*One Saturday morning during the late 1970s at what was then my neighborhood dry cleaners, I ran into singer Cuba Gooding, Sr.
We’d become acquainted after he quit as lead vocalist for pop/R&B trio the Main Ingredient (remember “Everybody Plays The Fool” and “Just Don’t Want To Be Lonely”?) and signed with Motown. I interviewed him in support of an admirable, glossy 1978 Lambert and Potter-produced debut solo album—which included a cosmo cover of Patti Austin’s “We’re In Love”—that the label let die on the vine.
As the clerk searched for my clothes, while talking music, I shared with Gooding my disappointment that more kids didn’t pay attention to the trail-blazing artists of days gone by. I mentioned being particularly sad that black youth seemed to have little interest or respect for the brilliant, influential black artists who paved the way for new performers.
Gooding listened purposefully to my diatribe. Then, through a slight, tender smile seemingly designed to temper the weight of his response, he said, “That’s true, brother. But you know, that’s OUR fault. People like you and I didn’t sit the youngsters down and educate them as to how important those artists and their works are. Even if they didn’t care for the music, we still could have taught them to RESPECT it.”
Gooding added that if any other people had gifted the world with such rich and influential music—jazz, gospel, the blues, soul–generations no doubt would have been taught to honor and revere it. “So,” he said, “in that sense, you and I have taken those artists for granted, too. It was our duty to teach the kids. And we didn’t do it.”
A principle simple yet profound, it put a chunk of responsibility for the situation squarely at the feet of someone who loved bemoaning the decline of popular music.
The other day, as I watched President Obama discuss the George Zimmerman verdict, Gooding’s words came back to me. Obama had suggested America give a little more love to the young black American male.
It’s a wonderful notion, albeit lofty, considering that a segment of America continues to make abundantly clear its disdain for the country’s first black president—a president who said Trayvon Martin could have been him.
No, as Gooding advised me regarding kids’ lack of respect for the history of Black music, the love and direction for America’s young black male is first going to have to emanate from the Village that is America’s black community. Not only from the parents of these young men, but from every man and woman in the Village.
We complain about our boys. However, the truth is we can’t expect them to intuitively carve a path that is functional and right-minded on their own, without guidance. The nation’s streets and gangs serve as Daddy to far too many young men desperately seeking the love and camaraderie of a father figure. Future kings cannot be raised as paupers. The effort to uplift the young black male must be concerted, compassionate, deliberate and ongoing.
I don’t have children. But I can still make a difference. Out in public, I walk by the average black boy as if he doesn’t exist. Likewise, to him I am invisible. No longer will I accept this. I want him to observe me noticing and acknowledging him. I want to give him an approving nod. Without patronizing, I want him to know that, in my eye, he has value. And I want him to know that I am not afraid of him.
I can relate to the stories Obama told of being suspect during childhood, simply because of his hue. As a kid, I was routinely followed by white sales clerks through TG&Y and Rexall to make sure I didn’t steal anything. It didn’t matter if I was with Mama. They’d trail us both.
This attitude isn’t relegated to the stone age. Just last week I spoke to an elderly white man walking his dog down my street as we passed one another. He looked me dead in the eyes but didn’t utter a sound. I’m a grown ass man. Yet, it still hurts. Maybe he was deaf.
I don’t blame people locking their car doors when they’re sitting somewhere as I walk by; I’ve locked mine, too. But I’ve absolutely had it with sharing elevators with the random white woman who rides in obvious fear. Now I just wait for the next car.
Aside from instances of being profiled and often having the worst assumed about them, young black men today battle an added disadvantage I didn’t have as a kid: the music. If you have enough spirit-debilitating lyrics filled with misogyny, self-loathing and narcissism bombard your young, impressionable mind, pretty soon you begin to believe this is what life is.
When I was coming up, my subconscious was also being filled with music—socio-political songs such as Sly and The Family Stone’s “Stand” and “Everyday People;” Stevie Wonder’s “Big Brother,” “Living For The City,” “Too High” and almost every track of his magnificent, landmark “Songs In The Key Of Life. ”
My friends and I met each day using as our soundtrack consciousness-raising Earth, Wind & Fire treasures like “That’s the Way of the World,” “Shining Star,” “All About Love” and “Open Our Eyes.”
Meanwhile, the creed of producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International stable was “We’ve got a message in our music.” Indeed: the O’Jays’ “Love Train” remains an anthem of togetherness. “Wake Up Everybody,” by Harold Melvin and the Bluenotes featuring Teddy Pendergrass, is a clarion call for change.
Even Kool and the Gang, the perennial party band even back in the day, managed to ask the ominous question: after all is said and done on this planet, “Who’s Gonna Take The Weight.” In my high school Social Studies class, we listened to poet Nikki Giovanni’s “Truth Is On Its Way” album.
Not only was/is all that music entertaining; it inspires the soul toward the positive. Back then, it gave us much to ponder. I heartily urge black kids today—hell, anybody–to check out this stuff.
But even if they don’t want to listen, I myself am calling upon these dignified grooves and others like them to prepare me for the future. You see, I’ve been around long enough to know what it feels like, and socially, this country’s headed, once again, for some challenging times.
I’m anxious, and yes, I’m angry, but I am not afraid. As Cuba Gooding so valiantly sang with the Main Ingredient during their dynamic, rollicking 1975 hit, “Rolling Down a Mountainside:”
“We’re not stones rolling down a mountain side;
we all COUNT.
We’ve got strength and we’ve got pride.
God is on our side.”
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via[email protected]