We Bumped Our Heads Against the Clouds
The 2010 Believer Music Issue CD
Compiled by Chuck Lightning
CD enclosed with the July/August print issue
1. “SELF!,” DEEP COTTON
My uncle Steve hates Barack Obama. There, I’ve said it: I’ve relayed in public the secret that we hush at family gatherings, the reason why our family cannot openly celebrate and discuss the Obamas at Christmastime the way other black families do. Let me be explicit about what I am saying. When I use the word hate, I mean that my uncle—an African American man in his fifties who grew up in the segregated South, in Arkansas, a hundred miles from the National Guard’s 1957 standoff with nine black students outside an all-white school—this man, who ate at segregated diners, played in all-black athletic leagues, and went to all-black schools—despises the first black president of the United States.
The reasons why are varied: sometimes he seems simply jealous: envious that a brother has come around in his lifetime who is—how can I put it?—superbadder than he will ever be. But my uncle, who works in Springfield, Illinois, believes that Obama is just another politician with questionable ethics. He claims if the walls could talk about the real goings-on behind closed doors, Barack Obama would be in jail, and not in the White House.
I must admit that I see most of the mysterious alliances or inconsistencies that pundits, scholars, and my uncle cite as Obama’s failures as signs that Obama decided to go to Washington to get things done. I have no delusions about American politics. I need Obama to be a complex freedom fighter, not a saint.
That said, black folks everywhere are still figuring out what to make of this new era. In the midst of all this, I’ve set out to compile a musical State of the Union address for the 2010 Believer Music Issue that embodies the spirit of these times we’re living in. We’re huddled around the TV, watching The Boondocks, and wondering what to make of a song (from season three) called “Dick Riding Obama.” Some of us certainly laugh, and afterward we talk. Some of us really do feel that gross sections of the black community, and black artists in particular, are ill-informed and exploiting Obama’s platform—they are, in essence, dick-riding Obama—while others in the community are pissed-off, wondering what white folks think, and imagine them happily whistling that little ditty. Perhaps, most important, some of us find it totally irresponsible for a black artist to make art that insinuates anything bad, dark, or untoward about Obama and his legacy, while others feel it’s the black artist’s role to share his true feelings, to tell the truth to the world—right now!—precisely as he sees it, politics and niceties be damned.
What this new era means to the black artist is a particularly complex and powerful question. But suffice it to say that in the black fine arts there’s a lot of joy and optimism, good ol’ sex and love, as well as pain and anger, along with bickering and confusion. Post-racial joy v. black nationalist aggression? Check! “Hip hop is dead!” diatribes? Claims that “hip hop is alive and well and in the White House”? Check and check! Post-black scholarship? The dismal reality of the “State of the Dream” report? Check and check again! Which all takes us back to one of the age-old debates of any artistic community: art for art’s sake v. Art as Propaganda. Check!
To read the rest of this piece, please purchase this issue of the Believer online or at your local bookseller.
Chuck Lightning is the creative director of the Wondaland Arts Society, as well as a co-producer and co-writer on Janelle Monáe’s debut LP The ArchAndroid. I Have a Scream, the debut album by his band Deep Cotton, is coming soon.
CD mastered at Wondaland Arts Society, Atlanta. A&R by Mitch Mitchowski. Final editing by Larry Anthony.