia 76er, of four All-Star Game appearances in 1983. Cheeks has also been head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, the Sixers and Detroit Pistons. “You looked around to see if anybody else was appreciating this the way you are … everybody was — especially the crowd.”

A roar had risen by the time And the home of the brave capped off Gaye’s rendition. He’d given the national anthem a makeover. Gaye, later in 1983, offered a self-diagnosis. His depression stemmed from a deep empathy for humanity. All he wanted was for people to listen to him. In less than three minutes on The Forum’s hardwood, he’d done just that. If only for a sliver of time, the anthem wasn’t about the stars, the stripes or whatever its original intentions were. Gaye made it a song about love, inclusion and triumph.

The crowd showered him with a standing ovation. How do we follow THAT? many of the players wondered. The walk back to the bench following the anthem was one of excitement and befuddlement. Players slapped high fives, laughed and recapped. “Everybody was like, ‘Man, he tore the house down!’ ” Johnson said, essentially yelling into the phone. “Going to the bench like, ‘Man! That was unbelievable!’ ”

As Gaye exited the floor, he pulled Erving aside. It was a brief meeting of the sex appeals. The two had met before at shows in New York, Washington, D.C., and in Virginia. “I got something coming out. You gon’ love it,” Gaye told Erving. The “it” he referred to was a then-unreleased song called “Sanctified Lady.” Unfortunately, though, only Erving would be alive to hear the record following its 1985 release.

East All-Star Julius Erving dunks one past the imposing figure of West All-Star Artis Gilmore.

Getty Images

The Eastern Conference, led by Erving’s MVP effort of 25 points, defeated the West, 132-123. But all the talk after the game centered on Gaye. The buzz was still electric. This was of course the pre-internet era. The race was to obtain any sort of recording of the performance. “I remember the conversation being, the game was great,” said Theus. “But that it wasn’t anywhere near as good as Marvin Gaye.”

“It wasn’t even about the game,” said Johnson. “The whole attention was on, ‘Is it on TV? Make sure we get a copy! Find Brian [McIntyre]!’ ”

McIntyre for his part was a bit queasy. He knew the younger generation was enamored with the performance. Lakers owner Jerry Buss, called it, even in the moment, “the greatest anthem of all time.” Yet, in the back of his mind McIntyre was dreading the older generation’s response. Of those possible complaints, O’Brien simply told McIntyre, “You have to answer them all.”

The official CBS after-party was packed. Finger foods and cocktails. David Stern, O’Brien’s eventual successor, and his wife Shelly were in attendance, as was Rick Welts (current Golden State Warriors president), Russ Granik and Gary Bettman. All anyone wanted to hear was Gaye’s anthem. “They were replaying the game [at the party], but every so often someone would say, ‘Let’s hear it again!’ ” said McIntyre. “So they’d switch it back to the anthem and play it all over again. The crowd was just into it.”


“[Marvin] died young and it’s like there was an unfulfilled promise. I’m looking at these rock bands, they’re doing all this crazy stuff, and they’re still touring. They’re still making music! Guys going into their ’60s, ’70s and hitting 80 and they’re still out there. Bill Withers is still out there making a little noise every now and then. So Marvin, what would he have been able to accomplish had he survived the demons?” — Julius “Dr. J” Erving


Much has changed. The NBA looks completely different. Players carry far more leverage than they did in 1983. The style of play has shifted to a more perimeter-based attack. And even the national anthem sounds different — in rankings and context. The biggest story of the year is NFL players kneeling during it in protest of police brutality and the state of the criminal justice system. For those who stood on the floor that day in 1983, they remain connected to Gaye’s rendition. The version sung by Whitney Houston at the 1991 Super Bowl is the only other anthem close to a comparison to Gaye’s rendition, in their eyes.

“This is what made it so special,” said Johnson. “Everybody said, ‘Wow.’ Everybody went absolutely crazy. It was blacks, whites, everybody — saying, what a moment.”

The moment was one so memorable the NBA had Marvin’s daughter, Nona, perform the same anthem “in a special duet” with her father at the 2004 All-Star Game, when it returned to Los Angeles. In a sport littered with previous anthem singers such as The Temptations, Destiny’s Child, Mary J. Blige, John Legend, Brian McKnight and more — Marvin Gaye remains on the NBA’s musical Mount Rushmore.

But how does Gaye’s anthem fit into the current conversation around it? “We have to take everything in context,” said Abdul-Jabbar. Many of the issues Gaye addressed in his music run parallels to Colin Kaepernick’s original message. “I think that people were trying to make an issue of the anthem because they didn’t want to deal with the issue Colin Kaepernick raised, which is the fact that black Americans — unarmed black Americans — should not be getting killed by police officers at the rate that they are. That’s what the issue is.”

For Theus, it’s a simple matter. “Marvin Gaye’s rendition of the national anthem superseded and surpassed any negativity that was in anyone’s mind,” he said. “When you hear something like that, you don’t hear the national anthem that everyone is talking about today. It was another national anthem that we were listening to. You can’t relate the two.”

“So Marvin, what would he have been able to accomplish had he survived the demons?” — Julius “Dr. J” Erving

Ten days after the All-Star Game, for “Sexual Healing,” Gaye was awarded the only two Grammys of his career. “I’ve waited … 20-something years to win an award like this,” he said in his acceptance speech. He thanked God, his children, his mother, and his fans. He did not, however, thank his father. Almost prophetically, he closed the speech saying, “Stay with us, we’re gonna try and give you more.” Gaye embarked on what would be his final tour in the summer of 1983. He traveled with, and kept a preacher in one room. His drugs in another. In a figurative sense, Gaye stood between heaven and hell throughout his Midnight Love tour.

Marvin Gaye holds ones of his Grammys.

Ron Galella/WireImage

“I expose myself because the fans demand it,” he told his ex-wife Jan Gaye. “I offer myself up for slaughter. I am the sacrificial lamb. If their pleasure requires my destruction, so be it.”

By the Detroit stop, Gaye was a zombie. “After the performance, we got back to the dressing room,” Mel Farr recalled of his final meeting with Gaye. (Farr died in 2015.) “He had all those hangers-on giving him this drug and this drug. I said, ‘Wow, man. I don’t think he’s going to make it.’ It was that bad.”

Four-hundred fourteen days following his anthem, on April 1, 1984, Gaye was murdered by his father, Marvin Gay Sr., a day shy of what would have been his Marvin Jr.’s 45th birthday. The house where the killing took place was but seven miles from The Forum. Toward the end of his life, as he battled voices in his head, Gaye still understood the importance of Feb. 13, 1983. “I asked God,” he said, “that when I sang [that anthem] that it would move men’s souls.”

He most certainly moved Riley, who keeps hours upon hours upon hours of Gaye’s and Motown’s greatest hits near him at all times. The Miami Heat president still keeps a framed picture of himself, Abdul-Jabbar and the Western Conference All-Stars lined up watching Gaye. Call it his way of paying homage to an artist he says changed his life and enhanced his perspectives long before the NBA came calling. Thirty-five years later, after the 1983 All-Star Game, from his South Florida office, there’s pride and sorrow in his voice.

“I’m privileged to have been there at that moment when this icon sang that song. The people that were in that arena that day saw something unique, probably changed people to some extent,” Riley said. “The tragic way that Marvin died was something that was very depressing for a lot of people. I know it was for me. But,” he said, “[Marvin will] always be in my heart because I hear his voice all the time. You never forget people like this.”

Forty years later, George Clinton’s Mothership is still landing A look back at the P-Funk — and a look ahead

George Clinton, the big-picture man behind the music juggernaut that came to be known as P-Funk, talked big trash on Parliament’s Chocolate City, tormenting white keepers of the status quo about the African-American majorities in the nation’s capital and other urban cities bogarting local political power. The large-scale power grab, Clinton fantasized on the album’s title song, was a prelude to electing the first black president of the United States — Muhammad Ali.

Provocative ideas for the time (early 1975), yes. But Clinton had larger targets in mind and knew where he had to go to hit them. He had to go astro. “We had put blacks in places where they had never been perceived to be,” Clinton said in an interview with The Undefeated. “So the next one was to have blacks in outer space, and I knew that a clones concept would get it too. It was thought of even before we did the Mothership Connection studio album.”

The “it” that Clinton speaks of was a funk attack of successive studio albums by Parliament, 1975’s Mothership Connection and 1976’s The Clones of Dr. Funkenstein, with tales of blacks as street-savvy “afronauts” returning to Earth to reclaim secrets hidden inside Egyptian pyramids, including “using science to cheat death.”

Those record projects begot the P-Funk Earth Tour in 1976 and ’77. The concert offered pimps as stage characters, lyrics that equated the band’s music style, uncut funk, with pure cocaine and a prop that the Smithsonian Institution describes as the most iconic stage prop ever: “A huge, multicolored-lights-flashing, smoke-spitting spaceship that landed onstage during a gospel-heavy call-and-response rendition of ‘Swing Down, Sweet Chariot’ ” that whipped audiences into spiritual frenzy.

“Only if P-Funk could sell their records to a mass pop audience, and thus encourage whites to attend their concerts in force, would whites feel safe.”

And off the spaceship came Dr. Funkenstein, one of Clinton’s lasting musical characters, in a floor-length fur coat striking a pimp pose with his index finger held straight beneath his nostrils.

Parliament’s label then, Casablanca Records, captured the hugely successful tour on record, releasing Parliament Live: P-Funk Earth Tour on May 5, 1977. Acknowledging the 40th anniversary of the double-album release, Clinton talked about how the tour came together and why the band’s music and philosophies, particularly from that double album, have endured for generations. Ever the salesman, Clinton also took the opportunity to hype “I’m Gonna Make You Sick,” which, when released this fall, will be the first Parliament song to be released since 1980.

Need convincing of the Live P-Funk Earth Tour’s impact? A replica of the original mothership anchors the Musical Crossroads exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Music from the album has been sampled by a who’s who of hip-hop: Common, 50 Cent, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Digable Planets, Public Enemy and Ice Cube. Listen closely to the opening drum rolls on Kendrick Lamar’s 2012 “The Heart Pt. 3 (Will You Let It Die)” and it’s clear the inspiration came from P-Funk drummer Jerome “Bigfoot” Brailey’s drum intro on the live version of “Do That Stuff.” The influence on Lamar can also be heard on To Pimp A Butterfly’s “King Kunta” (2015): A female vocalist repeats, “We want the funk” in a nod to the Earth Tour’s “Tear the Roof Off the Sucker.” Afrofuturism artists such as the Sa-Ra Creative Partners and Flying Lotus acknowledge that their baptism into the movement came from the P-Funk Earth Tour.

“It was a dream of myself and Neil Bogart of Casablanca Records,” Clinton said. “He did it for us, Kiss and Donna Summer at the same time. He was a promotion man. He got behind us and backed all of us. And then we had the music from Bernie Worrell, Bootsy Collins, Garry Shider, Glenn Goins, Fred Wesley and Maceo, Eddie Hazel. He knew, especially after Chocolate City, that we knew what we were doing.”

Rickey Vincent, a lecturer in African-American studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of the 1996 book Funk The Music, The People, And the Rhythm of The One, said the P-Funk Earth Tour was a logical culmination in the mid- to late 1970s toward larger shows and profits in the music business. But there was more to it. “George can say he was just clowning, but at the same time he understands the ethos of soul music,” Vincent said. “And that is to put black people in a better place. You don’t have to be an ethnomusicologist to understand a lot of underlying themes in black music into the ’70s was ‘We’re going to be free.’ You can’t get much freer than outer space and reclaiming the power that came with building pyramids in Africa.”

Clinton has never claimed to be a guru. He shuns such talk. To hear him tell it, he just wanted to be big. Actually, the biggest. “The Who, David Bowie, Rolling Stones. I’d seen them all do those big shows, big productions, and I wanted to do one with funk music,” Clinton said. “I wanted to have a prop that not only was deeper than anything that any black group had done but bigger than any white group had done.”

The Earth Tour was a massive undertaking. And costly. Clinton said Parliament’s record label set up a $1 million loan for him, and he turned to Jules Fisher, a Tony Award-winning lighting designer whose work included Jesus Christ Superstar and Chicago. Fisher designed the stage set and props for Earth Tour, according to Clinton.

The show demanded that the band, famous for its onstage looseness and improvisation that could stretch a four-minute studio song into a 20-minute live jam, play and move with discipline. The show was essentially scripted. So the band needed to rehearse, and it did for two or three weeks, Clinton said, at a onetime airplane hangar in Newburgh, New York. He put Maceo Parker, the saxophone player who had joined P-Funk after years with James Brown, in charge. “Anybody from the James Brown bands, I don’t care if it’s Bootsy, Maceo, Fred Wesley, you learn so much discipline,” Clinton said. “They can pretty much run s—. And Maceo and Fred are so diplomatic. They know the writing side, they know the musician side. They made it so much easier.

