There has been much to move a soul to tears in 2016.
A year ago, would anyone have believed how many beloved public figures would pass away within just a short 12-month span?* A year ago, would anyone have guessed that the most apt “elevator pitch” for the story 2016 in politics** would be a tale of resentment, the rise of the far-right, and with it a resurgent risk of racism?
Tears are not an inappropriate response to the hand that 2016 has dealt us thus far.
But tears can also be born from joy and thankfulness. There are always reasons for tears of joy as well as of sorrow in our world.
What music’s worlds offer us
Music is an endless source of joy, of escape, of inspiration and new perspectives. There is a purity of feeling that only music can access. If it were possible to put into words what music’s worlds offer us, music wouldn’t need to exist.
Recently, I saw the purest expression of what music can mean to a soul. In his excellent BBC4 documentary The Hip Hop World News, UK rapper Rodney P was moved to tears at the prospect of being just minutes away from meeting his lifelong hero and inspiration, Chuck D of Public Enemy.
Rappers only rarely seem to let their guard down, to permit a crack in their armour to allow their true emotions to seep through. I salute Rodney P for perhaps the best illustration I’ve ever seen of what it is to be a music fan.
“I’m so lucky to be here,” says Rodney P through his tears. He describes the transformative effect that hearing early PE classic Miuzi Weighs a Ton had on him more than 30 years back, and how Chuck D’s ethos changed the path of his life:
“It was like Chuck D wanted me to be a better person.”***
‘Who could be blind to racism?’
This week, a brand-new record brought tears of joy and of gratitude to my eyes.
The new and necessarily final album from A Tribe Called Quest We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service is the most remarkable and unexpected breath of musical fresh air. 18 years on from their last (and rather patchy) album, it is an against-the-odds wonder. For once we have a musical comeback that is easily the equal of the artists’ very best work from decades past. The band reconnects perfectly with the endlessly fresh, endlessly funky and endlessly lyrically inventive spirit of their classic era.
This record could also not be more of the moment.
Recorded during the dismally toxic presidential election campaign, and released two days after Trump’s win, the politics of 2016 inform many of the album’s lyrics (there’s even a song called The Donald). Two lyrical soundbites couldn’t be any more relevant to the current situation:
“’Who could be blind to racism?” – Q-Tip on Movin Backwards.
“As if this country ain’t already ruined…” – Phife Dawg on Conrad Tokyo.
It also could not be a more 2016 record for another, quite tragic reason. Rapper and foundational Tribe member Phife Dawg died in March 2016, midway through the recording, from complications related to diabetes.****
Phife’s friends chose to finish the album, both as tribute to their lost member and to create a symbolic moment of passing the torch for young musicians to continue the Tribe’s questing spirit (with Kendrick Lamar at their forefront).
People’s instinctive travels
With Phife’s passing, this was a record produced in tears. In a Guardian interview this week, lead rapper Q-Tip talks of how the band’s remaining members would frequently cry when they heard the dearly departed Phife’s voice booming out of the speakers during mixing. But the record is alive with the joyous spirit of their earliest albums:
"I feel like it’s given us a sense of catharsis, completion and closure. I think Phife Dawg has left me personally with the understanding that you do fight for what you love, and you do go through hell and back to get to it, and then, when you get to it, you approach it with joy and zeal. With freedom.”
Joy and zeal were everywhere during the recording process while Phife was still here:
“It was sheer inspiration, which really comes from a higher spirit.”
Speaking of his bitter disappointment at Trump’s victory, Q-Tip
offers words that can equally serve as a guide for all of us on dealing
with the setbacks on people’s instinctive travels through life:
“What can you do? You can’t wallow in it. You’ve just got to charge ahead.”
Update 1: ‘To work on behalf of all of us…’
Another instance of the spirit of hip hop engaging with the politics of 2016. It seems that last night (Friday 18 November 2016), Vice President Elect Pence took in a performance of hip hop musical Hamilton. The cast had a quite beautiful message for Pence directly after the show.
Update 2: Fair news and foul from NYC
Fair news and foul regarding the public recognition of hip hop in NYC.
Firstly, the fair: My friend Mervyn Dinnnen shared with me a Stereogum article reporting the following excellent news:“The intersection of 192nd St and Linden Boulevard in A Tribe Called Quest’s native Queens, NY was just renamed Malik ‘Phife Dawg’ Taylor Way in honor of the late rapper.”
Secondly, the foul: I saw via a tweet from @beastieboys that Adam Yauch Park (named in honour of the Beastie Boys member Adam “MCA” Yauch, who tragically died from cancer in 2012) in Brooklyn Heights, NY, has been vandalised with swastikas and pro-Trump slogans. There is to be an event at 11.30am today (Sunday 20 November 2016) in the park “to stand against hate messages.” I wish that I could be there.
* The accelerated manner in which 2016 has taken a scythe to the world of celebrity is well illustrated by the image below:
** Or if words are just too over, maybe a pictorial elevator pitch for politics 2016 will suffice here?
*** I’m having to paraphrase here. How I wish I could find a clip of this moment to share with you, gentle reader. Should I happen across one, I will update this post accordingly. In the meantime, you can at least read a detailed piece on the documentary, via The Source (this is also from whence the picture of Rodney P in the above post is sourced).
**** The A Tribe Called Quest documentary (trailer below) is recommended viewing for everyone, regardless of your interest in hip hop. It’s a beautifully made and told story of a quartet of sweet, somewhat geeky kids finding joy, freshness and success through music. It must also be the only musical tale in which not hard drugs but sweets and fizzy pop (especially Dr Pepper) are at the core of the band’s downfall. Diabetes is no joke. Visit Diabetes UK to find out more about the condition, and please consider making a donation.
The picture at the top of the page is a detail from a portrait of Phife Dawg, via Wikimedia Commons. Here’s the full pic: