by Push Nevahda
Black ghetto life is so absurd, pointless, hopeless and meaningless that one has to laugh to keep from crying, or go to the dance club to vent the frustration, fear, anxiety and anger rather than let life’s tragicomic existence send us to the asylum or the grave. The tragicomic motif is best seen in black comedy and black music. Black comedy validates and affirms the black ghetto experience while black music cushions the pain of such an experience, sustains the faith, and redirects the heart and mind from things that would otherwise propel one towards suicide, homicide or fratricide.
As one who has spent much of his early life living in the inner-city, I am personally aware of the tragicomic mode of ghetto-life, and the inter-play between music and comedy in such a situation. The way in which the black comedians (especially the ones on BET) bear witness to what is funny yet comforting to black folk because we are glad that somebody understands the depth of our struggle. In other words, black comedians validate the ghetto experience therefore reaffirming our sanity (at which sometime or another one is certain they have lost). Much of Black life contains those salient dimensions of the tragicomic experience where we are often left to cry and laugh – or laugh to keep from crying – of our dilemma.
The late comic genius Richard Pryor was not necessarily trying to be comical but rather tell what it was like to be black in America. The humor in Pryor’s stand-up was in how raw and rich his stories, analogies, anecdotes and characters seemed – particularly to whites, most of who were completely out of touch with the everyday strivings of black ghetto life. For black audiences, Pryor’s humorous testimonials revealed the essence of what it meant to be black in America. Black folks laughed because Pryor had the gall to be so bold with the truth. Too, blacks realized through Pryor that they’d actually survived and strived through tumultuous times (or, as Curtis Mayfield would say, they managed to “keep keepin’ on”.)
Music is the language of black folk. It is how we articulate ourselves. Black music sustains blacks in the ghetto. Especially inner-city blacks, for whom life can be so ridiculous, that one has to go to the dance club to unwind from the long and arduous week of working, hustling, stealing, conning, begging, pillaging, scheming, blaming, cussing, and doing whatever else it takes to keep ones head above sea-level. So, when the weekend finally arrives, it’s time to release the pent-up frustration and anger, and let it go. And what better way to let it all go than with the titillating elixir of Hennessey, and the Isley Brothers soothing, soulful, and syrupy love ballad, Voyage To Atlantis. And, for the true bona-fide, dedicated, unionized, card-carrying member of the ghetto elite there is nothing comparable to sitting in the club listening to R. Kelly sing about the complex events and dramatic moments of black ghetto love, sex, lies and romance. This is what R. Kelly means when he sings in “Happy People”: “Where do we go soon as the weekend gets here/The club/Why?/ To party and have some fun/What is it that, Can come and take away all your stress, tell me/Music/No further questions, you have passed my test…”
I’d personally note R. Kelly – along with the rappers – as one of few artists to have fully grasped the tragicomic experiences of black ghetto life. For Kelly, the dance club serves as an alternative to the dangerous and frightening imminence of soul-death and ghetto-murder. Shuckin’, jivin’, gossip, conversations, afro-rhythmic dancing (aka ball-roomin’, steppin’ and the hustle), stress-quenchin’ drinking, and soul-stirring music necessarily beset the place and space for blacks to come together and soothe, caress, stroke, and embrace one another’s pains, aches, and other daily sufferings. In other words, for Kelly, the club – like church – becomes a sanctuary of healing, praising, testimony, and conviviality. Both the church and the club serve as psycho-social retreats for black flight from vicious societal bombardment, rejection, discrimination, and inequality – which is why most saved-and-sanctified folk feel just as comfortable in the club as they do the church. (As a matter-of-fact, most sanctified folk I know often head straight to the club the moment church services end.)
So, when we think of how black folks in the inner city cope with the loss of factory jobs, the rise in unemployment, poverty, homelessness, missed-meal cramps, high murder rates, thugs, bad kids, babymommadrama (yes, that’s a word), lousy politicians and school systems, ineffective protestations against the machines-of-urban-disruption, inequality, no quality, meaninglessness, hopelessness, etc., understand the centrality of BET and television shows like, DEF Comedy Jam and ComicView; understand the cultural necessity neighborhood hotspots and dance-clubs like Yesterdays, Floods and Mr. Mikes (Detroit), Rain (Las Vegas), Liv (Miami), The Savoy and Club Mayan (Los Angeles), Santos Party House (New York), or the Halo Lounge and the Velvet Room (Atlanta); and understand the genius comical commentary of artists like Richard Pryor, Steve Harvey, Chris Rock, Cedric the Entertainer, and R. Kelly in the lives of common ordinary black folk.
Even if you hate Selento’ Watch Me (Whip/Nae/Nae) song, you must realize it is the Electric Slide,it is the Cupid Shuffle for this generation. Go to any outing and watch how that song brings children together, it unifies them, it is how they cope. For us, music, song, dance, and comedy will always be the vehicles through which we most freely express, articulate, and understand our plights and dilemmas. And on that note, that is “The Reason Why the Colored American Spends So Much Time in the Hood, Laughing and Dancing at the Club, While Drinking His 40 Ounce and Listening to R Kelly”
Push Nevahda is an author, critical book reviewer, feared intellectual and freelance writer. Get to know him well…