“With the [P-Funk Earth Tour], we had props moving around. You had to be in a certain spot at a certain time. If not, that spaceship might knock upside your head.”

The Earth Tour opened on Oct. 26, 1976, at the Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans. The band discovered right away that the show’s “script” was all wrong. “They had the mothership land first, at the opening of the show. That was the climax. As great as the band was, there was nothing we could do to top that spaceship landing,” Clinton said.

By the next show, the mothership landing came near the concert’s end. With that change, audience excitement and anticipation for seeing the mothership soared. And singer/guitarist Goins took full advantage. His vocal pleading with the audience to join him in calling for the mothership to land during a psychedelic, funky-church arrangement of “Swing Down, Sweet Chariot” elevated the live show to what many describe as a religious experience.

The energy jumps off the record. Brailey’s thumping foot on the bass drum. (“We want it to feel like a heartbeat,” Clinton said on the recording.) Worrell’s keyboard and synthesizer strokes filling in around, behind and on top of the rhythms. The crowd in the Oakland Coliseum clapping in unison on The One and answering Goins’ call for the mothership, singing, “Swing down sweet chariot stop and let me ride.”

The mothership lands. Audience screams fill the venue. They explode louder still when Clinton as Dr. Funkenstein disembarks the spaceship.

“It was like I was going back to church,” said Vincent, who witnessed the Earth Tour as a teenager. “They were signifying, bringing back those dreams.”

Parliament Live P-Funk Earth Tour captured all that sound and emotion during shows in January 1977 at the Los Angeles Forum and the Oakland Coliseum. The album offered live versions of hit after hit: “P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up),” “Do That Stuff,” “Mothership Connection,” “Dr. Funkenstein,” “Tear the Roof off the Sucker,” “Undisco Kidd.” Eleven live songs in all, plus three new studio cuts.

The release stayed on the Billboard 200 album charts for 19 weeks, a May through September achievement even more impressive because the music was undeniably black and urban — as were most of the audiences at the Earth Tour shows. At that point, even with huge promotion from Parliament’s record label and free publicity generated by coverage of the never-before-seen spaceship landing in mainstream newspapers and newsweekly magazines, P-Funk Earth Tour had gained little crossover traction. Why? In early September 1977, John Rockwell, a writer for The New York Times, offered white fear as an explanation.

A replica of the original mothership anchors the Musical Crossroads exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.

“P-Funk music isn’t a real mass success yet because whites have grown afraid of black concerts in general. … In the big urban centers it’s mostly a black crowd, and whether it’s realistic or not, whites seem to be scared: There are too many reports of black gangs terrorizing isolated whites at black concerts,” Rockwell wrote. “Only if P-Funk could sell their records to a mass pop audience, and thus encourage whites to attend their concerts in force, would whites feel safe. But since their dazzling stage show helps sell the records, they have a self-perpetuating problem.”

Still, the album achieved platinum status. That summer, Billboard 200 album charts listed live concert albums from Marvin Gaye, Al Jarreau, Lonnie Liston Smith, the Bee Gees and two from the Beatles. In early August 1977, 16 of Billboard’s Top 200 albums were live concert recordings. In the same time span this summer, not a single live album was on the Billboard 200 chart. Live concert audio releases are no longer a thing, and not just because of DVDs.

Vincent, the funk history author, believes that artists take some of the blame for the disappearance of live concert recordings. In the late 1980s, he said, standards for live performances were lowered and bad reviews followed. Demand for lackluster concert recordings nose-dived, Vincent said.

Dexter Story, a Los Angeles-based musician and producer who has been marketing director for record labels such as Priority, Bad Boy and Def Jam, thinks fans just turned to a different product to get what they used to get from live records.

“People like bonus material — remixes,” Story said. “Back then, in ’77, the live album was the bonus material. As a fan, getting live albums was a treat. The live interpretations of what the musicians had done in the studio were a treat as well.”

In late July, Story produced a show for the venerable Grand Performances summer concert series in Los Angeles. It was called Mothership Landing: Funk and The Afrofuturist Universe of ’77. Music from the P-Funk Earth Tour dominated the set. “They asked me what I wanted to do,” Story said. “I chose to focus on 1977 and Afrofuturism. It was a great opportunity for me to go back to my funk roots.”

