On the sound of black joy

The music filled me with joy; the music made me feel free, even when the lyrics were speaking to conditions of struggle.

 (<a href='https://www.bigstockphoto.com/image-2146292/stock-photo-record-player-red'>M.G.J.</a>/Big Stock Photo)

(M.G.J./Big Stock Photo)

WHYY celebrates Black History Month with Philly.com by publishing essays for their series Black History Untold: Joy, culminating in a live event at WHYY on Tuesday, Feb. 28. Convening African American community leaders, the program features networking over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, live entertainment, and a panel discussion co-moderated by the Inquirer’s Sofiya Ballin and WHYY’s The Remix host Dr. James Peterson.

My parents had a record player.

It was in one of those boxy stereo units with a double cassette deck and a radio tuner. Growing up in the ’80s, my first musical purchases were cassettes, but my first musical loves came from records. My parents kept a huge collection of soul, Motown, R&B, and gospel albums in cardboard boxes in our basement, and on lazy Saturday afternoons I’d go digging for treasures. I spent hours lying on the crimson shag carpet, introducing myself to their collection of black musical artists.

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There was Gladys Knight, who my mother says “always read my moods; when she was in love, I was in love, and when she was crying, I was crying, too.” There was the original Broadway cast album of “The Wiz,” which included “I Was Born on the Day Before Yesterday,” a melancholy-turned-hopeful song that was cut from the film version but always made me want to cry and want to dance.

It’s on that patch of a rug that’s long since been replaced, listening to a device that’s long since broken down and been thrown out, that I learned about the complicated emotional scaffolding of life through black music. What’s that Frankie Beverly and Maze lyric? “Joy and pain. Sunshine and rain.” Yeah, like that.

The music filled me with joy; the music made me feel free, even when the lyrics were speaking to conditions of struggle. I felt this, especially, when listening to gospel — songs about the troubles of this world, which reassured me that they wouldn’t last always. I was 10; I didn’t know from troubles. But I felt the music in a way that was new and deep and affirming.

It was into this education that Sounds of Blackness burst like that substitute teacher who’s all cool vibes and information that’s going to blow your weave back. It was 1991; Sounds of Blackness’ debut album, “The Evolution of Gospel,” showed up in our house in cassette form and virtually never left the cassette deck. Its mix of spirituals, ragtime, jazz, gospel, and house music was mind-blowing to me. It was energetic and rapturous and devout and revolutionary.

It spoke to every part of who I was and who I would become: a black man, an artist, a queer person, a person of faith. Past, present, and future collapse into one. It was, as the kids say, everything.

One of the album’s singles, “Optimistic,” was a revelation: a mid-tempo inspirational anthem with a C&C Music Factory-esque vibe. Written by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, with Sounds of Blackness founder Gary Hines, it had a classic, driving synth beat that you know from early Janet Jackson and later New Edition. The simple refrain went “You can win as long as you keep your head to the sky/ Be optimistic.” It spoke to me, and I played it until the cassette tape wore out and the sound came out slow and slurry like honey.

As with much of the great music of the ’90s, I hadn’t thought about Sounds of Blackness in years.

But then a few weeks ago, it showed up in the most improbable of places.

One of my favorite Twitter personalities, Jay Versace, posted a video of himself and some friends dancing in the middle of the street to the Sounds of Blackness song. I was shocked. Jay Versace is 20 years old. He wasn’t even born in 1991 when I was lying on my parents rug, rewinding their cassette ad nauseum.

But yet, there he was, milly-rocking in traffic. I should note, I had to look up the exact term of the dance because, as I mentioned, I was born in the ’80s. But terminology didn’t really matter. If I couldn’t name it, I knew it. I was watching joy, manifested in the form of a 20-year-old queer black man dancing in traffic to a ’90s throwback. This was carefree blackness writ large.

And again, past and present and future collapsed into each one. Sounds of Blackness was putting out empowerment anthems into a difficult and uncertain time. And 25 years later, these seemingly carefree black men have found this song, its message and an inherent joy despite the odds and in spite of the political climate. I don’t think it’s accidental; I don’t think it’s insignificant. I know it’s not easy.

When Sounds of Blackness sings “you can win as long as you keep your head to the sky” as black men dance under clouds that threaten a storm, we are with them now and also in 1991, in a moment of such promise and yet such crushing structural oppression. We are with them in the L.A. Riots, we are with them in the Million Man March. We are with each other in the moments since, and in this moment and in the moments to come.

Joy. And Pain. Sunshine. And Rain. Yeah, like that.

R. Eric Thomas is a Barrymore Award-winning playwright and stand-up dramedian. He is the long-running host of The Moth in Philadelphia. He writes a regular humor column for Elle.com, and he frequently lectures on intersectional comedy and narrative structure.

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