America Is A Really Good Mix Tape
Some time after President Obama’s inauguration, Will.i.am and David Foster collaborated on a somewhat treacly anthem entitled “America’s Song.” Hearing the song at the time made me reflect upon the kind of new, post-Inauguration wave of patriotism that rolled across the country and how the days leading up to July 4th seemed to have a different buzz to them. It also occurred to me that a singular anthem could never really reflect our country’s tremendously complex past.
While there is of course The National Anthem and a whole string of patriotic praise songs like “America The Beautiful,” “You’re A Grand Old Flag,” and “My Country Tis of Thee,” even those iconic songs cover only a part of our country’s complicated history. For this reason, I thought that U.S.’s soundtrack is more akin to a really good mix tape. A really good mix tape would be true to this country’s inherently hybrid national identity (whether people want to acknowledge it or not).
In some ways, the Obama family challenged the persistent narrative about our national identity, which manufactures a far whiter, far more heteronormative, and far less inclusive vision of the American populace. As this New York Times piece points out, the Obama family is incredibly diverse and home to many different cultures, all ‘American’, whether by birth, immigration or by forced re-location to the North American continent.
The Obama family presents a vision of a national identity that is inherently diverse, multicultural and hybrid in its nature. That’s the reality of the American identity despite attempts to erase the more colorful aspects of the culture. From the fluid migrations and interactions of indigenous peoples from North and South America to the mélange of indentured servants and colonists who marked our shores pre-slavery and even in the face of the evil institution of slavery, a hybrid/Creole culture was born. To me this sort of pedigree cries out for a mix tape to be its soundtrack. Because it would be way too hard for me to make a mix tape with a few definitive songs, I’ll share with you a list of a few artists whose back story and music speak to the fundamentally mixed roots of our country’s internal groove. Behold, a not so complete list of artists on Michelle’s American Mix Tape:
A few years ago, I uncovered some interesting work about the influence of Native American music on the blues during one of my genealogy research frenzies. That genealogy search quickly morphed into a full-on music downloading and CD buying binge. When the dust settled, I had a crazy pile of music made by some incredible musicians including one of my favorite singers of all time,Pura Fe. Pura Fe is very vocal about the roots, particularly the Tuscarora roots, of the blues. If you listen to her solo work or even the songs from her time with the group Ulali, you can hear some of what I like to think of as seriously American music.
These last few years, I’ve gotten really heavy into Bobby Womack. He blows me away. There’s something about the scratch in his voice when it gives way to a really beautiful note that gets me every time. He moves from gospel to the blues to rock to R&B to pop and back again so effortlessly that he defies all superficial, socially constructed labels.
BANDA BLACK RIO
One of my best friends turned me onto Banda Black Rio during one of our wild weekends in D.C. at a time when I could stay awake past nine o’clock. Banda is an Afro-Brasilian band heavily influenced by Earth, Wind and Fire and by Brasil’s own “Black Is Beautiful” renaissance in the 70s. This band’s music for me connects the post-slavery experiences brown people in North America and South America in a profound way. Their music also reminds me of how much history I share with people of African descent brought as slaves to other countries all over the world.
I love me some Shuggie Otis. I love his music and I love his family’s story. His dad, Johnny Otis was one of those “white” singers like the late, great Teena Marie who somehow managed to bust out of the social confines of “whiteness” into some truly amazing musical territory. Shuggie’s mom Phyllis was black and most people, mistakenly thought his dad Johnny was a light-skinned black man when he was in fact of Greek heritage.
Before she died, I had the honor to see the incredible Teena Marie live in NYC. Lady T to me is pure American Creole culture. She’s not a simple soul mimic because her music comes from somewhere before European immigrants became “white” in this country. Her voice is pure feeling and telenovela emotion. She was deeply connected to black people and to the black community throughout her life in a way that lifted her from the path of privileged appropriation.
Next on my list is Robbie Robertson. Robertson is mixed Jewish and Mohawk from the Six Nations reserve in Canada. I love The Band and even more than The Band I love his work with the Red Road Ensemble on the soundtrack Music for the Native Americans. His work with The Band found its roots in folk, blues and country and in The Last Waltz he talks a bit about how his Native heritage influenced his music.
Much more than the singer of a catchy, iconic Christmas song, Jose Feliciano is serious, serious music. He’s another singer in the vein of Bobby Womack who can take you for a trip around the world standing perfectly still. Feliciano is Puerto Rican and with him comes the history of the U.S.’s peculiar relationship with this little island. He represents America and all its complexities. For that reason, whatever American Mix Tape you make, you need a little Jose to make it complete.
Carly Simon. From one of this country’s wealthiest families and with a mom, Andrea Louise Heinemann, who was “bi-racial,” Carly Simon is a living embodiment of this country’s complicated racial history. I love her music and her ex James Taylor is one of my all time favorites. She recorded this really obscure song called “Why” that was remixed and produced by the great Nile Rodgers adding another piece to the jigsaw puzzle of her hybrid identity and music.
What artists would you include on your American Mix Tape and why?