Music from P-Funk — Parliament, Funkadelic, Bootsy’s Rubber Band, the Horny Horns and others — carried the show. “As I started to transcribe their music for the concert, I found out it was a lot more complicated and complex. There was a complexity to that music that I hadn’t fully appreciated.”

That music — much of it credited to Clinton, Worrell and Collins — is one reason P-Funk has endured, Story believes. “They were laying a foundational aspect of rhythm that was informed by James Brown and Sly Stone,” Story said. “On top of that, they added jazz-influenced horns … four- and five-part horn harmonies. The horn players were jazz musicians. Another level was the church sound in the voices, gospel-influenced vocals. And still another level was Bernie Worrell. He was speaking on keyboards to me. From piano to organ to Moog, he was speaking.

“Lastly, you’ve got the layer of George Clinton on top of all of that great sound. I just gave you the ingredients of a P-Funk sandwich,” Story said. “Now, go ahead. Take a bite.”

A number of the musicians and vocalists who performed on P-Funk Earth Tour record have died. They include Worrell, Garry “Diaperman” Shider, Goins, Richard “Kush” Griffith, Cordell “Boogie” Mosson and Ray Davis. Among the other players, only former Bootsy’s Rubber Band vocalist Gary “Mudbone” Cooper currently tours with Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic. Michael “Kidd Funkadelic” Hampton, Brailey, Fuzzy Haskins, Calvin Simon, Grady Thomas, Parker, Wesley, Rick Gardner, Lynn Mabry, Dawn Silva, Debbie Wright and Jeanette Washington have left the touring band. Some still show up on P-Funk-related studio projects, such as Funkadelic’s 33-song First, You Gotta Shake the Gate, released in 2014.

The massive change in touring personnel isn’t surprising, considering four decades have passed since the P-Funk Earth Tour. So much time has passed that Clinton’s Chocolate City is no longer majority black, and his fantasy of a black U.S. president actually happened. But Clinton tinkers with the band regularly. Adds new musicians. Brings back former ones. Introduces new sounds such as violin, mandolin and the didgeridoo.

“It’s hard to keep a band together over time. We get older and settled down, and want to do other things,” he said. “And there’s always a need for young legs and vibes. Younger players bring an energy. And you need that, especially the way I push the band. You have to have young legs to be out there.”

For his latest iteration of Parliament Funkadelic, Clinton leans heavily on family. There’s his son, Tracey Lewis Clinton, and three of Tracey’s children; Clinton’s stepdaughter; and another of his grandchildren, this one the daughter of Clinton’s daughter, Barbarella Bishop. The drummer, Benzel Cowan, is the son of longtime and current P-Funk trumpet player Bennie Cowan. And guitarist and vocalist Garrett Shider is the son of Shider, the band’s diaper-wearing musical director who served as Clinton’s No. 2 from the early ’80s until his death in 2010.

“Garrett was born into the band,” Clinton said. “He’d be backstage with his mother, Linda. We called him ‘Soundcheck.’ ” In keeping the strong family theme, Garrett Shider recently released his first solo CD, Hand Me Down Diapers. It includes contributions from George and Tracey Clinton and other P-Funk band members. The project is a heartfelt tribute to his father and sounds like Funkadelic during the Hardcore Jollies days.

“George was really good when my father passed, bringing me into the group,” said Garrett Shider, who joined Clinton on the road full time in 2011. “He knew I needed some help. It was his way of making sure he was looking out for his right-hand man’s son.”

Such strong family connections in the music business aren’t commonplace now, and if they exist, they aren’t factored into artists’ branding. That wasn’t always so. Black music groups often made family connections, real or contrived, part of their marketing strategy. The Jackson 5. The Five Stairsteps. Sly and the Family Stone. The Isley Brothers. The Sylvers, Pointer Sisters, The Brothers Johnson, DeBarge, and Earth, Wind & Fire. More recently, there’s Jodeci. And, of course, Wu-Tang Clan.

“There are not a lot of groups anymore, first of all,” Clinton said. “Hip-hop artists have different styles, and so many are focused on an individual. Plus, the record companies will try to separate you anyway. Wu-Tang has done it well.” For Clinton, bringing in family was relatively easy. “They all grew up together, basically. They knew each other,” he said.

“They were all doing different styles of music, and they were doing well. We were able to put them together. Younger musicians do things differently. They don’t mind sometimes playing live over recorded backing tracks. We just play on top of it. You get the best of both worlds.”

Clinton said he will release his first Parliament studio project since 1980’s Trombipulation by the end of 2017. It’s called Medicaid Fraud Dog. The first single from the album, “I’m Gonna Make You Sick,” should be released by the end of October.

“My son, Tracey, and my stepdaughter, Brandi, did a lot of work on the album,” Clinton said. “Lots of good sounds and grooves on it. Scarface is on the single. We’re doing three or four remixes. Junie Morrison [former member of P-Funk] was working on one of the remixes when he died.”

He plans for the single to be available just before he takes a short break from his current tour. Clinton still performs more than 200 live dates annually. “We still sell out all over the world,” Clinton said. “We work, ’cause it’s a job.”

Music might be a healant just like it was 50 years ago, in the summer of ’67 What we need now is love and a song like ‘All Around the World’

“People hand in hand

Have I lived to see the milk and honey land?

Where hate’s a dream and love forever stands

Or is this a vision in my mind?”

— Stevie Wonder, “Visions”


Some people remember 1967 as a very good year for pop music, from Aretha Franklin singing “Respect” to Frank and Nancy Sinatra singing “Something Stupid.” They remember a summer of love that gave way to a fall where the Beatles sang “All You Need is Love,” a simple declaration of interdependence and an enduring international anthem for complex and ever-changing times.

In 1967, in some important ways, things were getting better all the time. The Loving v. Virginia decision struck down bans against interracial marriage in the United States. Thurgood Marshall was named the nation’s first black Supreme Court justice, and Carl Stokes was elected the first black mayor from a major American city, Cleveland.

But 1967 was a year inflamed by strife, too; war raged in the Middle East and in Vietnam. Cities such as Detroit, Newark, New Jersey, and other places burned across America. Richard Nixon marshaled white resentment in his march toward the Republican nomination for president.

Which is to say, 1967 was a year of turmoil and triumph, just as every year is, including this one, a time when new walls of exclusion are championed and old monuments commemorating Confederate soldiers and officers come down.

From the mid-’60s through the mid-’70s, we were blessed with music that tended to heal and enlighten, inspire and challenge.

Today, when political lies threaten to trump moral truths and profits trump creativity, the music doesn’t salve society’s wounds as it once did or seemed to.

But earlier this month, I heard two veteran bluesmen perform a song the nation badly needs: “All Around the World.” The song, co-written by blues master and Grammy winner Keb’ Mo’, is an upbeat call-and-response tune. Backed by a tight band, Mo’ and his touring partner, Grammy winner Taj Mahal, ripped through the song in New York’s Central Park.

Like Stevie Wonder’s “Visions” in the 1970s, “All Around the World” imagines a world spinning on an axis of love:

There’ll be love all around the world (All around the world)/ There’ll be peace and understanding (All around the world) …

Neither I nor the song advocates a fey and feckless love that merely prompts us to forgive our tormentors, again and again. The love we need and the love the song talks about gives society a powerful emotion, strong enough to stare down evil and douse the torches lit by bigotry, ignorance and injustice in Charlottesville, Virginia, and all around the world.

Keb’ Mo’ and Taj Mahal, who have a new CD out and are touring under the banner TajMo, performed their rousing song on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert to a rapturous response. It’s the kind of song I can imagine John Legend recording with a gospel choir and a rap break by somebody like Chance the Rapper. It’s the kind of song I could see everyone from Ariana Grande to Garth Brooks to Kirk Franklin adding to their live shows. It’s the kind of song I can imagine becoming a thumping recessional tune in various houses of worship or at rallies for an America that lives up to its majestic promise for all its people.

It’s the kind of song I can imagine being recorded by a cross-section of artists, a kind of “We Are the World” for the 21st century, in the name of social equality or world peace.

Like other masters of the form, Keb’ Mo’ and Taj Mahal play a blues that’s animated by joy. They sing and play the way Ella Fitzgerald sang her songs, the way Louis Armstrong blew his trumpet, the way Stephen Curry dribbles his basketball, with joy and love. And that’s what we’ll need to come together and make a better tomorrow.

All around the world.